Games Writer Paul Callaghan isn’t a social misfit

Posted on June 22, 2012

I am not, as my favourite non-descriptions of people who play games from last year would have you believe, a proverbially dull, inarticulate, social misfit, the practitioner of something ordinary, nor a 32-year-old single male who sits at home and plays games all day.

What games don’t you play?

I’ll play pretty much anything, but over the years, I’ve found my patience for the sort of game that breaks sales records – hyper-masculine shootathons with amazing production values – has diminished to the point that I only really play them if someone recommends that they’re doing something particularly interesting.

I also tend not to play MMORPGS Like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic – unless it’s research for a project or an article – because I find their bustling nature and constructed social spaces a little overwhelming.

What kinds of games don’t you write for or develop? Why not?

Ones that get released, sadly. I’ve done so much work in recent years for projects that were interesting and, I think, well considered and written, but for a range of reasons haven’t gone anywhere. It’s one of the curses of being a freelancer, I guess.

Topic-wise, I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t try to write or design. There’s always an interesting problem to solve or theme to explore in any given job, and frequently being given constraints forces you to come up with far more interesting story or gameplay ideas than you might have come up with on your own.

It’s a bit like writing doing writing exercises – describe the shape of your least favourite cup – in that it changes the focus to ‘how do I make this work?’ from ‘what do I want to say?’

On my own projects, it’s the same as it is for any other creator. I make the sorts of things I’d like to see in the world that don’t yet exist, and I try not to make or chase after trends or what other people are doing.

You’re currently working on a novel. What can’t a writer do with a game that can be achieved in a book? And what can’t a writer achieve in a novel that can be done with a game?

Books are much better at internal storytelling than games are, in much the same way that they’re better at it than film. Digging inside a character and hearing their inner monologue is something prose can do.

Attempts in games – see Heavy Rain, which has the occasional internal monologue – can feel forced and strange. Conversely, games are much better at giving the player a sense of ownership over the character compared to a book.

Moment to moment choices through the game’s systemic interactions when aligned with the narrative create a strange alchemy of goals between in-game character and player. I don’t think you necessarily ‘become’ the character, but you do certainly share some intimacy that isn’t possible in other mediums.

Really interesting things start to happen when you step away from the confines of narratively structure – both for books and games – and you end up in a much more poetic space.

Games can create expressive and complex emotional responses in players through a mix of action, movement, visual and auditory texture, and rhythm that might better align with opera or dance or the visual arts.

While I’m a writer and I like to view things through a writerly lens, I’m always fascinated by those other overlaps – especially the further the discussion gets from film.

As an art form, why aren’t games taken as seriously as films or novels?

I think they are. At least by any measure that has meaning.

Personally, I take them very seriously. I spend huge chunks of my time thinking about them, their experience, their cultural and personal value, as well as how to use them to pay my rent.

There are some incredible thinkers who explore and discuss games as expressions of play, of media, of narrative, of cultural and artistic forms.

There are institutions like galleries and libraries who put them on show and have retrospectives of their creators and events about their creation.

There are arts and cultural festivals that celebrate their creation and their audiences. Every day people get up and go to work making them or study them at university and school or hunker down with some friends to produce new work and every day millions upon millions of people play those games and reflect on what they’ve just experienced and who are, to greater and lesser degrees, transformed.

Still, they are essentially Popular Art and Popular Art has always had to navigate the boundaries and intentions of the gatekeepers of High Art. But Popular Art becomes High Art through more people making more things over a longer period of time.

Film and novels have had thousands of people making thousands of things over hundreds of years. There’s a bigger pool to draw from, with more work that can be deemed ‘serious’.

Games aren’t there yet, but they will be, but that doesn’t mean that what is currently being done now doesn’t matter enormously or shouldn’t be taken seriously, popular or not.

What aren’t governments doing to support the games industry?

The big thing in my opinion is the focus on industry over practice.

Right now games are emerging from being considered primarily a technology led industry into being part of the conversation of creative industries.

Any creative industry is a mix of both industrial practice for production – filmmaking, visual effects, or publishing – and an underlying maker community that connects to that industry, but isn’t defined by it – directors, artists, writers, musicians, etc.

That technology industry mindset has been very persistent, and dominated the interaction with government on topics like studios and employment, about the amount of money generated and tax breaks, about education programs and skilled pathways.

Those are important conversations, but they fail to consider that maker community and what they might need or want, as well as how they connect with industry.

If you look around at the various resources for emerging writers, or filmmakers, or musicians, or visual artists, or theatre makers there’s a whole spread of programs and institutions and other supporting structures that enable them to get started, connect with a community, and reward achievement.

Not so much in games, and art they transition from a tech industry to a creative industry, I think it’s increasingly important that government look to other models of support than studios and projects, which isn’t to say that those things aren’t important, but they should form part of a broader strategy.

Why shouldn’t society be worried about violence in gaming?

Society should be worried about it. Violence and how we express power is a complex but unescapable part of the human condition and we should always – as a society and as individuals – question and examine our perspectives on how we engage with it, how we represent it, and how we enact it.

The wider question of whether or not video games cause violence or reflect it, whether the impact of fantasy actions bleed into out into real world, and whether or not we’re raising a generation of ADHD addled self-indulgent, privileged criminals is an archetypal struggle that is played out via every new art-form, and is one that games need to endure as a right of passage.

The public conflict between those who loudly worry about violence in games and those who loudly defend them is essential as it forces both to defend their position, to seek out research, to explore aspects of game development and design, and to consider, at some levels, their deeper responsibilities and interests as artists and audiences.

Finally, if you were to be transformed into a video game character, who wouldn’t you choose to be?

Any number of gruff, armoured, gun-toting, shaven head military men.

For more information on what Paul’s up to check out his website