Cultural aspects of Game Development outside the mainstream
(Originally posted at joystick101.org, Mar 29th, 2002)
As a game developer from outside the maisntream game-bizz world, I must say I'm not very satisfied with the situation of game production in these countries (emergent economies, third world, you name it).
The main aspect of this situation may be, of course, economic. First of all, there's no way of investing in such a risky business like this when you can't afford to loose. It's understandable that investors in these countries don't feel atracted to a business that may take one, two or more years (and maybe millions of dollars) in the making to compete against those giants LucasArts, EA, etc. Game business is becoming more market-oriented each day, It doesn't help much, but you have to play by the rules (Ok, I'll stop with the game metaphores).
In spite of that, amateur game-making (popularized with all that mod culture) is getting popular all over the world. Other fields of gaming (like advergames) help to bring some game familiarity to local businessmen (and now they're younger and "hyper", so they pretty much know something about the subject). But is still very difficult to start (and finish) a decent project around here.
Let's forget about the business aspect for a moment. Yes, game designers think of games as a form of art. And it is. It's a hobby, ok. It's for fun, certainly. But games are indeed a form of cultural manifestation. So the situation pictured above may have as well some relation with cultural aspects in the game development in those countries. Are we doing our homework properly? Are we trying to make something original - not in the "artsy" sense, but in a more basic level.
Anybody from any country can make real good things on game and technology fields. But some ideas, game genres, gameplay etc. are naturally born in some places because it reflects the local culture of those places. Of course there's nothing wrong at all about making games that doesn't scream out their nationality - Mario and Luigi are italian names, and there's nothing wrong about the fact they're made in japan. The game is not less japanese because of that.
When you live in a country with ultra-high education standards, exceptional social indicators and snow falling hard in the winter, then it's easier to make things like Linux and Nokia. I'm not saying that's easy to make anything like that - it's really hard to develop such things. But a free, open-source operational system with a penguin logo sounds like finn, doesn't it? (Max Payne is finn as well. I don't know if any of it's aspects is typicall from Finland culture - maybe the focus on the characters - but is one of the games I've most enjoyed last year.)
Let's move from Finland to Japan (insert your travel joke here) - where else than in a tiny island where people worry about every centimeter of space could be invented Pocket monsters (you know, Pokemon) and Tamagochis (where Tamago means egg and "ochi" comes from "watch")? Let's move back to europe (I'm taking a long and weird path): games like The Settlers - about colonization - and Populous - the first "god game" - are more likely to be made in the "Old World", isn't that true? And It's not by chance that north-american games (and gamers) like to explode terrorist buildings in games like Real War (not to say all those FPS's). Ok, maybe I've push it to far, but - even when it's more subtle - cultural production reflects the society where it's made - why should be different with games? Even if the people who make these games don't want to endorss, but to escape from that society's reality.
Maybe this aspect of game production - my girlfriend calls it "etnographic" - should get more attention from us. It's not about researching antropological and sociological aspects of your country. It's not about denying all that great games from the maisntream countries (I've been playing them since I was a child, and I love to play them today). It's about letting new ideas come, forgetting a little bit the old format or twisting that format a little bit. I'm not saying "stop making RTS or FPS" - just fit those genres into your own ideas, not the inverse.
Once there was a brazilian artistic movement called "antropofagism", in wich the artist should look at other cultures' artistic production and keep for himself the elements wich would help him to develop his own style. If the absorbtion of elements from other cultures is one aspect of our culture, so there's nothing wrong about letting all the nipo-euro-american influence come along, but it's not about copying it all or just change the language or the looks. To dress a Starcraft unit like an alegoric car from carnival is brazilian-like, but making it ignore the semaphore's red light is even more. Ok, maybe there are two stereotypes in the previous sentence, but the second is far less, let's say, cosmetic (and cliché).
Anyway, there's no need to follow any kind of rule or list of recommendations to make your game reflects the society you live. It will become natural as long you don't simply follow all the rules previously created by other designers (that doesn't mean you can't follow any). Of course is not that simple when you make games aiming the international market or without conditions to take the risk of not following the "old school" - but the commercial aspects of game production outside the mainstream is a subject to a second article.
In the end, whatever comes from any game developer around the world - another doom clone, another visual basic pacman - worths the time and people it takes to make it, as long they're having fun doing it and some people (it doesn't need to be more than one) have fun playing it. Have a good time - solving a puzzle, shooting a ball or a laser gun, thinking of diplomatic relationships - that's all that matter. I hope you're all having a good time.