SXSW: Warren Spector on the dangers of thinking of games as fun

March 14, 2015 | 12:17 p.m.


AUSTIN, Texas — Games are growing up fast. According to some estimates, the global expansion of the business has outpaced the film and television industries. Impressive, considering that this is a medium that’s only about 40 years old.

“Anything with that kind of economic impact has to be studied,” said noted game designer and professor Warren Spector at a Saturday morning talk at the South by Southwest games festival in Austin, Texas.

Noted game designer Warren Spector spoke early Saturday at the SXSW games festival. (Todd Martens)

Noted game designer Warren Spector spoke early Saturday at the SXSW games festival. (Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times)

So why is it so hard for us to intelligently talk about games? And why has game criticism failed to elevate discussions about the medium so they’re on par with, say, cinema? Also, isn’t time we stopped thinking of games as toys?

“People thought movies were trivial at one point, and now you can get a [film studies] PhD,” Spector said. “People thought that popular music wasn’t worth studying. People thought that television wasn’t worth studying …. [New forms of] media start out as outliers, and then over time they either go away or they become inside …. We’re a pretty darn central part of culture.”

Spector cited the mere presence of games at a festival such as South by Southwest, where the film, interactive and music industries will collide over the next week. From games in our pockets to reality shows such as “Survivor,” Spector argued over the course of his hourlong talk that games are everywhere, and the dialogue surrounding them has failed to catch up.

One study Spector cited valued the industry at $94 billion worldwide. So why have games remained in a sort of cultural ghetto? He theorized that part of this has to do with the metrics used to measure a game’s success: namely, the idea that what makes a game successful is whether it is fun or not.

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Such an idea is outdated, and criticism, Spector said, will play a vital role in growing the medium beyond blasting aliens or rescuing princesses. As more consumers are made aware of the myriad of possibilities afforded in today’s games, Spector believes the demand for better games will follow.

“If we’ve gone as far as can go, we should give it up and go work in a book store,” he said.

The burgeoning independent movement is broadening the scope and accessibility of the medium. Example: At South by Southwest, the title “1979 Revolution” seeks to arm players with information about events during the revolution in 1970s Iran. Even simple mobile games are evolving, as evidenced by “Jelly Reef,” a touch-driven game that’s about nurturing animals rather than flinging them.

Criticism that fails to place games in a broader cultural context does the medium a disservice. Whether a game is fun or not, Spector made clear, “is the least interesting and least important question we can ask about a game.”

Instead, Spector pushed for game criticism to better understand not only how games work, but to answer whether or not a game delivers an emotional experience. He claimed he often quits games at the three-hour mark because he feels he’s learned all a game can teach him.

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More important, Spector said, those who write about games need to ask how the game fits within the cultural zeitgeist — what does it say about gender roles or politics, for instance. It’s not enough to write off a game as “escapism.”

“The obvious question to ask is what are they escaping from and what are they escaping to,” Spector said.

Part of what’s holding game criticism back is the difficulty in emphasizing what makes games different from other mediums, he said. “We’re the only medium in history that can respond to the player,” he said. “Games can see what you do and respond accordingly.”

If game reviews keep speaking to the same consumers who have already bought in to the joy of games, Spector worries for the medium’s future.

“If we don’t grow, we die.”

We’re at South by Southwest until March 22. Join us at for ongoing coverage of the festival.

– Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex


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One Response to SXSW: Warren Spector on the dangers of thinking of games as fun

  1. soulandabove says:

    Hi Todd, improving game criticism can only occur when critics speak out against gratuitous brutality and violence-as-plot. This formula makes sense because an "emotional experience," Warren's proposed criteria can only emerge when games acknowledge truly human values.

    This will pit game critics squarely against game creators–who rely on brutality and violence-as-plot to fill the emptiness where writing and gameplay should be.

    Warren's call for more sophisticated game criticism would necessarily make game criticism more advesarial to the industry it wishes to cover, a conflict of interests.

    More value-oriented media criticism probably has to start at a higher meta-level of pop-culture criticism, critics aware of Chris Hedges points of view but still willing to write in a more accessible and popular manner that does not make the consumers of brutal-misogynistic games feel bad for buying them.

    Know any critics like that?

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