Picking on someone our own size

Friends of the blog will know that I have long been skeptical of historical video game projects. One of several critiques is that our budgets are just too small to compete in the cultural marketplace with the likes of EA and Activision. I understand that we’re not in direct and open competition with those companies for our students’ attention and that, if necessary, we have other means of compelling attention, especially in the context of the classroom. I’m also not saying anything about the pedagogical value of those games once students are made to play them, nor am I talking about casual games for Facebook and other platforms, which I’ll admit present a more level playing field for digital humanities. Caveats aside, I still see no getting around the fact that when students and others look at the video games and virtual environments we develop, they can’t help but compare the production values and game play to things they’re seeing on Xbox.

Consider these figures:

How can we possibly keep up?

Now consider that Foursquare, the wildly popular place-based social network has to date received a total of $1.35 million in venture funding. Again, Foursquare built a thriving social network, one of Silicon Valley’s hottest companies, for little more than what’s available to individual applicants through IMLS’s National Leadership Grants program. Try building a top video game for $1.35M.

That’s a number we can match, and the reason why, for my money, I’ll be sticking to the web and mobile space and giving history video games a pass.

[Thanks to Leslie Madsen-Brooks for the email that inspired this rant.]

6 Replies to “Picking on someone our own size”

  1. I greatly enjoyed this post but is the comparison really fair? Couldn’t you just as easily say there is no point in historical documentary because it is impossible to compete with Hollywood budgets?
    Independent game making is thriving right now and not just in the casual market. The open-sourcing of professional tools like Epic Games’s ‘Unreal Development Kit’ makes it possible to create a quality game without the budget of an Activision or EA title. Platforms like Steam and XBox live enable easy publishing of low cost titles. The way things are going I think ‘historical video game projects’ will become more and more important.

  2. characterizing the entire game space by the budget of AAA titles is insanity. Most (if not all) serious game designers (regardless of the domain) recognize that it is absolutely impossible to compete in the same space as the likes of EA, Activision, Blizzard, etc, etc, etc. Hell, the vast majority of *commercial* game designers recognize that it is absolutely impossible to compete in the same space as the 800lb gorillas of the industry.

    The other issue is that budget doesn’t equate to quality. There are lots of AAA, sooper dooper big budget games that are crap. On the other hand, there are great examples of small budget games – many of which are waaaaay below your 1.35 million $ threshold – (possible even single developer) that are compelling, engaging, and damn fun. I would go so far as to say that that the issue of budget in your argument is an (unintentional) red herring. The more pressing challenge at hand for serious games is not about budget or platform, its about balancing content/learning/outcomes with fun. Most serious games suck (ie. aren’t effective) horribly because this equation hasn’t been cracked yet.

    So, I would really really urge you not to resort to throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to history games.

  3. I hear what you’re saying, but I think you might be setting up a false dichotomy

    In one sense, you’re absolutely right when you say that we can’t compete with Call of Duty. The staff of the art department just for that project was probably bigger than the staff of all major DH centers combined. It’s also true that for many people, that is the standard of gaming (at least visually).

    But I actually think that gamers are more discerning that that. I think most va
    lue “gameplay” over graphics, and most (especially in the gaming press) are happy to praise a game with minimal graphics that is nonetheless fascinating and immersive. Bioshock is certainly stunning, but when you ask a game designer about games that really impress them, you get some unusual answers: Tetris, Infocom games, Farmville . . .

    It’s not that the other side of this equation is the Web and mobile devices. The other side of the equation is games that pursue realism (or whatever) through means other than what can be achieved with a graphics card.

    I think that we should be designing games (historical or otherwise) in DH, and I think we have the ability to create masterpieces. I think we just need to free ourselves of the idea that if the game doesn’t look like Doom 3 no will be interested. I actually don’t think many gamers would dispute the idea that Tetris and Zork are better that 99 percent of what was released last year. And all I needed to design those was a laptop and a healthy dose of genius.

  4. @steve @ethan @richard – Thanks for the comments. Of course, I know you’re right. I’m intentionally being a little provocative here to try to force an issue. In recent years, I have seen *tons* of (mainly private foundation) funding directed toward educational and digital humanities gaming, and, so far, unfortunately, very little bang for the buck.

    So, if the problem isn’t money, what is it?

  5. @tom – at least in comparison to other domains, I would strongly disagree that there has been *tons* of (mainly private foundation) funding directed towards humanities games. I can probably count on my two hands the number of humanities oriented game projects (Arden, Discover Babylon…a few others here and there).

    So, the big question, as you say, isn’t about money…its about something else…what? A lot of it has to do with the developing serious games is an incredibly difficult undertaking. Not only do you have the incredible challenges of developing a regular digital game, but then you have to add the “serious” element as well (learning, content, measuring effectiveness, etc).

    I would also argue that many serious games (though, certainly not all of them) come from people who don’t fully understand the medium. Many lack a fundamental understanding of game design patterns. Some don’t even play games…it would be like a film critic who doesn’t watch films. The result is that something is developed that might, to the casual observer, have game-like trappings…but is not necessarily a game (and yes, I realize that this opens up the issue of “what is a game”).

  6. Hey, I’m a little late coming to this party, but this discussion made me think a little and I wanted to add my two bits.

    @ Tom-your last post on this topic asked if money isn’t the problem with serious games, what is? I whole heartedly agree with you on this. A lot of private foundations (and some government agencies) are giving folks lots of money to make educational games who have no business trying to make one. I am actually stunned by this, but I guess the potential of games as a teaching tool is an opportunity that people just don’t want to miss.

    To answer your question, I think there are several challenges in getting it right. Ethan hit the nail on the head by saying most of the folks making educational games have no experience making real games so are likely to stumble. Giving them artists and programmers and asking them to execute a design is not enough. There is a process and amount of expertise in making video games as much as there is in making a car (and we certainly wouldn’t expect an educator to make a car would we?). The flip side is that we can’t rely on professional game developers to make educational games either. What we end up with there lots of times is a game that looks and plays great, but the educational content is suspect. I’d also agree with Ethan that the “code” hasn’t been cracked yet, but the best person to crack it would have to be someone who has a foot in both the educational and commercial game worlds and understands how the two worlds can be bridged.

    I also believe that we need to get it out of our heads that there is going to be a “magic bullet” educational game. I think our best bet is to create a game that teaches one or two aspects of historical literacy and does it well and then build off of that. In this case, starting off smaller, and building on that success is the best model. Lets ignore the big flashy 3d games and go back to the basics. Lets create something we know that works in something like Flash, tweak it until it works, and then build off of that.

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