The Struggle to Make Video Games Mean Something

The V&A’s annual conference ‘Parallel Worlds’ revealed a medium battling with the formal and the personal

BY Gareth Damian Martin in Opinion | 19 FEB 19

We often think of video games as a very formal medium. They are contingent on computer hardware, built on systems of logic and maths, structured around genre definitions. In some ways, it is this idea of games as technical or formal which limited discussions of their cultural importance in the medium’s early history. They were too often misread as being ‘generated’ by computers, shackled to machines, and therefore inherently inhuman, unfeeling, impersonal. That history now feels like a very distant one, and as ‘Parallel Worlds’, the third of the V&A’s conference series on games, both digital and otherwise, showed, this formal aspect of games is deeply intertwined with the more personal experience of creating and playing them.

The first panel, ‘The Art and Engineering of Videogames’, featuring Rex Crowle and Moo Yu of developer Foam Sword as well as director of Hitman 2 (2018) Jacob Mikkelsen, precisely demonstrated this relationship between the formal and the personal in games. Crowle in particular, who along with Yu is making Knights and Bikes, an adventure game set in a distorted, graphic version of the Cornish seaside he grew up in, evoked a medium where genre boundaries have become flexible containers for personal stories. He explained how a childhood illness left him confined to the house for several years, a challenge for a boy who grew up on a sheep farm with a love for the outdoors. It was in this period that Crowle learnt to make games, a vital outlet in a difficult time.

Foam Sword Games, Knights and Bikes, still. Courtesy: Foam Sword Games

Knights and Bikes is Crowle coming full circle, making a game about the environment of his childhood, where Merlin’s Crystal Shop sits alongside rundown arcades, eviction notices and pubs offering ‘King Arthur’s Big Breakfast’. Like 2018’s Celeste which combined the frustration and perseverance of an arcade-style platformer with a narrative about struggling against the limits of mental illness, so Knights and Bikes, in how Crowle presented it, describes both form and content in the same loop – a personal story about childhood fantasy butting up against the limits of real life, in a medium where that struggle is as much a formal constraint as it is a narrative theme.

These struggles, between reality and fantasy, personal narratives and formal constraints were felt across the conference. Speakers oscillated from studio Framestore’s Amanda Johnstone-Batt, whose work involves navigating the complex constraints of vast corporate properties and towering theme park rides built from tonnes of steel, to game developer Jenny Jiao Hsia, who explored her process of creating a form that might reflect the personal stories of dieting and exercise that feed her long-term project Consume Me. Hsia’s process, tracked in precise detail in her talk, is structured around prototyping quickly and relentlessly, but had to be completely rethought when a larger structure, not another vignette, was needed for her project. It was clear that for Hsia, form is personal, and her process showed no separation between the work and the container that held it. Like many in a new generation of young game-makers, Hsia is unrestricted by concerns of structure and genre, but instead finds the difficulty at the heart of making games being a struggle with making these structures expressive.

Jenny Jiao Hsia, My Process Breakdown. Courtesy: © Jennifer Jiao Hsia

However, it was the conference’s panel, ‘Making Gaming Accessible’, which seemed to engage most directly with the formal and personal struggles of not just making games, but playing them. Liz Power, an occupational therapist from the charity SpecialEffect, alongside ambassador Becky Tyler, explained how they helped those with physical disabilities play the games they want. Through engineering and hacking novel hardware together, SpecialEffect allows those with only limited physical movement to play and express themselves through videogames. Tyler, whose quadriplegic cerebral palsy leaves her unable to control the muscles in her body, demonstrated how she plays Minecraft with her eyes through a custom software set-up called Eyemine. This remarkable achievement encapsulates how, in games, the personal is the formal, and the limitations of hardware or software don’t just relate to structures of genre or gameplay, but to social and physical structures as well.

Alongside Tyler and Power, Chris Kujawski – the lead designer of Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller completed the panel. Kujawski revealed that the Adaptive Controller, a landmark piece of accessibility-focussed hardware for games, ironically emerged from the Xbox Elite controller, a piece of hardware Kujawski admitted was designed for the ‘top 1%’. But while the intention of the elite controller was exclusivity, its wealth of inputs, especially its rear mounted paddles, were repurposed by disabled gamers to allow them to play many games with one hand. Kujawski, a surprisingly humble figure, detailed the three-year process of consultation and difficult lessons that led to the creation of the Adaptive Controller. He admitted that his conventional instincts as a product designer were taken apart, and the process seemed to be as much one of personal transformation for Kujawski – into a compelling advocate for accessibility – as it was a transformation for the products he designed.

Matt Makes Games, Celeste, 2018, still. Courtesy: Matt Makes Games

There should be no separation here, between the struggles of making games accessible and the struggle to make games themselves. In ‘Parallel Worlds’, both were revealed to be processes that engaged with the dual nature of games, their power as expressive vehicles for personal stories – both the stories of their players and makers – and their power as structural manifestations of these personal struggles, as systems that, above all, mean something.

‘Parallel Worlds: Videogame Design and Culture’ took place at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, on 25 January 2019.

Main image: Matt Makes Games, Celeste, 2018, still. Courtesy: Matt Makes Games

Gareth Damian Martin is a writer, artist and designer. He is the founding editor of the videogames and architecture zine Heterotopias and teaches at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. He tweets: @JumpOvertheAge