Like previous PAX keynote speakers before him, Deus Ex creator Warren Spector is a nerd icon. Unlike actor Wil Wheaton, Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert or BioShock mastermind Ken Levine, though, Spector remembers something: decades of his life when videogames didn’t exist. When he was a child, said Spector in what he jokingly described as the traditional “confessional autobiography” section of the address, he didn’t geek out over videogames because there were no games to geek out over – instead, he found pulp fiction, comic books, and fantasy movies (in an age where fantasy films were “rarer than Steve Jobs picking up his Zune.”)
After years of being told by his parents that Bugs Bunny and the Three Stooges were rotting his brain, Spector finally discovered games – but unlike Wheaton, Levine, and many of the thousands of people in the audience – he discovered them as an adult, rather than a child. He never had to deal with parents thinking that D&D was the devil’s tool; he played with a group of adults – his first DM was Bruce Sterling, the father of the cyberpunk movement. Consequently, said Spector, he never really thought that games were something “geeky or weird,” because he’d just grown up as a movie/sci-fi/fantasy guy.
That’s why Warren Spector is a bit puzzled at the insecurity he sees in many gamers after they leave their little internal worlds, whether they’re Azeroth, Hyrule, or places like PAX. “For all our hooting and hollering in places like this, [in the real world] we get insecure,” said Spector, “We yearn to be accepted by the mainstream – by ‘normal’ people.” But when they start paying attention to us, he argued – when they start to like the things that we like – we begin to complain. We get angry when developers and publishers reach out to them. We see these dreaded casual gamers as the Enemy. We act like their ability “to enjoy the things we’ve loved for years diminishes us somehow.”
For a long time, said Spector, he didn’t think much of it – but now, he said, he was beginning to think that our insular celebrations of our geekdom might be putting all of our advances “in jeopardy.” His address took a sober tone for a few moments as he pointed to November 2nd, the date where the US Supreme Court will be hearing the case that will decide whether games will become the only entertainment medium to ever be legally denied First Amendment rights. He urged the crowd in attendance to go to Videogame Voters to add their support to the cause, because there was strength in numbers.
But because there is strength in numbers, argued Spector, we needed to start embracing the casual and mainstream gamers that many of us decry. “Growing the tribe means more than it ever did,” he said. “When your grandmother and little sister are playing games, it’s harder for people to look at it as a way to make political points.”And that means accepting the new demographics that love to play games like Wii Sports Resort, and yes, FarmVille.
Previous PAX keynoters had talked about how special gamers and nerds were, but Spector said he thought we should look at the ways in which we weren’t special. “We’re a group like a lot of others now. There are more people like us all the time.” Every once in a while, we should celebrate the things that no longer made us different, said Spector. “We spent 20 years trying to convince people that we were cool (to stop them beating us up), trying to show them just how cool games were … and we won.”
“But we need to get past not wanting to let other people in the club,” he amended. “We won, and we feel bad about it.” You can’t close Pandora’s Box once it’s been opened – people are starting to love games, it’s become mainstream, and that’s a good thing. Every outsider activity that has survived has become an insider activity. In his day, Shakespeare was decried as being for lowlives. Movies were worthless, until everyone was watching movies. When everyone watches TV, you can’t argue it’s dangerous.
In fact, said Spector, he really did think we were in a Golden Age of gaming, because “we have everything.” When it started, there was a (single) culture of gaming dominated by adolescent male power fantasy. Now, we have mindless shooters, we have psychological artsy thrillers, we have massively multiplayer games, and we have games that you can play for two minutes while waiting in a line. We have a thriving indie scene, and more ways to reach more people than ever before. We have girl gamers, younger gamers, and older gamers. This diversity of audience could result in a diversity of content, but Spector said there was “no doubt in [his] mind” that we need to embrace mainstreamers who love what we love, not fear them.
Spector, who has been a nerd (and a Disney lover) all of his life, offered gamers and publishers alike a challenge. Gamers need to demand more from their experiences, he said. They need to vote with their wallets and voice their opinions – but they also had to be willing to let a man who made games about a guy with guns, sunglasses and a trenchcoat go on to make a game about a cartoon mouse. Publishers, on the other hand, need to trust their creative talent. “There’s a truism in the industry that 80 percent of games never turn a profit,” he said. “You could literally not do worse than just trusting your creatives.”
Sometime after Junction Point had been acquired by Disney, said Spector, he’d spoken in front of a group of Pixar employees – some of the brightest and most talented movie-makers in the business – and had told them that movies were the medium of the 20th century, but games were the medium of the 21st century. Of course, he immediately couldn’t believe he’d said that so bluntly, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Games, after all, can celebrate unlimited creativity on the part of the player and the designer.
“[Pixar didn’t] have to believe that,” he said. “But we do.”
We’ve come a long way, said Spector, as he showed the trailer for one of the first games he’d ever worked on – 1989’s Ultima VI – and then segued into the never-before-seen intro to his next title, Disney Epic Mickey. Games have come a long way, and we should act like it.