Dwarf Fortress is barely a blip on the mainstream radar, but it’s an object of intense cult adoration. Its various versions have been downloaded in the neighborhood of a million times… At bottom, Dwarf Fortress mounts an argument about play. Many video games mimic the look and structure of films: there’s a story line, more or less fixed, that progresses only when you complete required tasks. This can make for gripping fun, but also the constrictive sense that you are a mouse in a tricked-out maze, chasing chunks of cheese. Tarn envisions Dwarf Fortress, by contrast, as an open-ended “story generator.” He and Zach grew up playing computer games with notebooks in hand, drawing their own renditions of the randomly generated creatures they encountered and logging their journeys in detail. Dwarf Fortress, which never unfolds the same way twice, takes that spirit of supple, fully engaged play to the extreme
The American Dream shines a hilarious light on our digital obsession with guns, but it also poses the question: why are we still obsessed? In 2016, is the ubiquity of guns in video games holding the medium back? In light of several recent AAA titles suffering from ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ – an academic term meaning a conflict between a video game’s narrative and its gameplay – due to their inclusion of guns, it’s surely a question worth asking.
The videogame industry is bad at reaching mainstream audiences. It sounds like a cocky Buddhist koan, but one need only search the internet for a few Googles to see the game industry has not coexisted with the mainstream scrutiny and journalistic probing other entertainment industries have known for decades. Whereas film writing began in academic journals, videogame “journalism” and criticism began in enthusiast publications like Nintendo Power, where software companies and publishers kept information about products on a strict IV drip as prescribed by marketing plans. The dynamic hasn’t historically existed for picking up phones, chasing down leads, and taking scalpels to big systemic problems in the industry.
If you are a smaller game developer, you’ve likely noticed some cyclical shifts in how we make games. Games are looking nicer than ever, don’t they? That quality bar keeps creeping higher. With so much work to do, your team is a bit larger. And with so many mouths to feed, it feels riskier to lose everything experimenting on wacky new game mechanics. Luckily, it is pretty clear which genres will yield the breakout hits you need to keep going. It is too bad that there’s a such an abundance of similar games; it feels like you can’t even give them way.
The U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation are investing millions of dollars into gaming experiments. Deep-pocketed philanthropies like the Gates and MacArthur foundations have committed to spending upward of $100 million to promote educational gaming. In 2011, publishing giant Pearson LLC joined forces with Gates to push for more education-related games, and President Obama, at the urging of several experts, invited a video-game scholar to be a senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The process is not wholly unlike archaeology. Sometimes engineers even stumble upon hidden messages within a game’s code. For instance, while restoring Dungeon Keeper, GOG employees found a note written by the game’s original creator and lost for nearly twenty years, which thanked his employees for their many sleepless nights building the game: “This game has been written with a passion I am proud to be a part of. I do not just hope you like it, I also hope you are aware of the huge amount of work we have all done.”
Reality is a little different. Video game quality assurance (QA), as testing is called, is often perceived as “playing games for a living” but might better be described as breaking them. It’s a low-paying, occasionally rewarding, often frustrating job that has both more and less to do with the quality of today’s games than you might expect.
A professional QA tester doesn’t just sit by the television, crack a Mountain Dew, and saunter through level 5 of the latest shooter; he or she spends 14 straight hours running into different walls to see if they’re all solid. Proper video-game testing is more akin to abstract puzzle-solving than it is to getting a top score in Donkey Kong, despite what you may have seen in college commercials like Westwood’s. “It takes a very specific attitude and outlook to really be good in the QA world,” a veteran game tester told me. “It goes beyond a passion for video games, and definitely beyond the notion that you get to play video games for a living.”
You step into an early build of The Magic Circle as a player getting a sneak peek, but even this demo is still in flux, and the world changes around you. It’s a joke at the expense of Steam’s controversial Early Access program, where players can willingly buy unfinished games to play them as they develop, paying in full even if they’re never finished. Early Access games can be trainwrecks, and The Magic Circle is no exception.
The “demo” only lasts a few minutes, additional quests are removed for budgetary reasons, and the boss fight is quite pointless considering the fact that Gilder took your sword away, afraid that you’ll use it to murder innocent AI characters. The developers are represented by gigantic floating David Bowie eyes, gods of this unfinished world, bickering over creative decisions and dramatic word choices.
But there is something deep inside the game calling for help, a lonely AI created for one of The Magic Circle’s earliest versions that needs you to break the cycle and end its living hell. As you embark on a new quest to save this AI, it gives you the ability to hack the world around you, reprogram enemies, and revive vapourware against Gilder’s will. If there seems to be a platform too far away, you can give turtles the gift of flight and hop along them. If you want to get real creative, you can steal a teleporter’s niche and warp around reprogrammed mushrooms. Catch a plant queen off guard by giving a rat a railgun. Revive a sci-fi DOS-era version of the game to send the mighty Gilder into a panic.
6. NursingWhile surgeons can benefit from games, game developers haven’t forgotten about nurses. Some hospitals have programs where staff can simulate responses to various emergencies or care situations. The goal is to increase the standard for patient safety and minimize human error.
7. Electronics and Appliance RepairPutting the right part in the right place takes a lot of experience and knowledge of hundreds of different models. Technicians can get an opportunity for repetitive practice by “dropping” parts into specific areas on a machine using a cursor.
It’s difficult to predict which skills will be valuable in the future, and even more challenging to see the connection between our children’s interests and these skills. Nothing illustrates this better than Minecraft, a popular game that might be best described as virtual LEGOs. Calling it a game belies the transformation it has sparked: An entire generation is learning how to create 3D models using a computer. It makes me wonder what sort of jobs, entertainment or art will be possible now. Cathy Davidson, a scholar of learning technology, concluded that 65% of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet. I bet today’s kids will eventually explore outcomes and create businesses only made possible by the influence of Minecraft in their lives.