A panel of experimental games designers urged the industry to start making games about romance and love – not destruction and war.
In a session called ‘Designing for Love’ earlier this week, Martin Hollis, Chelsea Howe, Scott Brodie, Michael Molinari and Mitu Khandaker offered up short talks on the topic that explored prototype games, the image games give to the wider world (and even extraterrestrials, if they’re watching), and even venture capitalists not understanding romance.
The topline message, however, was that games on average simply don’t cover enough of the emotional spectrum, and romance is one unexplored area.
"Video games are the best medium – and they should do everything," said Hollis.
But it’s not as if games designers haven’t considered love.
Panellists and games designers Chelsea Howe (SuperBetter Labs) and Michael Molinari (Namco Bandai) knew how games can lead to romance – the couple aren’t just dating after meeting at a game jam event, but have explored different ideas on how to affect gamers’ emotions.
Howe talked about how she used engagement and emotion in an online puzzle – which featured minimal prompts and instructions – to push players towards feeling satisfaction from completing a task without any guidance.
Molinari, meanwhile, had created a game that put the player in control of a comet accompanying another around the galaxy – with the end result being that one will crash. Players were forced to confront feelings of loss and attachment.
Another example came from Hero Generations’ creator Scott Brodie. His talk was delivered as a video as (here’s another love connection) he missed GDC following the birth of his child. Perhaps fittingly, his game Hero Generations follows the lives of adventurers, but the game ends when the player chooses to settle down and have a family.
"You have to look at real life and put some of that in your game if you want players to do the same," he said about drawing emotional investment from players so that the ending in Hero Generations was satisfying.
"Love is not a zero sum game," he added, saying that even subtly working themes about love into games can be beneficial for the medium overall.
"Games can change the world, but they do that by changing one player at a time."
Mitu Khandaker, head of small UK studio Tiniest Shark, is currently working on a social romance game Redshirt, part inspired by Star Trek but focusing on the connections between crew members on a spaceship.
Her warning for the audience took a similar bent: "What would an alien race make of the human experience of love based on our history of video games?" she asked, pointing out how key art and concepts from the biggest games are often violent and devoid of romance.
While games broadly don’t typically focus on love, "a fresh breeze of change" is in the air, said Hollis, founder of Zoonami and currently a member of the team at London start-up Makielab.
"The genre does not essentially exist in video games. Why? The answer is: fashion. Everybody is swimming to make competitive, combatative games," he added, referencing Call of Duty.
But: "This leaves a vast blue ocean of opportunity to for anyone who can deliver a romantic game."
Hollis himself is working on an experimental game project which asks players to "enjoy being a matchmaker".
"Put two people together – will they like each other? Whether this happens depends on their personality. It is basically a match-two game," he joked, adding that for players the satisfaction comes from the reward of seeing a successful pairing.
He said that this should be a far more appealing route for games to go down as they get older – especially when all the growth the core industry is otherwise faced with is the hundredth Call of Duty or Final Fantasy.
"My message is an old message for a new industry: make games about love, not war."