It’s strange when labels slowly become inadequate for the thing they describe.
I’ve always thought ‘planner’ was an odd soubriquet for what we do.
It does capture a certain consequential mindset. I guess we think through scenarios and options, planning for the best outcome. But it doesn’t quite sum up the totality of the task, does it?
So much of what we do is about responding to signals, as well as trying the generate them. We distill and choose what not to do as much as planning for what brands should do.
And, worst of all, the term does suggest a certain distance from the fray. That our role is pure preparation, with others providing the action. As if we don’t want or need to get our hands dirty.
I was thinking about this as I heard someone bemoan the inadequacy of another professional descriptor on a radio documentary recently. The programme was about games, presented by the writer, Naomi Alderman. (You can still listen to it here). And the label was ‘game writer’.
One contributor, Rhianna Pratchett, asserted that good games use writers for more than just dialogue (a bit like planners aren’t just there for the most obvious things like an endline or a channel selection). In fact a games writer these days needs to be a director, a cinematographer, a stage hand and a set-dresser.
The legacy label just doesn’t fit the bill.
Language sometimes takes time to catch up. This isn’t surprising when you think of just how quickly gaming is expanding as a market – hell, as a concept – and how many realms of life it touches these days.
Faced with a drop-down menu of the mind, from which I try to select the most relevant category that my brain uses to understand things, I struggle to put games in just one place. Business, entertainment, culture, learning, representation, collective experience – which is best? Very few forms yield works which win Grammys *and* help relieve children from autism.
So why is it so resonant? There’s smarter people than me to answer that in full, but the radio documentary threw up the fascinating depth of immersion people feel when playing a well ‘written’ game. An expertly mediated game – especially one that takes place over a long time with involved game play – can be one of the most personal and affecting experiences you can have.
You make it yourself, of course, through a series of unique and involved choices. As the story unfolds you become ever more central to the narrative. And if it’s multi-player you’re creating a shared experience that no-one else has ever had before.
And then it’s gone, consigned to history. In one compelling phrase, someone described the experience as being more akin to a memory than merely content, or even art.
Imagine creating a content experience so immersive it was strong enough to create memories.
How can games do this? Because at heart they are stories. And since implicitly we all interpret the meaning and power of stories based on what they mean to us personally, the ability of games to put the player at the heart of the story makes them the ultimate form of story-telling.
In the words of another contributor, games ‘individuate the consumer’, which is where things start to get really interesting.
In the near future other forms of story-telling will have to introduce this individuated element if they are to compete with the power and effect that games can induce. It’s exciting to think about how films, books and TV might start to incorporate some of the core characteristics of game play: personalised, iterative and participative. How will data and interaction fuel the narrative itself, using feedback to allow the story to develop in interesting and unexpected ways? How will the narrative adapt to new participants/consumers entering the fray?
This kind of story-telling that puts the listener in the frame takes us back to childhood. This is campfire story-telling, or bedtime stories made up by parents that feature the listening child as the central protagonist.
What if these stories, the kind we enjoy most in childhood, will become replicable throughout our adult life?
One game writer suggested we might soon have games that follow us beyond the fixed space where we currently play them. There will be games that follow us around our daily routine, posing light moral choices perhaps as we go. They might measure how we perform in small personality tests. The games might be able to craft characters and scenarios based on insights about the kind of people we are and the decisions we make.
This is a place where games and stories start to become indistinguishable. This is a place where experiences are not planned ahead of, but in response to, signals we receive from people. And where those people don’t just consume what is created for them, they co-create it as they go, over time.
This is a place where the label of ‘writer’ remains hopelessly inadequate.
As does that of ‘planner’, of course.
But maybe that’s a whole other story.