Warren Spector proclaims victory in gaming culture wars

PAX 2010: Epic Mickey, Deus Ex creator kicks off fan-centric trade show by urging greater acceptance of the diversity inherent to the interactive medium.

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Who was there: The 2010 Penny Arcade Expo keynote address was delivered by Junction Point founder and Epic Mickey creative director Warren Spector.

What he talked about: In previous years, the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Washington, has been christened by individuals that rank among the pantheon of gaming and geek culture, ranging from actor Wil Wheaton to gaming icons Ken Levine and Ron Gilbert. This year was no different, as the creators of the popular Penny Arcade Web comic landed Junction Point founder Warren Spector as the PAX 2010 keynote speaker.

Warren Spector is currently working on Epic Mickey.
Warren Spector is currently working on Epic Mickey.

Spector's reputation in the gaming industry is well earned. Having started his game-design career working at Origin Systems in 1989 on such games as Wing Commander and Ultima VI, Spector went on to be the creative force behind such classics as the Deus Ex and Thief franchises. In 2005, he formed Junction Point, and by 2007, the company had been acquired by Disney Interactive to create Epic Mickey, which is due on the Wii later this year.

Spector began his keynote address recapping his personal history and how his formative years had very little to do with gaming. When he was a kid, he said, computers weren't around--let alone home gaming systems--and his interests skewed toward superheroes, fantasy novels, comic books, and sci-fi movies.

"I can quote pretty much the entire HP Lovecraft collection," he said. "I was really a nerdy little kid."

As the years progressed, Spector's interests remained much the same, as he latched on to the worlds of Batman and Bugs Bunny, as well as television shows like The Three Stooges and music from The Beatles. Spector noted that many of these forms of expression were derided by his elders, and the fact that they are now cultural emblems "goes to show you that you never know what's going to have lasting value."

And then came the advent of Pong, but Spector said that while he sunk many a quarter into the arcade machine, it wasn't a particularly impactful moment in his life. What did impact him, though, was LucasArts' Star Wars, which he saw in a theater in Chicago. Spector said that until that moment, the sci-fi genre that he knew and loved had been largely marginalized, as people believed that it couldn't ever turn a buck. However, this movie validated science fiction with the mainstream, he said.

Around this time, Spector said that he also become engrossed in Dungeons & Dragons. His experience with D&D was different, he said, because his first taste came while he was an adult. Since he wasn't a kid when he came to it, he never considered it geeky or weird, or had anyone tell him he was engaging with the devil by playing it. Instead, the game, as well as others like it, was merely the way he and his friends socialized.

"D&D at its best was about collaborative storytelling, and that set me on a course that I'm still on today," he said.

That course took an abrupt turn toward gaming when he walked into a friend's living room one day and saw people huddled around a television set, playing Star Raiders on the Atari 800. Though he still did not know he would become a game designer, he became infatuated with the thought of a gaming console in his living room.

He took his first steps toward his future career in 1983, when he joined Steve Jackson Games. From there, he moved to TSR. In 1989, he finally landed at Richard Garriott's Origin Systems, and the rest is history.

As for why all this matters, Spector said that a new medium arises only about once a century and that those interested in gaming today are seeing it grow and flourish before their eyes. However, he believes that the medium is in peril, in part because of the xenophobia many gamers exhibited toward those who are just now becoming interested in gaming.

"We have a brotherhood, and for all of the confidence, when we go out in public, I've seen people get insecure," he said. "It's as if we yearn to be accepted by the mainstream, but when the mainstream takes interest, we start complaining. We get upset when developers try to reach a casual audience. Nongamers enjoying the things we have enjoyed for years, as if them discovering that diminishes us some."

"I want to celebrate the ways that we are no longer special, no longer unique," he continued. "We spent 20 years to convince the masses that we are cool, and to stop beating us up, and now we've won."

Spector went on to say that "we have to get past this not wanting to let others in the club" and that gamers need to embrace the fact that the world is "catching up and catching on." He said that the mainstream's interest will only serve to validate and support games as a cultural entity, and not just a fad that will disappear. He also emphasized that all great forms of media went through an acclimation phase, where they were first vilified and then wholly embraced.

This attitude, he said, is a generational one, in which those of one generation refuse to accept the culture of the one that follows them. Spector said that when he was a kid, the marginalized culture was TV, comics, Elvis, and Bugs Bunny.

Spector emphasized also that gaming is in the cultural crosshairs right now, and those on the inside cannot afford to alienate outsiders with interest. He brought up the controversy surrounding California's violent game law, the opening arguments for which will be heard by the Supreme Court on November 2. "This date could be the start of when we are the first entertainment medium ever to be denied First Amendment protection," he said.

Therefore, it is important to increase the gamer army, he said, because when grandparents and little sisters and whoever else become interested, the medium as a whole is more difficult to marginalize. Further, it is these types of players who will continue pushing the medium forward, because more players will demand more types of play experiences beyond just saving the world from aliens or killing dragons with broadswords.

Spector then issued a challenge to those in attendance. For gamers, he said that it is important to demand more from their experience and to urge developers to give them something new and better. And in a bit of self-referential humor, he said that the core crowd should give developers the chance to change their place, making games about mice and not just about men in trench coats with dark glasses.

He then called on developers to "honor what makes games unique," saying that the industry doesn't need more rail shooters or games that "ape the conventions of 35-year-old paper RPGs." Publishers, in turn, need to give developers room to be creative and take chances.

And to everyone, he said that the industry and those who follow it need to get over their collective inferiority complex. "We are different, younger, less mature, but as potent of a cultural force [as] anything else on this planet," he said.

Quote: "Every activity that has survived has become an insider activity. All you have to do is wait for the previous generation to [said quietly] die."-- Warren Spector, on gaming's ascension to mainstream acceptance.

Takeaway: Spector's keynote address emphasized that gamers need to embrace the diversity inherent to the gaming medium, saying that the core crowd should not snub those with more casual interests. In turn, the entrance into the mainstream will solidify the medium's place as a cultural staple, much like plays, novels, and comics before it.

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