The Video Game Playground

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to get a ticket for The Videogame Playground (cheers Dan), an open debate by some of the most prolific developers in the past 15 years. Held at the Embassy of Japan in London, it was a quaint event attended predominantly by gamers (rather than the press). This surprised me, as it’s rare for the UK to hold a video game related event which isn’t entirely concerned with promotion.

The three big names in attendance were Martin Hollis, producer of GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64, Mark Stephenson, a designer from Media Molecule (the team behind LittleBigPlanet) and Takahashi Keita, creator of Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy.

Roll a sticky ball that consumes everything in its path. Katamari Damacy.

The evening revolved around the difficult concept of ‘play’. Should adults still be allowed to exercise the freedom of ‘play’ through video games? What are the benefits? As the video games industry continues to develop in artistic and mature directions, is the simple essence of ‘play’ being lost?

Many gamers, such as myself, already have strong opinions on the subject. Yet I was interested to see if the creators could bring anything new to the debate, or if their own experiences were different from my own.

After an introduction from Iain Simons, the co-founder of the National Videogame Archive, Mark Stephenson had the chance to give a short presentation. LittleBigPlanet has hit the culture of video games in a huge way, driving innovation in the realms of user generated content and community spirit. So likewise, I was expecting an equally provocative speech from Stephenson. Instead he spoke of how he felt the LBP series incorporated the ethos of ‘fun’. The ability to experiment and learn with the level creator, make friends and share your experiences with other people were all at the top of his list. He was a great presenter, but ultimately covered ground that we have all trodden many, many times before. The time ran out just as he was about to get into some of the deeper consequences of modern ‘play’.

The cardboard cut-out world of LittleBigPlanet resembles a perfect toy box.

Takahashi Keita was up next, taking to the stage in jeans and a skinny grey hoody. It was almost impossible for me to put an age on this man. Although his face makes him look much older, his energy and mannerisms gave the impression that he had just came out of teenage-hood. It was unfortunate that his ability to speak the English language is still quite basic, because it meant that he had to scale down many of the bigger ideas in his discussion. To his credit, what blossomed in its stead was a very funny, artistic and wholeheartedly Japanese take on the creation of his video games. Takahashi has a wonderful mind that came across well in the interesting photographs and illustrations that he’d prepared for us.

I would love to watch a video with him discussing the nature of ‘play’ in his native language, as the beauty of subtitles would no doubt give a much deeper analysis of his own thoughts and ideas. Still, I gained a new found respect for his work during The Videogame Playground and felt that underneath all the jokes, he was providing an interesting stance. There’s a reason why we all still love playing Mario, Tetris and Bejewelled; they’re pieces of raw entertainment, open to every gender and age group. Sometimes less can be more.

Martin Hollis then joined the other two panellists in order to take questions from the audience. This is where I had hoped the discussion would be hemmed down by enthusiasts and gamers such as myself. No such luck. The floor asked either infuriatingly long and ambiguous questions about the industry or personal queries of their work. We even had a sceptic who still believed that gaming was the equivalent of mortal sin. The most interesting nugget of information came from Takahashi Keita, who mentioned a real, physical playground in England that he had been asked to design. As expected though, he couldn’t give out any specific details for what the playground would actually look like.

The classic N64 FPS, GoldenEye 007.

Once the brief session of questions closed, a reception of drinks allowed the audience to mingle with the industry figureheads on a personal level. Unfortunately, I had to leave at this point because of a train I needed to catch – but I would have liked to have been able to thank all three of them. Not specifically for their presentations, but for being involved in a debate of this kind and for giving something fresh to the progression of video games. After all, these people keep me playing and fuel my enjoyment for writing about the hobby.

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