The Yin and Yang of Enthusiasm

So as you may know, I have an interest in competitive video games and their player cultures. Today Travis George of Riot Games gave a postmortem of the new Dominion play mode they added to League of Legends in 2011. I thought he gave a really great presentation, but the takeaway for me was what he ended up saying about Riot’s goals, ideals, and way of doing things. One of his slides — which, when I got up to ask a question later, I called the “Global domination slide” — was a silhouette of a world map with Riot’s creed in big bold letters: “We want to be the most player-focused company in the world.

League of Legends Dominion gameplay
League of Legends Dominion gameplay (Image courtesy IGN)

I was really struck by this approach, and by what else George had to say, especially the notion that Riot expects its employees to play and care about League. “They don’t have to be experts,” he said, “but they need to be experts at crafting the experience.” The Riot way of doing things seems to be really focused, for good or for ill, on the people who work there and make the game really being the people who play and love it. They bank on the feelings of ownership that this enthusiasm can bring. And while I can say, as a LoL player, that the game experience and community are not some golden Nirvana, I think this strategy of theirs is working for the time being. The game is popular, stable, and profitable, and Riot clearly is able to grow their business, having seen their recruiting booth here at GDC.

On the other hand, there’s this game I’ve seen people talking about that’s in the GDC Play part of the conference called Girl Fight from Kung Fu Factory, and a number of people I know have been tweeting about it… usually in annoyance at the game’s highly sexualized all-female cast.

Girl Fight gameplay
Girl Fight gameplay (image courtesy Gametrailers)

Ayeah. Now, let me be clear: this is just silly, needless T&A, full stop. But I sat down with a rep from Kung Fu Factory and talked to him about the game and its development and had some interesting insights thereby.

It’s clear that the people behind Girl Fight are, like Riot, enthusiasts who are making a game based on what they themselves would want to play. The rep talked about all the fighting games that they’ve played that inspired them, going all the way back to little-known and little-played Squaresoft fighter Tobal No. 1, for crying out loud. We talked for a bit about how I felt some pretty clear Virtua Fighter influence on the gameplay from the demo match I played, and we even commiserated about wanting to play the copies of Street Fighter X Tekken we both owned but couldn’t play because we’re at GDC. Even playing a bit of the game, there’s obvious draws on genre conventions. It’s an enthusiasts’s game for sure.

Flip side, there was my asking “Why all-girls?” and this was clearly a weird topic for the person I spoke to. The game’s fiction is kind of interesting, actually; these psychic-empowered girls attend a military academy in the future, where they engage in simulated combat to develop their psychic powers. Nothing in this fiction demands “all girls, all sexy,” right? And the “all-girl fighting game” is not something with a lot of history to it; mostly SNES and PSX-era Japanese titles that were never localized, wrestling games like Rumble Roses, and the upcoming Skullgirls. So this is… novel, I guess? And perhaps most tellingly, he said that “It was a little easier to get funding.”

Me: “When you mentioned to people that it was all sexy girls?” Him (a little sheepishly): “Yeah.”

In fact, “a little sheepish” characterizes his mood and face the entire time we discussed the all-girl thing. To me it was obvious that the designer found these designs fun and interesting but his unease says that he knows, at some level, that this is a little… off. But I think this is the danger, the possible dark side, of the enthusiast designer approach: these questions about making games that push against hegemonic forces don’t come up.

When you’re making a game that you would love to play, I think it’s harder to look at these sorts of questions… and if what you love to play comes from a culture that doesn’t question representations of, say, women in this way (see also Skullgirls, really), then you’re probably going to keep instantiating those values into what you make.

I’m not saying enthusiast design is a bad idea. But I do think we need to be on the lookout for this trap, where we are so focused on making the type of game we’d “love to play” that we forget the things we “love” might often be “bad.” And to the folks at Kung Fu Factory: you should take people’s claims that you’re perpetuating terrible images of women seriously because you are, but you can make the game you love — you can get the feel you want — without doing that. You don’t have to strip the sexiness out; what you need to do is make sure that it’s one representation in a range, where it’s one facet of a jewel, and not everything there is.

2 thoughts on “The Yin and Yang of Enthusiasm

  1. I wonder how this relates to some of the things Ian Bogost has said about the influence of being an enthusiast on researching games, and his criticism of Henry Jenkins’ idea of the aca-fan?

    1. Possibly? I think the idea of “if you love something you might be too close to it” has been bandied about in arenas like anthropology and sociology for a long time. This really isn’t any different; if you love a game, and you want to make something you love, you DO have a set of blinders on, as Ian has said… of course, I think Henry himself has also spoken to the dangers of aca-fandom.

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