GDC 2009: Wright, Molyneux sound off on societal impact of games

Spore and Fable II creators join Bing Gordon, Lorne Lanning, Ed Fries, and Rusel DeMaria for a discussion on the education possibilities, potential pitfalls, and global connections of games.

SAN FRANCISCO--It isn't often that game-industry luminaries like Will Wright, Peter Molyneux, Lorne Lanning, Bing Gordon, and Ed Fries can all be seen mingling in a single room, let alone sitting on the same panel, discussing the same topics. However, just such an occurrence happened today as part of the 2009 Game Developers Conference, where the aforementioned notables joined Rusel DeMaria in a session titled "Stretching Beyond Entertainment: The Role of Games in Personal and Social Change."

Will Wright

DeMaria, who is a writer, analyst, and game consultant, served as moderator for the panel and began by asking the participants whether they agreed with the assertion that game developers have an ethical responsibility toward the people who play their games. All save Fries answered in the affirmative, with the Microsoft Games Studio founder saying that it depends. According to Fries, the job of game designers is to make the best product they can, and if they set out to make a product that is first and foremost designed to be meaningful or ethical, then they are more likely to fail.

Sims creator Will Wright picked up on this notion, saying that there is a distinction between a responsibility to the player and a responsibility to the medium. For Wright, the priority right now is to advance the medium, and any impact that has on the player is just one consequence of that goal.

Peter Molyneux

Lionhead Studios founder Peter Molyneux also agreed with Fries, saying that the goal is to make a commercially viable product, but that doesn't mean that the game can't have a positive impact on the player in the process. He did provide a caution, though, saying, "If we try and preach, we are far less likely to have the impact intended."

Lorne Lanning, who founded Oddworld Inhabitants and created the ethically charged Abe's Oddysee, said that his studio has always "had a tendency to look at entertainment as if it were food... Are you going to make food that is junk, or are you going to make something that's good for people?" Lanning noted that it's first important to identify what it is that people want to consume, and once that's figured out, it's possible to pull a "bait and switch" to deliver the message the designers want to convey.

Bing Gordon

Bing Gordon, who joined Electronic Arts shortly after its inception in 1982, continued this discussion, saying that games, more so even than schools (or prisons, as he called them), have an incredible power to teach and educate people. Citing his own experiences raising two daughters, he said that games serve as wonderful educational tools for basics such as reading and math, but also more abstract concepts such as productivity and leadership.

Picking up on this point, Wright noted that throughout the history of social media, it has been the cautionary tales of what people want to avoid that have served as the best influencers of positive change. Giving examples such as Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, Blade Runner, and Moby Dick, Wright said that one of the best ways to enact positive change may be to use the safe environment of games to present horrible experiences as cautionary tales.

Wright also mentioned an experience he had with Lionhead's Black & White, where he beat up his god creature "just to see what would happen." With the creature eventually bloodied and crying, Wright said that he legitimately felt pangs of guilt, an emotion that he couldn't have gotten from other forms of media, such as movies.

Lorne Lanning

Lanning then related this experience to Abe's Oddysee, saying that there was a lot of in-fighting at his studio during the game's creation over whether or not they could let the player make it all the way through the game and still fail. "I wanted them to feel bad, really crummy, if they get through the whole game and find out they failed," he said. After the game's launch, Lanning said his studio was flooded with e-mails of players relating how profound of an experience it was for them.

DeMaria then shifted the panel's attention toward what designers can do to have a positive impact on players. Molyneux spoke first, noting that the youth have already begun using technology to become connected with people from all over the world. He said that he foresees cooperative play to continue growing in popularity and lauded the possibility of someone in North Korea joining forces in some in-game task with someone from the United States.

Ed Fries

Gordon then returned to his earlier point regarding the educational power of games, saying that gaming is the next MBA program, because it trains leaders for tomorrow. Giving an example of online games, he said that the paradigm has shifted away from the Ultima Online style of a hostile player environment to World of Warcraft's highly cooperative experience. He then reiterated his point that games are a better place to teach algebra, reading, storytelling, writing, and so on, in addition to the obvious qualities of leading a guild of players in WOW.

Gordon also said that the gaming industry has reached the point where "we have more good game designers than the video game business needs" and that these people could be used to "bail out our culture." The former EA exec also addressed Molyneux's point, saying that online social games improve social capital. "Young people have more good social relationships throughout the world than ever before," he said.

Addressing DeMaria's question, Fries also returned to an earlier point, saying that "setting out to make a game for social change is like setting out to make a game for girls back in the days." It won't result in a good product, he said. A more interesting way to look at it, he continued, would be to add more depth and complexity in games, layering in levels of emotion and meaning.

Rusel DeMaria

Wright then stepped in, saying that games have a cultural cache to a certain extent because they are a renegade art form. "We have to figure out how to do this in such a way so that we don't lose our renegade status," he said, noting that enacting positive social change isn't going to work by making a game about recycling.

Lanning picked up on this point, saying that the government isn't doing enough to support game designers' potential for enacting positive change. Calling the notion that a game has to be profitable as "ass-backwards," Lanning said that game designers could completely redefine the educational system, but the government doesn't invest in this type of pursuit at all. "Every church is tax [exempt], essentially, but if it comes to helping use technology to educate our kids and help make them smarter, there's no support," he said.

Written By

Want the latest news about Spore?

Spore

Spore

Follow

Discussion

40 comments
Malco_Vincenzo
Malco_Vincenzo

they way to tell if a game is revolutionary is if anyone copies it. MGS has Splinter Cell Street Fighter has King of Fighters Doom has Duke Nukem No one has tried to copy the Sims, or spore. It's not people have short attention spans that don't like the game. It's people the don't want to play a video game where you take a shower, or take a dump, or pick up chicks. It's called get outside and do that. And with the sims getting a job doesn't matter anyways. when your sim goes to work, the game fast forwards. why not make a mini game for your job. I'd like to see how burglar works in the Sims as a mini game.

TheBlackSpeed
TheBlackSpeed

The Sims (the ENTIRE series to date), Black and White, and other games revolutionized the way AI can be portrayed today. I don't know how you wouldn't like those games unless you have a short attention span or just didn't understand it. Those were AMAZING games and still are to this day. I still have tendencies to play some Black and White (2) every now and then. Great games..Timeless classics. I wish they'd make a third Black and White haha. That would be pretty badass..

Joshy485
Joshy485

fable 2 was great and i love simcity! :) there great developers that the videogame industry couldn't do without.

Malco_Vincenzo
Malco_Vincenzo

another thing about the sims. the dozens of expansions that come out for that seriestakes away from the critical acclaim. not so much for sims one but for Sims2. Why can't developers these days comeplete a game and not have to have these expansions a year after for 30 bucks. that's a grab for money, no way around it.

Malco_Vincenzo
Malco_Vincenzo

Noise964 Okay The Sims was revolutionary. The Sims 2,however, was mediocre. Spore Was Garbage, and the sim city series has been below average. that's the problem. revolutionary idea, no evolution or progression in sequals. As for fable being amazing. IMO and the opinion of most other people, fable was a letdown for those who bought the game. There were features in the game that Molyneux said would be in the game, never existed. That's not acepptable. I really think the Wright and Molyneux have been overhyped after have a great idea. Sid Mier's games however, even though they aren't the first of their kind they improve not only upon themselves but also upon the genre.And as for Black and White, yeah good game, but it ran very poorly on Pcs.

nate1222
nate1222

As a teenager, in the early '90s, me and my friends often noticed that kids from completely different sub-cultures enjoyed gaming. Hip Hop heads (like us), Skaters, Punks, Goths, Metal heads, Alt Rock buffs, preps, everyone was a gamer to some degree. And, of course, gaming grew and matured with us. Now, many gamers are in their 30s. You also have a much broader range of genres. Once the internet blew up, circa '95/'96, we KNEW it was going to go global. At the time, we had NO IDEA how big it'd get nor that it would become socially acceptable. But in retrospect - how could it NOT have?

Mikeyo_8989
Mikeyo_8989

The Sims is terrible, you know you don't have a life when you have to play a game about regular life... i mean come on. who wants to play a game about stuff you do every day of your life.

dhedarkhcustard
dhedarkhcustard

They have a good point with Black and White, you can't feel things like guilt when watching movies, at least not to the extent you can when you are in control or what happens. And when you're interacting with actual people in the world like in WOW, this would be even more true.

Noise964
Noise964

@Malco_Vincenzo Peter Molyneux and Will Wright are some of the farthest things from mediocre. The Sims? Thats one of the best simulation games ever. And Sure, Fable 2 wasn't as good as we hoped, but its still good. Fable was amazing. Dungeon Keeper showed that it really is good to be bad, and Black & White was the best god sim ever!

Malco_Vincenzo
Malco_Vincenzo

Will Wright and Peter Molyneux, the kings of mediocre games...

wahyudil
wahyudil

government should support the game industry so game can be used to teach and preach positive things .... WOW! ... that what government should do rather than limit the distribution of game ..

Mikethechimp
Mikethechimp

@lucas182 You're delusional. It's Will who dumbed the game down, not EA. I found the quote I was talking about: "We were very focused, if anything, on making a game for more casual players. Spore has more depth than, let's say, The Sims did. But we looked at the Metacritic scores for Sims 2, which was around ninety, and something like Half-Life, which was ninety-seven, and we decided - quite a while back - that we would rather have the Metacritic and sales of Sims 2 than the Metacritic and sales of Half-Life."

Kravyn81
Kravyn81

I agree with Fries on the issue of game makers shouldn't be out to make a change with their games. Games are a form of entertainment and should not be used as a virtual soapbox to push the ideals, morals or ethics of that developer. Now there's fine line between preaching on a topic and simply including a topic to make gamers aware of the underlying theme but with no ulterior motive by the developer to comment about it; simply putting it out there and having the gamer decide versus dictating what a gamer should think once the topic has been introduced. Pretty good editorial.

BenBenBen93
BenBenBen93

i hate wrighty after spore. it used to be better looking 2 years ago untill it became watered down thing

YEPEE00
YEPEE00

i know of no one more relevant then these. it would be an honor to defend thease developer's

dennishachey
dennishachey

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

SexConker
SexConker

lucas182 Black and White was not revolutionary at all. It was hyped as being revolutionary, but it launched as an unfinished, broken, and completely boring game. Fable is nice, but it's not exactly amazing or groundbreaking. Wright has been living off the "Sim[x]" fame for far too long. He is now a quack. Yes, exactly like George Lucas. The best selling game of all time would be Tetris. If you're going to count all the incarnations and expansions of the Sims, count all incarnations of the original Tetris. Here's a good point of contrast - the creator of Tetris is NOT a smug jerk telling people how great he is. Spore was trash and anyone who believed the promises and expected more is an idiot. Wright and Molyneux are the KINGS of self praise.

SexConker
SexConker

Wright? Molyneux? These guys haven't made a good game in decades. Might as well get such insight from John Romero. Call me when someone relevant is talking.

Lisandro_v22
Lisandro_v22

i liked what he said about education... anyway i suppose social change shouldn't start with videogames i mean, why don't they do it with movies or just improve education

dreamsteel
dreamsteel

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, Molyneux...

maverick_76
maverick_76

And for that matter, don't buy anything that is considered a sequel, considering that 90% of them are knockoffs of the original. And think before you speak, you sound so much more intelligent when that occurs.

maverick_76
maverick_76

Good article, all these guys are very good at what they do. The problem that most designers run into is the money thing, yeah and it is the biggest concern for anyone. When you make something as profitable as The Sims of course you are going to have many spin-offs that make the guy seem unoriginal but lets face it people, it is the publisher that forces the designers hand sometimes in the name of profits. We read everyday that it is harder and harder to come up with new ideas because of the amount of money that is needed to produce today's video games is so great that the risk of making a dud is too much for most publishers. They don't want to sink a huge amount of cash into an unproven IP even if it has the potential to be revolutionary. Why do that when people keep buying the same derivative FPS or RPG? It is our own fault for supporting the status-quo instead of originality. Don't give me that "uninspired" crap unless you don't buy Madden, anything that uses a gun or Final Fantasy and any of it's many knockoffs. If you want change then support it and don't support the same-ol'-same-ol'.

iowastate
iowastate

Black and White was innovative - I enjoyed it a few years back and actually managed to finish the game - gah - what a chore. It was great for awhile but gets to be quite boring after a time. Had to keep going back for periods in between other games. Peters ideas have led to some leaps in gaming and he deserves to be remembered - but I have not played one of his for some time - moved on to Oblivion. There is an immersive game.

Yakuz-A
Yakuz-A

Black and White was mostly revolutionary because of the AI system, which was not made by Peter Molyneux but a seperate AI developer, whom is now employed at Maxis and making the AI for The Sims 3.

GameGuy642003
GameGuy642003

Lucas182 you are right on brother. These guys are awsome game creaters. I hate how people always b i t c h and complain because games now a days have the same concept as these revolutionary games. Like Lucas182 said these guys changed the was we play games, with fable and Black & White.

lucas182
lucas182

TO ALL OF YOU SAYING THESE GUYS (IN PARTICULAR PETER AND WILL) ARE NOTHING SPECIAL... so, you dont remember Black and White? do ya? THAT GAME was REVOLUTIONARY... sure you can make one real easy NOW... but peter started it.. and Fable? overhyped? are you kidding me? that is an AMAZING rpg, just look at the user ratings on ANY web site. "Wright has been living off of The Sims for God knows how long" you're right... so while youre at it, why not call George Lucas a dumbass because he has been living on Star Wars for well over 3 decades. Im sorry people but if you are the creator of the best selling game of ALL TIME then you ARE a genius... thats how society works... are you gonna tell me Bill Gates is an idiot because all he did was create Windows? and now he has way more money than you? please... give these guys some credit, they made great games and revolutionized the industry and thus deserve the status theyve accomplished. (PS: Spore was one heck of an amazing game.. ground breaking... until EA started rushing things and dwarfing the game's many aspects.. just watch the 2005 spore videos on youtube with WILL WRIGHT presenting.) (PS2: another name that should be on this golden list: Sid Meier... when can we expect a Pirates! sequel Sid???)

JrSlacker
JrSlacker

Wright and Molyneux are both very over rated to be honest...Wright has been living off of The Sims for God knows how long, and Molyneux is one of those developers who talk too much and does little. Yes, back in the day they may have made some game that was good, but now, they are mediocre, with bland ideas and not making anything "new", just working on the same build, but adding more crap to it. (Like to add, for the games for educational purposes, it works, only for a short while, just like a "real" game, people will end up losing interested even kids, and when you have them doing something boring, which normally is how schoool is, they don't want to do it.)

Mikethechimp
Mikethechimp

Wright lost his touch years ago. Seriously, did you hear his quote comparing Half-Life to Sims 2?

Flipyap28
Flipyap28

I remember playing and completing Dungeon Keeper when I was like 9...what a fun game that was, my first ever strategy game.... Molyneux isn't a bad game producer, full stop. Plus I want abes odyssey back...

JaredTrotterboy
JaredTrotterboy

Molyneux is like the bad guy game producer, or like Simon in American Idol, Alice Cooper in Rock N' Roll, but he is good at his job & he does make a good point when he says: "If we try and preach, we are far less likely to have the impact intended." tylergamereview Posted Mar 27, 2009 11:02 pm GMT Kick Molyneux out of the club. After that, anything you come up with will be realistically good. dude Fable & Fable 2 were and are a big hit, I still play both all the time. What you said made no sense & you must have very poor taste in games.

tylergamereview
tylergamereview

Kick Molyneux out of the club. After that, anything you come up with will be realistically good.

aBathingApe_
aBathingApe_

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

aBathingApe_
aBathingApe_

Molyneux has done more than just Fable/Fable II. He came up with the idea of Black & White, Black & White II, designed both of the original Populous', and Dungeon Keeper. But in addition to those Fable and Fable II. His resume should speak for itself guys, I don't think you should show so much hate. I'm not describing him as the best programmer/game producer of all time, but he definitely would have a leg to stand on against most.

San-Frodenzo
San-Frodenzo

@paladin & acid: let me second that too gentlemen. over rated designer with over-hyped games

josef8
josef8

videogames are pushing my english a LOT

re4leon22
re4leon22

I definitely agree with what they are saying. As a kid I can certainly say I actually learned alot more about grammar, the ability to spell correctly, and about general vocabulary in Video games (points to soul reavers excellent script and ff's hours of textual dialogue) than school ever taught me back then. Math not so much but im sure they helped at least a little.

AcidSoldner
AcidSoldner

@Paladin_King Dude I couldn't agree more. I honestly don't see what is so great about him either.

Paladin_King
Paladin_King

Molyneux is far and away the most overrated games designer. I still can't figure out what is supposed to make this guy so awesome, or "visionary." Fable 1 and 2 were ok at best and all Molyneux ever does is fall short of his ridiculous claims and promises.

Yannick_18
Yannick_18

that's actually how I learned how to understand music, learn to write english and speak it !!! I'm french from Canada ... music helped me a lot too ... not the school

Innocentguy757
Innocentguy757

Video games as education probably isn't the most effective means, nothing beats hands on training and practice.