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Chris Crawford in The Escapist

September 27th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 9 Comments · Uncategorized

This week’s Escapist has an interview with the legendary game developer Chris Crawford. The man behind strategy classics Eastern Front ’41 and Balance of Power sits down with Max Steele to mostly discuss Crawford’s timeless theme – why games suck.

Well, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. He admits to not playing games much anymore. He is still talking about his Erasmotron virtual-person simulator and has nice things to say about the interactive story Facade. His disillusionment dates from the time that Computer Gaming World said that his educational decison making game Balance of the Planet was artistic, but not a lot of fun.

Crawford is squarely in the games are serious business camp. They should be used to tell us more about ourselves and our world. Look at his classic flop Trust and Betrayal – it’s all about human dynamics in a system of imperfect information. Lots of game theory stuff in it, actually. Balance of Power was about how attempts to press an opponent into a corner could lead to mutual annhiliation.

Crawford is one of those game analyst/philosophers that I’m not sure how to approach from the vantage point as a gaming enthusiast. It’s all well and good to say that games shouldn’t just have to be fun, but they should at least be compelling.

As much as he thinks Facade is a step forward, I think it’s a step sideways. The game is still programming likely responses to a range of player behavior; it’s not really dynamic interaction and as a story, it’s not very interesting. I can appreciate the technology and programming involved in Facade and how it might lead to gaming as a story telling device, but it’s not close yet.

His complaints about the critical reception to Balance of the Planet underscore what, I think, Crawford’s position on games as entertainment is:

Here we have an acknowledgement that Balance of the Planet is some kind of art, yet the review refuses to endorse it because it isn’t fun! …perhaps our reviewer would react to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony like this: “Gosh, Mr. Beethoven, your symphony made my heart soar in awe at the majesty of the universe, but you know, it’s just not fun. We need some tunes we can dance to, or catchy jingles we can snap our fingers to.

I take issue with anyone who doesn’t think that Beethoven’s Ninth is one of the most fun pieces of music ever written, but I think this comment from a 1997 essay by Crawford suggests that, for him, games are supposed to be good for you. Uplifting, thought-provoking, soul-touching things. Where games are, like most music, disposable culture to the extreme, Crawford wants them to be more.

All I can say is “Ecce ludi”. Behold the games. They are all around you. The Sims touches my heart on a regular basis, even when I am making them do something naughty. Has there ever been a role playing game as uplifting as Planescape: Torment? There is all kind of meaningful story telling going on in games, but you just have to look to see it.

Crawford is falling for the old trap that because something is not dressed up as a SERIOUS EXERCISE it cannot have serious consequences. A game can be “fun” (whatever that means) and still instruct or inspire.

This assumes that instruction or inspiration are goals that games can achieve. I know no one that isn’t touched by the beauty of Beethoven’s Ninth, but lots who can’t (or won’t) identify with the everyday problems of Sims, or who think Baldur’s Gate a silly place no matter how many demands are placed on a demigod. Because of the interactive nature of games, it is very difficult to gauge how people respond to them. Games have proven uneven teachers of content and, in my experience, if you allow outrageous behavior then players will do it, whether it be wiping out thousands of animals with no penalty in Oregon Trail or tower rushing your “ally” in Age of Empires.

In sum, I’m not sure what Crawford wants. His self-imposed exile from the industry (I’m sorry I never got to see his now legendary “Dragon Speech”) has, I think, led to a stasis in his thinking about what games are for. Were he to attend the Serious Games Summit in Washington, DC next month, I think he would see that simulations and decision trees are being put to good use in institutional circles. Even a guru has to stay current. Sometimes you have to leave Walden.


9 Comments so far ↓

  • Darius Kazemi

    You make some good points, but I think you’re missing out on something crucial. You say:

    Crawford is falling for the old trap that because something is not dressed up as a SERIOUS EXERCISE it cannot have serious consequences.

    That’s not what he’s saying. He’s complaining that a reviewer looked at a game with serious overtones and proclaimed “it’s good but I won’t play it because it’s not fun.” I think Crawford would agree that all games must be compelling, but not necessarily fun. Tragedies are compelling but not fun: why can’t games be like that?

    In short you’re arguing that fun does not imply lack of meaningful experience. But Crawford’s arguing something on a different plane: not fun doesn’t imply not compelling.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    If that’s the case, then Crawford has a very limited sense of what fun is.

    I (and many other “reviewers”) hate the word fun because it means so many different things to so many different people. I find good serious theater fun – I am entertained, I am transported, I believe what I see. I don’t see “fun” as necessarily implying laughs and giggles.

    Because a lot of games that get good reviews *are* dark. A lot of players like the mysterious, the eerie the tragic. And they get good reviews – even bonus points for creepiness. To say “well, they just want smiles so to hell with them…” (which seems to be what Crawford is saying by your account) is to suggest that either the maestro is completely out of touch with game critics or that his idea of what “fun” is is hopelessly narrow.

    I think that a game that is compelling must be “fun” in one way or another – that’s the nature of the beast. Games are not novels, games are not TV, games are not theater. Any cross-media parallels tend to break down after a while because games ask more personal investment from the player, in my opinion.

  • Darius Kazemi

    Okay, I see where you’re coming from on the idea that maybe his definition of fun is too narrow.

    But, inspired by the vocabulary that we’ve been using in this thread, I may very well start to use the word “compelling” in my game reviews as the trait central to a quality game.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    I love “compelling”. I use it from time to time – certainly more than “fun”. I think you’re right that it’s a much better adjective.

    It’s a little hard to separate it in my mind from all those torrid miniseries from the 80s, but it captures what I look for in a game – does it make me want to find out what’s next? Even games where you *know* what is coming (like every RTS) can be compelling because you want to see how it comes this time.

  • Michael A.

    Crawford makes some interesting points (would also love to see the Dragon Speech – maybe one could ask him for a video copy :) ), but he seems just a little bit too full of himself. This seems to shine through both the Dragon Speech as well as his Design book – definitely, he is a “genius” (of some sort), but he seems unwilling to accept that there might be alternate paths to his own..

  • Dave Long

    The biggest problem with Crawford’s stance is that it has completely paralyzed him as a game designer. He’s no longer making games so anything he says about pushing boundaries is just so much hot air unless he’s actually doing that and being at least mildly successful at it.

    I hate to see smart people get so wrapped up in what other folks think that it makes them forsake creating new stuff. I write a lot of stuff, and it gets criticized because I sometimes say things people don’t want to hear, but I don’t let that paralyze me into inactivity like it has Crawford for what? Ten years or more? That’s insane.

    If he truly believes what he espouses, then he should lay it out there for the world to see. Greg Costikyan struck me the same way, but at least he’s now attempting to bring to the people what he believes gaming is missing, however correct or misguided you might think he is…


  • Michael A.

    Don’t know how I missed Costokyan’s rantings, especially given that I have read some of his other work. But certainly, his comments are much more self-effacing (and therefore much more likely to actually make an impact). Sounds like an exciting project.

    It does surprise me, however, that he nowhere mentions Brad Wardell, who – IMO – is years ahead of anyone else when it comes to innovative publishing with Stardock Systems.

  • steve

    Crawford turned into a theoretical game designer. Basically, his games are his thesis.

    Which makes them interesting as teaching tools or as topics for discussion, but they aren’t necessarily useful as entertainment.

  • Bruce

    And in the end, the thesis isn’t that sophisticated. Or at least anywhere near as sophisticated as he wants to believe. Trust & Betrayal may have been an attempt to do something in computer gaming that hadn’t been done before, but judged from a purely artistic point of view, it was trivial.