Games Don’t Need a Message to Be Smart

It’s a common mistake to assume that the delivery of some big message or the exploration of some weighty modern theme indicates the possession of an underlying intelligence. Thus, there’s an incorrect perception by some commentators on the game industry that games which do feature these elements are necessarily “smarter” than their counterparts that do not.

This naïve and unfortunate attitude is on display in full force in a new interview on Gamasutra with Derek Littlewood, the Project Lead of the forthcoming Haze—not by him, but by the hysterical game industry journalist that is interviewing him. “Did you make Haze because you were simply fed up with the stupidity of most video games?” he asks at one point. Later on he repeats much the same thing, in an accusatory way: “Why are games so stupid? Who's to blame?” Beyond being bad journalism, this is a completely misguided line of questioning. A game (in fact, any form of art) does not need to have a message to be smart.

A good counter-example is Portal. Erik Wolpaw, its writer, made this point in a sly way in his own recent interview:

Also, there is cake. Why’s that?

Well, there are lots of message games coming out now. Like they’ve got something really important to get off their chest about the war in Iraq or the player is forced to make some dicey underwater moral choices. Really, just a whole heck of a lot of stuff to think about. With that in mind, at the beginning of the Portal development process, we sat down as a group to decide what philosopher or school of philosophy our game would be based on. That was followed by about fifteen minutes of silence and then someone mentioned that a lot of people like cake.