When in Rome…

I recently stumbled across a phenomenon that delivers a good model to explain the persistence of certain clichés in culture. Consider car radios. I had to buy one recently. When you buy a new car, it often comes with a nice, generic car radio. It’s often simple and toned down to work well with the car’s interior styling. Bit if it breaks down, you might find yourself in a position of having to replace it. You will soon realize that the market consists exclusively of car radios that look like this:

Car Radio

The car radio industry’s equivalent to Halo.

Which is ok when you are driving a souped-up Nissan GT-R with a huge spoiler and a trunk full of subwoofers and nitrous oxide. Sadly, that’s not what most people drive. Most people drive an Opel Corsa with a booster seat and a trunk full of groceries. So having that kind of radio in your car feels somewhat awkward.

Compare this visual style to what you get when you buy a home audio system. There, the market looks very different. Most products come in some variation of a very minimalistic, toned-down styling like this:

Home Audio System

Dear car radio industry: I would much prefer to have something along the lines of this in my car.

A home audio system is something people put in their living room. It makes sense to make it look not too exuberant so it doesn’t draw to much attention to it. It should harmonize with any kind of furniture and work for every occasion. So why aren’t car radios like this?

I’m not a car radio designer so I can’t tell for sure. But let us IMAGINE we were car radio designers. If we got the job of designing a car radio, the first thing we might do is to review the kind of products we would be competing with. It would become clear that the name of the game is saturated neon colors, organic shapes, lots of LEDs and generally going for a flamboyant, noisy visual impact. It would be difficult to even think of a different approach. And even if we did, it would take a lot of courage, skill and diplomacy. Basically an Asch Conformity Experiment, only with even more peer pressure and where the truth is not even clearly apparent anyway.

I believe this is an example of Groupthink – the inability to think outside of the box simply because the overwhelming unanimity of the group your in. Groupthink is the negative framing for this phenomenon. The positive framing is the old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. After all, we must consider that there are often good reasons for why things are the way they are.

Would a different strategy succeed? The car radio market is certainly financed by a small group of car audio enthusiasts, who invest incredible sums of money into their systems. Enthusiasts, who do drive Nissan GT-Rs or at least wish they would. Designing a car radio that doesn’t cater to this audience, means giving up a huge source of revenue. That radio could try to reach a wider, “causal” audience but it would need to sell significantly more units because that audience isn’t prepared to invest a lot of money into a car audio system. Also, those people don’t buy a new car radio unless they REALLY have to.

And of course, there is a very simple, practical reason for why car radios look like that. Cars are often driven at night with the internal lights turned off. A car radio needs to be usable even in complete darkness. So it makes sense to illuminate the buttons and the display. Now, this is not a reason to make every car radio light up like a Christmas tree. But it may provide us with an explanation why the car radio market drifted into this niche in the first place.

You probably already see where this is going. The video game market is actually very similar to the car radio market in some regard. The video game industry is also fueled by a small, dedicated group of enthusiasts. Video games are also plagued with annoying clichés that often hinder outsiders from getting into this medium and stunt it’s growth. So for example, game design students will often come up with sexist character designs even though their games will never hit that kind of audience. And that’s because they almost subconsciously immitate features of successful games without actually questioning where those tropes come from. And this is especially true for beginning designers because they are still learning and look up to the blockbusters for guidance. I believe that the many examples of sexist portrayal of women in games doesn’t necessarily come from developers deliberately expressing their Misogynist beliefs. They are just memes that might had some economic underpinning at some point, but have been blown out of proportion due to Groupthink. Like with the car radio example, it just seems like the way games should be made in order to be successful.

So what is a game designer to do? Well, the Asch Conformity Experiments show that having just one other divergent voice greatly reduced the chance of an individual yielding to peer pressure. And this is exactly why more experimental indie games can do a lot of good. They don’t even need to outsell the Call of Dutys. Simply being out there will help game designers consider alternatives. Developing climates where up-and-coming designers are encouraged to experiment – presumably in academic programs (like the CGL #shamelessplug) is will also help.

But these will all just help. It still takes us designers to stand up and reflect upon what kind of culture we are creating. So when in Rome, don’t do like the Romans do. Get mad! Make life take back the Romans. Demand to see life’s manager. I don’t want your damn Romans! What am I supposed to do with these? Do you even know who I am? I’m the man who’s gonna burn your house down! With the Romans!

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

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The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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