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A Sense of History

June 18th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

I’ve been listening regularly to the PC Gamer Podcast for the last month or so, and it is getting a lot better. The addition of a single female voice helps a little in distinguishing which male is which, and since the voice is the learned Kristen Salvatore, even better. There is a better sense of an agenda and many fewer in-jokes. So, kudos to the guys at PCG for giving me a reason to keep listening.

But the most recent episode caught me short when Editor-in-Chief Dan Morris said that he wasn’t sure who Chris Crawford was.

This admission came by way of commentary on gaming’s Jeremiah once again emerging from the wilderness to say that gaming has lost its way and that it can only be saved by innovation, whatever that means. The PCG discussion followed the expected form of talking about what innovation there was in the industry, a recognition that there is a lot of me-tooism in the industry and some curiosity that Crawford can make these claims when he cops to not really following the game industry that closely.

But the EIC of computer gaming’s number one publication saying that he didn’t know who Crawford was stuck with me. True, he hasn’t made a game in a very long time. But this is the founder of the Game Developer’s Conference. One of the fathers of war and strategy gaming on the computer. The first real analyst/practitioner of electronic game design.

I’m not going to say that these credentials mean that his opinions on the current industry automatically have merit. I think he’s a bit of a crank, divorced from the market pressures that exist today and blind to all the great stuff going on in the industry.

I will say that a man of Crawford’s stature should at least have his name recognized by computer games journalists/analysts. If this is the fate of Crawford, who emerges from his cabin to rant every year or so, what has become of the reputation of the late Dani Bunten, probably the single most creative and wide-ranging talent of the early days of the hobby?

In a way, this is a result of the now-ism of the hobby. It’s mostly about “what have you done for me lately?” which is perfectly reasonable if you see your job as a critic to simply be reporting on what is on the shelves. But not knowing what has gone before makes it impossible to recognize how far game design has come.

It is the mirror image of Crawford’s problem. He was powerful and important when the industry was in its infancy; a time when everything was new and everything seemed possible. Games had little hope of going mainstream. So he sees everything around him today as a pale shadow of those glorious days of invention and creativity. Could there be a time in the near future when journalists forget when there were no RTS games? When MP was either absent, unreliable or hotseat? When Sid Meier made flight sims?

The historian in me naturally thinks this sort of stuff matters somewhere along the line. No, your average gamer doesn’t need to know this; your average American doesn’t need to know about the Shay’s Rebellion to be a good citizen, either. But a little perspective on where the hobby has been can give game journalists and critics some clue as to how it has gotten where it is.

In other words, to know Crawford, you must know his opinions on Balance of the Planet and why he thinks it failed.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • Dave Long

    Right on, Troy. There’s no excuse for people who write about this industry to be ignorant of its history. It’s something I’ve been carefully aware of in my own writing since I started.

    If we aren’t going to be experts, then we probably shouldn’t be the guys writing or speaking about games and the industry.the industry.

  • gatmog

    This is also one of the reasons it is so important that backwards compatibility catch on in console gaming. That way, people have no excuse for not having played the genre pioneers or critically acclaimed titles.

    I think you’re in the minority, though, because the “now-ism” of the industry isn’t a trend that’s going to stop. Things are moving too fast for the average consumer to really care about what came before the flavour of the day. If you told someone a few years ago that Grand Theft Auto was a series that started out on the PC as a top-down clickfest they’d probably laugh in your face. Game design is also following this principle: adapt old ideas and hope people don’t notice. They leave it up to the reviewers to decide its historical relevance (and as you point out, they probably aren’t even getting the whole picture).

    This concept of history also has some relevance towards the content of the games themselves: how many people actually care that the Call of Dutys and Age of Empires are based on bending historical events? Well, as it was recorded anyway. The answer is not many. They’re more interested in whether the game is fun to play or not. Which is a fine pursuit, but it almost makes history seem like another fabricated setting.

  • Soren Johnson

    Funny… I just posted a comment on my own blog about being surprised at how many people did remember Dan Bunten.

    Chris Crawford is one of those guys who is most notable for people who like to read ABOUT games, so… um… yeah, it is surprising if journalists haven’t heard of him.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Soren, if you haven’t read Bruce Geryk’s CGM article on Seven Cities of Gold last fall you really should look for it. He makes a strong case that it was one of those games we see too rarely now – one that creates a compelling new world and convinces you that you are in a strange and original place.

    Too few games based on discovery have captured the sense of, well, discovery. Seven Cities is a landmark that everyone interested in game design must play.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    “I think you’re in the minority, though, because the “now-ism” of the industry isn’t a trend that’s going to stop.”

    I hear you gatmog, and I can accept that from gamers at large. Though I reflexively distrust any movie fan who has never seen Casablanca, I’m not going to rant about your average Netflix guy who doesn’t know who Bogart is. Same with games. You never played Starflight? Fine.

    And now-ism is ingrained in all entertainment media. It’s about what’s new, what’s hip, what’s original. Unless you are a perennial like Michael Caine, Paul McCartney or Sid Meier, you better have something new to show.

    But for a game journalist to not know important history in their field of interest? There are probably only a handful of names that are necessary.

    And Chris Crawford is hardly an extreme example. Though not as public as Costikyan in his Cassandra act, he isn’t a shrinking violet. He even had an article published in The Escapist last year about why girls don’t like games. (His answer was evolution.)

  • The Videogame Style Guide

    […] NITPICK MODE: I have no idea why Dan Bunten/Danielle Berry is left off the list. S/he was probably one of the most influential game designers of all time – Will Wright to the nth power, in my opinion. And where’s Chris Crawford? David Jaffe makes the list with God of War and being an “outspoken critic”. Crawford invented “cranky game designer” and pioneered the discussion of game design as a serious study. It’s not that the list privileges the present (lots of old adventure game names are here). Could it be that these people are already forgotten? […]