The third annual arts festival Two5Six, hosted by Kill Screen's Founder Jamin Warren, kicked off last weekend to celebrate the ways in which culture shapes the games we play.
Two5Six isn't a trade show or expo, and it isn't about selling top notch products. Rather, it examines how culture and games are linked through interviews with artists, short films, and arcade games.
For too long, games have owned a reputation of being an invite-only club, hidden away in its own vacuum. The definition of a game seems perpetually tied to what is challenging or fun.
Games have the capacity to explore worlds unlike any other medium
The truth is that games aren't always about fun. As many speakers at Two5Six pointed out, games are about sharing human experiences. John White, a lead designer for Madden NFL stated how tons of players want to play football but "only a select few of us are 6-foot-6 athletes." So Madden, like many games, creates an endeavor that may not be experienced otherwise. Sometimes that experience can be fun and exhilarating, or it can be somber. It can be anything, because games have the capacity to explore worlds unlike any other medium.
Of course, this is true of all games, not just ones in the indie or alternative scene. It's easy to think blockbuster and indie games are complete opposites, but whether games are made by huge companies or one person, games really depend on giving players some sort of shared experience.
The similarities between all games, as the Two5Six festival displayed, is that games are created by people, not technology. Graphics and game mechanics may enhance gameplay, but a game is boiled down to how players use it. Grand Theft Auto, for example, can be a cinematic action car chase game, or it can be an intimate look at the fictional citizens of Los Santos, like XXI's short film Los Santos at Night.
Sadly, as much as people have been creating new endeavors in games such as Nina Freeman's Freshman Year, a game about sexual harassment, and Jonathan Zungre's Lie to the Devil, which forces players to sit along with a computer AI who wants to kill them, there too are people content with maintaining the status quo. There's room for both exploratory and traditional type games. But if the art form ever wants to mature, artists and players alike will have to view games without a limiting lens. Games can be sad, they can be personal, and they can be fun.
Amy and Ryan Green, creators of That Dragon, Cancer, a game about the loss of the Green's son Joel who struggled with cancer, questioned why games feel more restricting than any other art form, especially when it comes to serious themes. So few games explore personal loss so vividly, yet so many players refuse to engage with That Dragon, Cancer because of its sad content. But as Ryan Green notes, the game isn't about "dragging players in the mud" through his family's sadness; rather, it's meant to give players a look at their lives of loss and what Green calls "A stubborn hope. a hope you can't help," that so many of us have encountered in our lives. If literature, movies and television can tackle darker subjects like death and loss, why can't games?
But games can do anything, as soon as players and artists acknowledge those capabilities. Luckily there are events such as Two5Six that remind us that games are made by humans for humans, and a big title game like Madden is just as much about sharing a human experience as small titles like Sext Adventure, in which players sext with a sensual robot who eventually develops a personality and leads the player into its own adventures. Kara Stone, creator of Sext Adventure noted how people "have expectations for the bot" and have emailed her asking how to turn "sext bot into a woman," but as Stone states, "that overspecification is can be stifling."
So many expectations similarly stifle the gaming industry. The good news is that the industry is changing, whether players are ready for it or not. Once players acknowledge that games are about all human experiences, and not just the fun ones, then the games will only get better.