Millions of ’em.
In serried ranks, glassy-eyed, they come marching forward, arms extended, wave after wave, in a flood that will surely inundate us all.
They’re the expositorions: people trained in expository media (everything BUT our little interactive field.) They’ve discovered our little corner of the universe, found it fresh and virgin, and now the frantic scramble is on to what? colonize? populate? impregnate?
They’ll bring money, talent, drive, fresh new ideas -- and enough ignorance to set the cause of interactivity back ten years.
Who are they? They’re science fiction writers, romance writers, screenwriters, children’s writers -- just about every wrinkle of writer imaginable. They’re people from the film industry: actors, producers, even directors. A peck of performance artists, musicians by the score. Surely it’s only a matter of time before Madonna Gets Interactive. The common factor with all of them is the exploratory imperative, the desire to expand their artistic range.
Why are they coming? Because the word is out: interactivity is cool. Interactivity is Now. Interactivity is for people with a future.
Of course, there’s one teensy-weensy little problem: none of them have the faintest notion what interactivity really means. They know it’s cool. They know that it’s some kind of activity. That’s about as much as they know.
We can’t begrudge them their ignorance. After all, pre-designed interactivity is something new and different to most people, and at one time we were all beginners. I spent six years messing around with computer games before I began to truly understand interactivity. So we shouldn’t look down our noses at them too paternalistically.
But we can’t overlook their ignorance, either. These people are really ignorant! Over the last few months I have had the opportunity to converse with a number of them, and the magnitude of their benightedness takes my breath away. Here I stand partway up a mountain that I’ve been struggling to climb for 15 years, and they stand at its base and can’t seem to notice it.
The other day New Media Magazine provided an example of what I mean. They have an "ask Mr. Expert" column; the first question was an astute presentation of a reader’s first realization of the size of a reasonable gametree. He wanted to know how it was possible to present a truly interactive story if the player’s responses would generate a combinatorial explosion of possibilities. The expert answer was to stick with a fixed storyline and provide excursions from the storyline that always returned to the main storyline. For those of you not familiar with the history, this was the scheme first employed in an Eastern European interactive movie shown at the World’s Fair in the 1960s. By current game design standards, it is hopelessly obsolete. But it’s state of the art among expositorions.
These people are struggling with a handicap: their own expertise. They’ve spent years honing their skills, and they know a vast amount about how to present expository information. Naturally, they wish to apply their talents to this new field. And it’s easy for them to do so -- after all, a computer has a monitor just like a television’s, so it’s really just another medium for video, right? And it has speakers just like a television has, so it’s also a medium for audio, right? In other words, the computer is really just a new way of presenting all that stuff we have so much expertise in, except that it’s also interactive, right?
The interactivity isn’t some minor twist that we apply to the primary media of sound and image. It’s the very essence of the medium. Sound and image support interactivity. The expositorions are telling themselves that they will create the same old expository presentations that they have always made, but now they will do it on the computer, and along the way they’ll throw in a dash of interactivity to brighten it up. This strategy makes sense if you want to apply your skills, learn a new medium, and make some money on your first project. But it’s still an abuse of the medium.
Now, we old pros could take a smug approach here. We could smile benignly and allow our expositorion friends to make their mistakes, learn as they go, and someday get it right. Unfortunately, we’re in no position to patronize them. In the first place, these people aren’t feckless fools flopping about like fish in the mud. They are established professionals from a well-organized industry. Many of them have access to enormous amounts of money to back their efforts. Some of them are vice presidents at large Hollywood studios. Sure, they’re ignorant -- but all those bucks behind them put a real wallop into their ignorance.
The other reason for concern is our own vulnerability. It’s time to recognize an ugly truth: we have become creatively stagnant. Our games are all clones of each other, sequels and expansions on older ideas. There hasn’t been a single truly original idea in our industry since SimCity. A creatively stagnant medium is only marking time before it dies. We are vulnerable. For all their ignorance, the expositorions have fresh ideas, and their freshness could more than compensate for their ignorance.
I think that computer games are destined to become a backwater, a well-defined medium that makes money but has been consigned to a creative ghetto by society at large. Coin-operated games have long since passed that way. They have a stable industry, but they have no freedom to stray from the iron rules of marketing under which they live. Videogames are well on the way to the same fate. Computer games have begun the process. Within ten years, computer games will be a creative ghetto, a tight little world of simulators and strategy games, profitable for those who play by the rules. Like model railroading, birdwatching, and knife collecting, it will have its own little world, largely unknown to the general public.
The expositorions are the ones who will lead the next creative wave. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing, so they’ll blunder forward, unconstrained by the marketing wisdom of the world of computer gaming. They are creating a new medium here. The early efforts will not have the polish and sophistication of computer games. (I remember how, 13 years ago, computer games could not hope to compete with coin-op games in sophistication.)
But the expositorions have one advantage over computer games that we can never hope to touch: they have creative idealism. They have not completely surrendered their dreams to crassness. Sure, they’re out to make a buck, too, but the only ones chasing after interactivity are the risk-takers, the dreamers who are willing to leave behind the secure world they’ve already mastered. These people have the magic ingredient that we have lost: they have creative energy. The average Inca squaring off against the average Spaniard would probably have given a good account of himself, but the Incas did not face average Spaniards; they faced conquistadores.
So go ahead, you dinosaurs. Keep munching your swamp grasses and slaying each other. You’re the biggest, meanest, toughest critters in the world. Those furry little expositorions scurrying through the underbrush are no match for your experience and technical skills. Ignore them.
As for me, though, I have decided that I would rather join these people than try to beat them. I am tinkering with the idea of creating a new publication: The Journal of Interactivity Design. Lord knows these people need it. However, this leaves me in a bit of a quandary as to what I might do with this Journal. Right now my preferred scheme runs something like this: fire up the JID on months alternating with the JCGD, and all subscribers to JCGD also get the JID. After a few issues, the JCGD becomes The Journal of Computer Game Technology. Then I hand it off to somebody who is more interested in technology and concentrate my efforts on the JID. The two journals go their separate ways and subscribers choose which to support.
That’s Plan A. There are also Plans B, C, and D, which I won’t go into here. At this point, I’d like to get some feedback from you. I probably won’t be taking any action for a few months. Write me a letter, send a fax, or call me and tell me what you think I should do.