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Make More Tennis Balls

Preface – Below is the text from a four minute talk I delivered at the Games for Change Festival in New York a few weeks ago. It was one in a series of talks organized by Colleen Macklin and Richard LeMarchand.


So there were a lot of games, a lot of big games, released last year, some which I didn’t play and some of which I did, but what I played the most of, by far, is a little game called Shadow Complex.

When Shadow Complex was released it was compared mostly to Super Metroid, and this is a pretty fair comparison; they’re both side-scrolling action games with ‘lock and key’ style progression and large worlds to explore.

The thing is, the reason I played so much of Shadow Complex was not primarily for the ways it was mechanically similar to Metroid, which was the explanation for many people that praised the game. Instead I was drawn to one of the particular ways that the game could be played.

Specifically I played Shadow Complex as an Iron Man, 13%, Golden Gun run.

What that really means doesn’t matter. I’ll just say that I played using the strongest weapons, but only collected 13% of the 112 power-ups in the game, and had to start from the beginning every time the player-character died.

The reason I did this was not necessarily to prove anything, at least not to anyone other than myself, at least not at first.

Rather, the reason I started playing this way was because I found that this was, for me, the most entertaining way to play the game. I enjoyed the feeling of moving the avatar through the game’s spaces when I was playing under these constraints, and I enjoyed the things that playing this way forced me to learn about how the code of the game was written.

However, while I was playing Shadow Complex in this fashion, trying to complete this run, I realized that the experience I was having bore very little resemblance to the one that other people were having with the game. There was quite a bit of discussion online about the far right, Christian conservative views of Orson Scott Card, who created the fictional world that serves as the game’s setting.

While I’m sure this kind of discussion is important, it didn’t hold my interest. At this point, as far as the fiction goes, I’ve played Shadow Complex most of the way through nearly 200 times, and I can’t even tell you the name of the main character.

My experience with this game seemed so different at the time from the one that most people were having that it became clear to me that to say we were playing the same game was really a disservice to everyone.

However, this didn’t matter. My Shadow Complex meant much more to me. As I played it over and over again, over the course of the year, it became a part of my life. It became something I did to relax, something I did to focus myself, something I did as a distraction, or something I did just out of nostalgia.

And this seemed right, it seemed natural, not just for Shadow Complex, but for a game. I realized that Shadow Complex finding a place in my life wasn’t just an accident, but rather in part because of how it had been crafted. I could find a way to put Shadow Complex into my life because there were different ways it could fit. As I adapted my life to it, it adapted itself to my life.

When we think about games that have changed the world I think it’s useful to look at ways in which they interface with the lives of their players; to look not just at how players change in response to a game, but how that game changes in response to its players.

Chess in its current form has been in development for 600 years, and it has directly shaped people’s conception and understanding of conflict. Baseball as we know it has been changing since the mid-1800s and for better or for worse it has given Americans a very distinct vocabulary for describing, and even structuring, our sexual practices.

I would argue that the reason these games have survived for so long, and become so culturally significant, is because they were flexible enough in their materials to adapt to the ways players wanted to use them, even to the point of becoming completely different games. In effect I’m saying that I think the greatness of Tennis is actually tied in a very important way to the greatness of playing catch with your dog.

Some would say that we are living in the era of the disposable video game, where games are treated as distractions to be consumed and then discarded at the arrival of the next game. There’s nothing wrong with this. This is also one of the ways that games can be incorporated into people’s lives.

However, it feels to me like this particular practice now serves as the definition for video games as a whole, and therefore, for many people, games as whole.

So with that definition in mind I’ll say this: if you really want to make a game that impacts peoples lives, that changes the world in profound ways, then remember, the world has lots of video games, make more Tennis balls.

Author’s Note – This talk connects to another talk, called In Praise of Spoilsports, which I gave for a seminar hosted by Jesper Juul.


  1. Mark H. wrote:

    Nice post Charles, and an interesting topic. I’d point out one element of the equation that seem to be missing from your argument.

    You describe two different examples of game mailability; first we have you playing a non-traditional variant of Shadow Complex, then we have games like chess and baseball adapting and morphing over hundreds of years.

    Both examples are interesting, but you’ve taken the motivation for change going on in the first example (being more enjoyable for the player) and assumed it’s obviously the driving motivation in the second. Referring to chess and baseball you argue that “the reason these games have survived for so long, and become so culturally significant, is because they were flexible enough in their materials to adapt to the ways players wanted to use them” and that doesn’t seem to represent what’s necessarily at work here.

    While some of the rule changes that have occurred throughout the history of baseball (for example) have certainly been attempts to make the game more enjoyable to play, many of them have been motivated by other things entirely. Economics, politics, safety concerns, and societal values have all been responsible for the adjustments made to the rules of baseball at times. Professional sports are billion dollar industries watched by millions and played by very few, and so it’s not surprising that their rules reflect a long series of changes favoring the enjoyment of the fan and the profit of the league over the enjoyment of the player.

    When you decide it’d be fun to iron man Shadow Complex, I just don’t think that’s really a strong parallel to what’s going on when the NFL rules committee decides that celebrations involving two or more players will draw a flag.

    Anyways, just a wrinkle to add into the conversation.

    BONUS QUESTION: Are you capitalizing the names of all games as some sort of political statement or something?

    Monday, July 26, 2010 at 10:52 pm | Permalink
  2. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    You make a good point, Mark, and I agree that that distinction is important.

    You’re right that in games like Chess and Baseball there have been an enormous number of motivators for the changes that weren’t driven by players. If I was going to give this talk again I would probably change that line to something like “…flexible enough in their materials to adapt to the ways their cultures wanted to use them…”

    The important point for me is that games should give rise to a multiplicity of play cultures, and that part of the vitality of a game is wrapped up in its ability to change as play cultures change, because the materials used for play are not overly deterministic.

    One of the great things about Baseball is that there are a lot of different ‘Baseballs’, from professional to sandlot play. This is the case because the props of the game are so flexible. You can designate a tree as home base and a line of sprinklers as the threshold for a homerun.

    Now, Shadow Complex isn’t really in this league, but part of what I was trying to say (and maybe not very well!) was that one of the things that makes the game good and interesting is this feature that it shares with other, more historic, games. That I can use the software called ‘Shadow Complex’ as a prop in another game that could be called Shadow Complex, but actually doesn’t much resemble what some people would recognize by that name except in the most superficial sense.

    BONUS ANSWER: Capitalizing the names of all games started as a political thing (I got it from Greg Costikyan), but now I mostly do it because I think it looks better.

    Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 3:38 am | Permalink

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