"Business is dramatic and business is everywhere, but in new media, business has been neither." That's my lead in Conflicts and Interest, a survey in the latest TEKKA of the remarkable failures of business games.
Let's face is: game studies are going to stay stuck until we have lots of real criticism of real games. Not just box-office predictions, not just the gossip of industry crafts ("great special effect! amazing costumes! the best gaffer in the business!"), but sitting down to look at what games are trying to do, and where their means are not aligned with their ends.
That we woke up one morning and decided to start a toilet factory seems a nightmare, but what must the game team have thought when they were handed this assignment? The writers (and translators) were, of course, nonplussed; it's tough to write a business game that will travel, but writing about toilets is even worse....
"Factory Mogul can't take itself seriously and so tries to defuse the audience's justified rage by acting the clown. Modest wit can work marvelously when a work intelligently critiques its own failings. Greg Costikyan's Paranoia, for example, hilariously resolved the contradiction in role-playing games between the heroism of characters facing mortal danger and the quotidian reality of tabletop gaming by making each character a member of a clonable family. When disaster strikes and the player's decisions prove calamitous, "Send in the clones!". But there's no ironic critique in Factory Mogul, nor any hint of slapstick satire. The game takes pratfalls in a desperately irrelevant effort to please or, at any rate, to placate."
The difference between a silly disaster like Factory Mogul and a really funny game like Paranoia is not a question of adding money or game mechanics or a better game engine, it's a matter of getting the tone and timing exactly right. Being able to recognize this is hard, and it's probably even harder when the disk duplicator is calling every day for the master, when the developers are wrestling with the code and the marketers are screaming at the developers and nobody has seen Quality Assurance since last Tuesday.
But, if we can't get a handle about this, then what exactly can we do with all those monographs about narrative and ludology and genre and gender?
Update: Ian Bogost responds that, 'before research can be useful for developers, we need to see more inspiration in the business. We need people who have something they want to say, and who want to say it in the medium of the videogame.'