Mar 152011

Well, I’m going to quote Tom over at Oh No! Video Games! on this, “This one is going to get messy.”

The Game Developers Conference (GDC) was an exceptional one this year. There are numerous bits-and-pieces that I should comment on, though largely haven’t here because it takes a great deal of time to digest my notes and instead I’ve had to catch up on my return to work. However, several events, like the Game Educator’s Rant and the Game Design Challenge have had a life of their own outside the conference.

But first a story.

Having heard Jason Rohrer speak several times now, I knew when he took the stage at the Game Design Challenge this year, I was in for a treat. He proceeded to tell us about his grandfather and the impact he had left on the town in Ohio of which he had been mayor. The story he tells is about someone who has passed on and the traces that they leave on the world and their family and friends. All of this got me to thinking about my grandfathers. Sitting there listening, I heap meaning onto his words. I think about how for many in the room, grandparents may have been immigrants, making their way spreading across the midwest. This was certainly my family’s story and as such meaning heaps on meaning, I become invested in the sermon.

Of course as the story that Jason is telling progressed, it became clear that he was leading up to something that touched on Minecraft, which made it all that much more engaging. I’d cracked the code. I had been brought along the path of Jason’s design. In many respects it was a tribute to the idea of his grandfather, as much as it was his response to the design challenge. I don’t think I was the only one in the audience moved by the story.

In the end, Jason holds out to the crowd, dangling from a small lanyard, a USB thumb drive, which contains several scripts that customize the behavior of the standalone version of Minecraft. From the crowd comes an individual who takes the drive and walks back into the crowd. At the time I was somewhat aghast. It was too soon for that, I was still soaking in the talk. But rapidly the presentations moved on and I simply wondered what would happen in the future and thought quite clearly to myself, “I bet I wont have a chance to leave a trace on Chain World.” However, I wasn’t saddened. I was hopeful and still thought the whole idea quite beautiful. Even when in Q&A someone asked the commodification question, I erred on the side of faith, that everyone in the room had also been moved and that commodifying the idea immediately was too quick, too gamified. Eventually it would happen, but later after the glow had dimmed, at least so I hoped.

It happened immediately, which is when people began to get upset. Of course I don’t fault those involved or think that what they are doing is wrong. Clearly they are all people with the best of intentions. But they could have pushed it further? Why not actual volunteer work? Why not community changing work in the real world? There were so many options that spoke to the story that Jason told. Instead we get to click a button on Ebay to make a difference? Really? This from someone who does on-the-ground humanitarian work?

What really happened is that a modification for good was simply poorly designed. It failed to consider the context. In short, they should have attended Miguel Sicart’s GDC session. Even Jason has spoken out on Twitter encouraging the winning bidder to be unfaithful to the rules that do not fit his original design. Of course I wonder if the addition of Ebay’s legal context forever hack the game.

Of course, in many respects, this only proves the design. Chain World already has followers, people that care intimately about it, forks, interpretations, commodification, … But so many of us were hoping for something different. My friend Darius (who I didn’t get to hang out with!) seems to see along the same lines as I do. What is happening is legitimate, it simply isn’t faithful. Chain World was already beautiful. It didn’t need any help. Of course now I sound like a devout follower don’t I? I still don’t get to make my mark, but for a very different reason.