While game creation is rapidly becoming more accessible to the “average” person, the makeup of the game creation community is nowhere near as diversified and inclusive as it could be. Bennett Foddy's “State of the Union” keynote at IndieCade emphasized the importance of making sure that the independent game space is one full of diverse voices. Before that, Anna Anthropy's Rise of the Videogame Zinesters examined the ways in which “dreamers, drop-outs, queers” and anyone with a will to create could shape the future of games. Both of these discussions of game development devote a section to software tools that enable game designers to create projects without engaging directly with code. While I feel that “no coding needed” development tools are obviously a boon to the community, I sometimes look at my own story and wonder if we're placing too great an emphasis on steering clear of the strange, arcane task of programming.
I don't mean to say that either Anna Anthropy or Bennett Foddy would suggest that someone who wants to learn to code ought not to learn. But what I do mean to say is this:
I was in 6th grade when I first attempted to make a video game. I discovered the bootlegged fan translation of Enterbrain's RPG Maker 2000, and after realizing that I was never going to use it for my overambitious 16-bit epic, I continued using it to make prototypes of every type of game imaginable. I used it to recreate casino games, a first-person games about fishing, and even a Diner Dash clone. At the time, RM2k (as the English-speaking community lovingly called it) had no built-in scripting support – all logic was handled by “events,” which were chains of instructions that had to be painstakingly chosen from four pages of command possibilities. I was trying to write Bioshock with ChipWits. While my friends on IRC graduated to using Python and C++, I stuck with RPG Maker, because it was the only thing I knew – and I couldn't possibly code. That was something entirely outside the realm of possibility.
I'm not sure where I picked up the idea of programming being a task that would be impossible for me, but I can guess. In primary school, I excelled in reading and writing, but was always an average student when it came to STEM subjects. I didn't dislike math -- in fact, I loved it -- but I still distinctly remember my disappointment at being excluded from the special ice-cream parties held at lunch on Fridays, only open to second-graders who performed particularly well on their multiplication table tests. STEM was, quite literally, a party to which I was not invited. And I remember feeling that same disappointment as I walked away from my academic advisor's office as during my freshman orientation week, after being talked out of enrolling in an introductory CS course even though my math placement tests placed me into the for-majors sequence, because the 101 courses are actually really hard, and they use this course uses a tricky language called Haskell that you will never use again, and remind me again why you want to take this when you want to be a classicist?
To be fair, this particular course would have hands down, inarguably, indubitably kicked my ass. What upsets me is not that I was discouraged from taking this course, but rather that no one ever mentioned to me the myriad of other CS classes that would have fulfilled my core requirements. I didn't need them, because I was a "humanities person," and I remained a "humanities person" in games, too.
I wish that, just once, someone had let me step into programming and look around. I wish that at some point, when I was struggling with RPG Maker and Stencyl and goodness knows what else, someone would have said, "Hey, you know you could do this in Flash, right? You know that actual scripting isn't that big of a leap from Scratch?" and that I had tried -- just once -- to actually open an editor and write some code. It would not have been brilliant code. My code still isn't brilliant code. It's clunky, it errors, it's rarely beautiful. But I feel like I own the games that I code myself in a way that I have never owned the games I make with the drag-and-drop constructors. For me, code is more accessible than so-called "accessible" game making software, and I would hate for even one more fledgling game developer to be discouraged from trying to code things from the bottom up because it's "too hard."
The secret and arcane language of computers does not have to be exclusive. While tools like Game Maker and Construct 2 have allowed thousands of newcomers to the medium to create something incredible, for me, they were a crutch. It was only when I finally started programming, in my senior year of college, that I realized that building things from the ground up would finally give me the control and precision I had been searching in design.
Some game designers try writing code, and they hate it, and that's fine. It's incredibly important that people who find programming inaccessible for whatever reason find the means to create what they want to create. But removing programming from the game creation toolchain isn't the singular answer to leveling the playing field. As long as people are calling for the wider availability of authoring tools that don't require programming knowledge, I'd like to propose that it's just as important to give designers who have never touched code an introduction to the game programmer's toolbox. If it's impossible to decouple programming from its reputation as a type of magic, let's at least make sure it's a type of magic everyone can understand.
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