30 Years Later, One Man Is Still Trying To Fix Video Games

30 Years Later, One Man Is Still Trying To Fix Video Games

Chris Crawford owns 29,216 small plastic beads. Each bead is one of eight colours, and there are 3,652 beads in each colour group. One bead represents a single day in Crawford’s life. Each colour group, therefore, represents one decade. The yellow beads are his childhood. The black beads are his teens. The greens are his inexperienced twenties, the oranges his restless thirties, the navy blues his settling forties and so on, all the way up to bead 29,216, which will represent his eightieth birthday.

Chris Crawford owns two jars. One is filled with the beads that represent his past, and the other is filled with the beads that represent his potential future.

Every morning, Crawford takes a bead from the jar that holds his future days and places it into the jar that holds the past. While he performs the ritual he tells himself not to waste the day.

This routine reminds him that life is finite. Each jar represents how much life Crawford has already lived, and offers an approximation of how many days he might have left.

Today, Crawford is 60-three. “I have already expended most of my beads,” he wrote on his blog a few years ago, when he turned 60. “There aren’t that many beads left, to finish everything that I want to do in my life.”

Some might view the daily ritual as morbid: a grim reminder of one’s mortality. For Crawford, it’s a daily call to arms, a ceremony to inspire action. After all, he has much left to achieve, not least his life’s work: trying to fix video games.

At the 1992 Games Developer Conference, an annual gathering of thousands of game makers that to this day remains the world’s largest, Crawford demonstrated a talent for showmanship with a speech that marked his exit from the mainstream video games industry.

His choice of event was apropos. The inaugural GDC in 1988 was held in Crawford’s living room. In a sugary Southern drawl that masked the grim determination of his words, he accused the assembled game designers of being too narrow in their creative efforts. (The speech is on YouTube, in five parts.)

The video game industry was, he proclaimed, in the business of recycling tired ideas that were dressed in ever-prettier clothing. The great plains of the medium’s unexplored territory were left unexplored.

The speech reached its climax Crawford declared his frustration at working at “cross-purposes” with the industry. From this moment forward he vowed to pursue the dragon of invention in video games. “You frighten me!,” he said, addressing the metaphorical beast. “But I’m going to die someday, and before I can do that, I’ve got to face you, eyeball to eyeball. I’ve got to look you right in the eye, and see what’s inside… Today. Here. Now. Come, dragon, I will fight you.”

Crawford reached into a bag and withdrew a sword.

“For truth!” he yelled. “For beauty! For art! Charge!” With that final battle cry he ran from the auditorium and the industry that he had helped define.

“You frighten me!,” he said, addressing the metaphorical beast. “But I’m going to die someday, and before I can do that, I’ve got to face you, eyeball to eyeball.”

When Crawford turned 60, eighteen years after this speech, he wrote on his blog of how his death, which in 1992 had seemed so far away (“I’m going to die some day,” he airily noted in his famous speech) now felt close. “It certainly looks as if I am a washed-up failure,” he wrote.

Frustrated with the great many video games that used cutscenes rather than gameplay mechanics to tell their stories, Crawford had dedicated his life to finding new and better ways to tell tales via the medium.

“I believe that I’ve hit upon a solid approach to interactive storytelling and that someday the world will appreciate my work,” he wrote. “But with each passing day the evidence of my failure mounts.”

On that sixtieth birthday he renewed his vow to ‘fight the dragon’ saying: “I promise myself this: I will take one last shot at it. I will build Le Morte D’Arthur. I may fail. But I will give it one last try. This will end with either an epic triumph or my acknowledgement that my life is a failure and I truly am a washed-up loser.”

In the past three years Crawford has released two further games that embody his ideas and thinking. Both have been resolute commercial failures, lending credence to his grim verdict at 60. But Crawford remains a determined man.

In 2013, somewhere in the mountains of Southern Oregon, in a house on a plot of around 40 acres, Crawford spends much of his time blogging about his pets (living and deceased) or how to forge swords or the time he fixed his tractor.

He builds strange follies (for example, a laser that beams across one of his fields. “What’s it for? I don’t know.”), posts political essays (in one he calls for the banning of personal mobile phones) and works on his set of eleven life goals (Number 7: Build a geodesic sphere at least 3 meters in diameter.)

He also spends his days trying to fix a problem that he believes few other people in the video game industry recognise. This problem, according to Crawford, is that video games are, from the most expensive blockbuster shooting game to the humblest text adventure, fundamentally about spatial reasoning, moving around a level, working out whether there’s a monster hiding behind a crate and so on. This is, he says, a creative “dead-end”. It’s “boring”.

The simplest way to test Crawford’s theory, he explains, is to “look at the verbs”: the things that you or your character can do in a game.

“Think any shooter on the market right now,” he recently told me. “These are the verbs you’re given as a player: ‘Turn’. ‘Run’. ‘Jump’. ‘Aim.’ ‘Shoot’. There are maybe a dozen primary verbs and a few secondary ones like ‘Pick Up’ and ‘Drop’. It’s so thin.”

If the diagnosis is scrawniness, which verbs, I asked him, do video games need to learn in order to fill out?

“In life,” he replied, “the single most important and regular statement that humans make to one another is: ‘I like you’ and ‘I don’t like you’. We have a million ways to say this, and we use them every day. The verbs we need to learn in games are all to do with social reasoning, not spatial reasoning.”

Crawford argues that it’s impossible to tell a story without social reasoning. “Have you ever seen a movie where they just shoot things, or move from room to room?” he says. “Whenever they turn a video game into a movie, they insert a relationship. In video games, the only way we explore relationships is through cut-scenes. The designers take a fixed story and scatter it through the game in bits and pieces. Video games don’t know how to tell stories yet.”

Crawford’s disappointment with the contemporary video game industry runs deep. He sees games such as Mass Effect, that have attempted to introduce social reasoning into the more traditional mix of action verbs as resolute failures.

“While there’s vast technological progress has been made, in the last 20 years there has been absolutely zero progress in coming to grips with the fundamentals of storytelling,” he says. Games are bigger, splashier and more thorough, but they have made no progress on the fundamentals. It’s like watching the evolution of sailing ships: they grew bigger, faster, sleeker, but nobody had an inkling to put an engine in one of them.”

For game designers attempting to tell stories about relationships through game mechanics rather than cutscenes, Crawford’s criticisms may appear churlish. Fumito Ueda’s seminal PlayStation 2 title Ico told a story of love and custody through the simple yet elegant interactive verb: hold hands. In 2013, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons attracted critical praise for its affecting story of sibling attachment.

Crawford shrugs off accusations he’s out of touch with the work that other designers have done in this area; for him it’s just not enough. “Every now and then I spend some time with the latest, best stuff,” he says, “and every time I get mad about how little progress these designers have made.”

The problem, according to Crawford, is that video games are, from the most expensive blockbuster shooting game to the humblest text adventure, fundamentally about spatial reasoning, not social reasoning.

Crawford was born and raised in Houston, Texas, a place he denounces with almost as much vehemence as the industry in which he made his name. “I’ve gone back there a couple of times, and I’ve concluded it’s probably the ugliest city in the country,” he says. “It’s no accident than Enron was headquartered there and that George Bush arose from that city.”

As a child Crawford didn’t play many formal games, but he was attracted to exploration and peril. He spent his time investigating a coastal creek near to his home that was filled with turtles and snakes. There was a spot where he and a friend would throw rocks at passing cars. In 1961, at the age of eleven as Hurricane Carla bore down on Houston, Crawford made a wagon with a bed sheet for a sail. Once the streets were deserted he took his cart outside and let the sheet fill with wind and carry him through the town faster and faster till he crashed.

The family household was filled with books. His father subscribed to the Time/Life series of science books, which Crawford would voraciously read. They instilled a hunger for exploration that only intensified when he met Edmund Hillary, the first person to summit Mt. Everest, following a lecture in the city.

The young Crawford also possessed the spirit or defiance and solitude that would characterise his adult work and life. “I was an odd kid,” he says, “But I wanted to be odd. I was acutely aware of the pressures to conform in that age group, and I actively spat in the face of those pressures. I’d tuck my pants into my socks for no other reason than to declare: ‘I’m different’. That got me beat up a lot.”

Crawford was also a top tier student. Bored with the syllabus, he would study calculus under his desk in mathematics class, a quiet rebellion that his teacher let slide. “But I was also a social nincompoop,” he says. “I had no concept of how to relate to other people.” That is a convenient backstory for any biographer hoping to explain Crawford’s later fascination with making games that explore or, perhaps, explain relationships. It’s not the whole story. The young Crawford was no recluse. “Despite everything, I seemed to attract good friends,” he says.

“I was an odd kid, but I wanted to be odd. I was acutely aware of the pressures to conform in that age group, and I actively spat in the face of those pressures. I’d tuck my pants into my socks for no other reason than to declare: ‘I’m different’. That got me beat up a lot.

While studying for his master’s in physics, Crawford was introduced by a friend to the boardgame Blitzkrieg. He became obsessed with war-games but was frustrated at their lack of realism. “When personal computers became available I realised you could create fog of war so you couldn’t see what your opponent was doing,” he says. Rather than buying a computer, in the late 70s Crawford purchased a kit and built one himself. While he was teaching physics in a small community college in Nebraska he taught himself to program and build is first computer war-game, Tanktics.

It was during this time that Nolan Bushnell founded Atari and released Pong. “One of my students introduced me to the game,” he says. “It was rather dull as a game, but the notion that I could interact with something on a television set was exotic. I remember staring at the screen and wiggling the paddle back and forth. The effect was considerable.”

Despite Crawford’s fascination with this emerging technology, he had no interest in pursuing video games as a career. He and his wife moved to Silicon Valley after she landed a job there as an electrical engineer. Crawford secured an interview with a small company that made video games. The interviewer showed Crawford one of the company’s arcade games and offered him a turn. “I declined,” he says. “All of these arcade games were what was known at the time as ‘skill and action’ games. I found them so tiresome.” Nevertheless, Crawford had begun to sell his homegrown games through cheap advertisements in the back of computer magazines — he was, he boasts, one of the first people in the world to self-publish video games. “I sold 100 copies of Tanktics and 150 copies of my next game, Legionnaire,” he recalls.

Crawford needed a job. He saw a classified advertisement for game programmers at Atari but, despite having self-published two games, was turned down at the interview for not having enough experience. Later that week Crawford’s wife, Kathy, picked up the phone directory, ran her finger down the page in search of a company that her husband could apply to. Her finger settled on Atari. She called the company the next morning and, when the human resources person discovered that Crawford was also an ‘Aggie’ (a slang term for a graduate of University of California at Davis) he was invited for another interview that week. In September 1979 he began working the job for which Atari had initially turned him down. He was 29.

Crawford’s natural talent for programming was immediately clear. He was trained to make games for the Atari 2600 (“a very messy and complicated machine”) and revealed himself as “one of the fastest learners at Atari,” as he puts it today. Crawford completed his first game, Wizard, in just four months. Even on this first project he eschewed the usual ‘skill and action’ theme of Atari’s other releases for a game focused on strategic thinking. However, the marketing department turned Wizard down, asking that he refit the game in one of the company’s new 4k chips that allowed for improved graphics. When he told them this work would take six months, they declined the offer.

Another of his early games was more successful. Released in November 1980, Eastern Front (1941) was a game in which players commanded troops during Germany’s invasion of Russia in World War II. It was the first computer game to use a scrolling map (“Nobody had ever done scrolling with computers. It blew people away.”) The game was critically acclaimed and won numerous awards.

At that time Crawford worked alongside a young Mark Cerny, the wunderkind programmer who would later design the architecture of Sony’s PlayStation 4. It was another staff member that provided the greatest influence on Crawford’s career trajectory: Alan Kay, a Turing Award-winner whose pioneering work led to the creation of laptops, tablets and e-book readers. Kay pushed Crawford to do better in everything he made. He would tell his friend: “If you don’t fail at least 90 per cent of the time, you’re not aiming high enough.”

Failure was certainly looming. At the start of 1983 Atari had 11,000 employees. Within 18 months that number would fall to fewer than a thousand. The video game market crashed. “I had been warning people in Atari that we needed to broaden our product line,” Crawford says. “We were selling the same old games over and over. I was making weird games in the research department, hoping to find interesting ideas to build into full releases. But I thought we’d have plenty of time. We didn’t.”

Today Crawford says that it’s difficult today to appreciate the magnitude of the collapse. “Everybody in the industry lost their job,” he says. “Games went from the hot product to being junk that nobody wanted. Nobody could find any work. It was a catastrophe at a community level.”

Unable to find new work, most of his fellow employees moved to new industries. Crawford decided to strike out on his own, becoming one of the first indie game-makers.

Understanding consumers’ disinterest in buying the same old games, Crawford decided to subvert his own passion for war games and create an “un-war” game, where the game would be lost if war broke out. “Balance of Power was about the geopolitics that could lead up to a war,” he says. “People who grew up under the threat of nuclear war had this deep, basic feeling of insecurity that at any moment the world could blow up. I wanted to show people that it could be avoided. That, with the right diplomatic approach, you could prevent nuclear war.”

Eighteen months after the crash there was “a new class of customers arising,” he says. These were consumers who bought personal computers for word processing and other tasks, but who maybe wanted a game to unwind with at the end of the working day. “Balance of Power was perfect for that audience.” Indeed, he says the game generated $US400,000. The financial ruin that threatened Crawford when he was made redundant was averted. Moreover, this game demonstrated that video games could be “about something, an idea, something more than skill, reaction or dominance”.

Crawford felt optimistic: “To me it looked as if video games were going to blossom into a genuine art-form.

“But that did not happen.”

Despite Balance of Power‘s commercial success, Crawford’s view of the industry grew dimmer as it re-emerged, once again focusing not on new ideas and invention, but on graphical prowess.

“Games became more common and more vulgar in the process,” he says. “I fought that trend as hard as I could. I tried to make games with a message, or with ideas: political, social, personal, artist — anything other than the mindless shoot ’em ups. But I was fighting a losing battle.” Crawford blames this retreat from invention on Wing Commander, Chris Roberts’ and Warren Spector’s science fiction space simulation series. “Video games become this nasty arms race over graphics,” he says. “Companies would spend more and more money on graphics. With Wing Commander it became a race: who can have more imagery.”

While Crawford retreated to the periphery of the industry in terms of game releases, thanks to the Computer Games Development Conference, he was still at the center of the conversation about what they might be. Crawford organised the first GDC in 1988. 27 designers attended, meeting in Crawford’s living room in San Jose, California. Between sessions he made everyone lunch. Each subsequent year the conference grew considerably in size — at this year’s conference, attended by the world’s brightest and best designers, there were 23,000 attendees.

Crawford’s 1992 speech in which he vowed to conquer the dragon was the culmination of his frustration at Wing Commander et al. “I realised that I had failed to convince the industry to explore a broad range of topics in games. I had hoped publishers would follow the Hollywood model: spending most of their money on the blockbusters while funding weird things that might take off. But game publishers were too dumb and didn’t realise the importance of that model. That’s how they got into this rut. I could see that this was doomed. If they didn’t expand their range of offerings they would fail.”

Nevertheless Crawford remained on the GDC board. By 1994 the event was generating a huge amount of revenue. With money came division and, after a series of disagreements, Crawford was ejected from the board. He began legal proceedings against the decision, eventually settling for a pay-off of $US98,000. At the same time, he wrote, the board sold the conference for $US3,000,000, splitting the proceeds.

For Crawford, it seemed to be a devastating betrayal. “I went into a deep depression that gripped me for two years,” he says. But despite his rejection of “vulgar” action games, it was precisely one such game that he turned to as a salve for his wounds. “I couldn’t do anything,” he says. “I played Doom, watched TV, and cried a lot. It was difficult to concentrate. I kept ruminating about it, trying to understand what happened. I simply could not conceive that people whom I had known, liked, and trusted, could be capable of such evil behaviour. I never really resolved the matter emotionally; the scars simply healed over. They’re still there.”

“I realised that I had failed to convince the industry to explore a broad range of topics in games.”

When Crawford finally emerged from the fug of depression, his withdrawal from the mainstream industry was complete. He began to search for the solution to the problems he perceived in the medium.

In 1997 he released The Erasmatron, a game-making tool that modelled virtual characters with complex personality traits. These characters could inhabit a story world in which players could live out adventures. Dense and difficult to navigate, The Erasmatron (and its expanded follow-up Storytron) was a critical and commercial failure. “The biggest mistake I made was in trying to build a system for other people to build interactive stories with,” he says. “I should have gotten it working all by myself, first. You don’t build a factory for cars before you’ve actually built the car. I wasted years on building tools.”

The failure was costly. Crawford borrowed money from friends and re-mortgaged his house to fund Storytron, only finally laying the project to rest in 2012.

More commercial failures followed: a failed Kickstarter for a remake of one of his earlier games, Balance of the Planet and most recently 2013’s Gossip (now called Teen Talk), an iOS and Android gameabout social relationships that has sold almost no copies. Despite these failures and the sad pronouncement that he has “achieved far less in the past 20 years than I thought I would” Crawford believes his work is important and will provide inspiration and guidance to subsequent generations of designers.

“I am probably further along than anybody else with this stuff,” he says. “But I am sure I will never solve the problem. I’m the guy in The Great War who hurls himself onto the barbed wire so the guys behind me can climb across.” The futility of the metaphor is clear, but Crawford doesn’t see it that way.

“The indie game developers are… the ones who will save video games.”

“I am disappointed I have not solved the problem,” he says. “But at the same time I believe I am making genuine progress. I’m what Robert Goddard was to rocketry. In the 1930s he started shooting rockets in the air. He didn’t put a man on the moon; but he laid down the basic principles that other people developed.”

Those “other people” will come, Crawford believes, for the indie game scene. “The indie game developers are doing what the publishers should have been doing decades ago,” he says. “They are the ones who will save video games.” He believes that the games industry has traditionally failed to offer artists any real freedom.

“In a healthy medium you have artists pushing the limits,” he says. “Most of them push in the wrong direction and fail. Every now and again someone pushes in an interesting direction and everyone follows. It’s not happening in games, apart from indies. Of course, most of their stuff is crap. But every now and again someone comes along with something that is new, different and interesting.”

Despite the failures, Crawford has few regrets. “The primary value of what I’m doing is setting a milestone on the road,” says. “It’s trying to demonstrate that there are other ways to approach gameplay.” There is, nevertheless, a melancholy when he addresses his achievements. “Looking at my mistakes I’m disappointed with myself. I made some serious blunders.”

While Crawford may hold the mainstream video game industry with disdain, referring to publishers as “dumb” and their games as “crap”, the passion he holds for this medium’s potential is clear. In conversation his keen mind darts off at tangents, exploring interesting asides, dipping into biology, social history and human science as he attempts to explain why video games have grown up in the way that they have.. He rarely minces his words (the increasingly popular game-making software Twine is “fundamentally wrong headed”) while the ‘Interactive Fiction community’ is “slow to learn”. At one point he recites the nursery rhyme ‘Incy Wincy Spider’ and points to it as an example of a perfectly formed story.

As he toils away in the Oregon mountains, making curiosities that see little success, it’s unclear whether Crawford is a misunderstood genius or misguided eccentric. Either way, the industry continues to iterate on its core ideas, undaunted by his prophetic proclamations. Even if Activision admits to ‘Call of Duty fatigue’, whereby game-players grow tired of endless yearly updates of the franchise, the raw numbers ensure that there’s little incentive to explore new territory when the old land continues to yield such bountiful financial rewards.

When set against the landscape of the current gaming scene, Crawford can appear closer to a fool than a visionary. It’s a view that he partially acknowledged in his famous 1992 speech, when he compared his “insanity” to that of the hero of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. “Yeah, Don Quixote was a crazy old fool,” he said at the time. “But, you know, he was more honest about his dream than most people.”

In some ways, Crawford’s honesty has defined his destiny. Whether or not you count him as a crazy old fool is something to ponder the next time you play a game and consider its tired, almost ritualistic verbs: move, aim, shoot, die.

As you ponder the verbs of gaming, Crawford will continue to take a bead from the small glass jar and places it into the large one — one bead per day.

And, every day, he vows that this bead won’t add to the pile of disappointments, but will instead build a legacy.

Simon Parkin is an award-winning writer and journalist. He regularly contributes to The New Yorker, The Guardian and many others, especially writing on video games, the people who make them and the stories around them.


  • I might be interpreting him wrong but everything he seems to be wanting the games industry to ‘change into’ already exists. It’s called Indie games and they are becoming more popular every day. Indie doesn’t even mean independent anymore, there’s been a bunch of published games (Bastion?) that are considered ‘Indie’ because it’s become it’s own genre.

    The games he’s tried getting kickstarted recently would seem to fit into this so I really don’t see how he can criticise the industry…. perhaps they just weren’t very good games?

    • I think what he meant by wanting it to change was more directed at the big wigs like ea and activision. Suggesting they put out more indie style small titles.

  • That was actually a pretty good read.

    After reading that I’m glad that Sony has taking the initiative to introduce more and more indie game into their library of titles. These days an indie game is a lot more polished that any triple A game is, and offers a better story or plot, whether the game only goes for 1-2hours, or if it’s infinite.

    Maybe Mark Cerny has finally realised that what Chris Crawford was trying, is what will bring games back to life, rather than the copy and paste jobs, big explosion, multiple cutscene games that are out their now. He still also 100% correct about Chris Robberts. In star citizen his one main aspect is about the visual quality of the game, but it’s not as bad as it was with wind commander. At least he’s trying to innovate with his work now.

  • Chris Crawford is absolutely right. Even text adventures and basic puzzle based games have such black and white consequence, next level or die/start over… FPS has especially stagnated since Chris’ removal of himself from the system, even becoming more linear and character controlled with little room for emotive exploration.
    Games still need easy ways for players to relate, basic actions; run, open, shoot, jump are easier for the players themselves to understand and be more comfortable with than; understand, like, care, loath. Further, designing mechanics to inspire players to provoke this strain of response is certainly out of the current norm and I think that any game that attempts to focus on emotive exploration and tries to deviate too much from the current stagnated formula of run, jump, shoot, die is doomed to failure at this time. Gamers are too accustomed to current games design and will actively revolt unless gradually introduced to the richer design Chris propseds rather that an entire paradigm shift. Also, the POINT of playing games at this time seems to be lost. It seems most fun is now derived by “winning” or “completing” the game, in Chris’ games the players need to understand, accept and enjoy the experience, detaching from the idea “to finish is to win” and “to die is to lose” instead “to play, learn and experienc e is to enjoy”.

  • Without a doubt Chris is passionate person; but sadly I strongly believe he doesn’t fully understand what he really wants in a game. Although I wish for him to succeed, he seems too out of touch in my honest opinion – basing on his Kickstarter video that seems a little creepy/scary or his insults towards games, refusing to admit (or ignorant to the fact) there are games that have emotional impact without cutscenes with examples mentioned earlier by Simon (Ico and A tales of two sons). I’d really hate to start the discussion of “Is games truly an art form” nonsense considering “art” is an expression of human imagination, which in my view it definitely is.

    A great piece by Simon Parkin.

  • Today, Crawford is 60-three.

    Guys. Come on now. This isn’t the first time you’ve done this. Every respectable style guide out there says explicitly not to do this.

    • Get used to it honey. From now on, we’ll be spelling everything with an awkward mixture of numbers and letters.

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