Computer and Video games are a bigger business than the movies, and the biggest force in games is Electronic Arts — a company whose blockbuster titles dazzle millions of customers and generate billions of dollars in sales. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at a creative powerhouse.
At Electronic Arts, creativity is built on a foundation of management discipline. The company even takes a disciplined approach to the challenge of developing creative leaders. Producers and designers at each studio meet throughout the year for a series of workshops. A dancer came in to talk about how movement can be used to express physical and emotional states. A film expert talked about the use of music in silent films. The idea behind the program is simple yet effective, says Andy Billings, vice president of human resources: Expose creative leaders to other art forms and ideas, and see what rubs off.
This past September, the guest speaker was Henry Jenkins, a director of the comparative media-studies program at MIT and a passionate gamer. Imagine the motion-picture industry in its infancy, when it had been around for only 25 years, he told the group. “That’s where you are now,” said Jenkins. “Video games will be the most important American art form for the 21st century.”
The challenge for EA’s game creators is figuring out how to build an industry and how to create lasting art. In a previous workshop, Jenkins talked about narrative structure, character development, and memorable moments in Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Poe. “What can you put in a game that will endure?” he asked. Over two days, EA’s creative leaders pondered these and other issues. The nature of fandom. The propensity of rule-breaking and how designers might encourage this to enhance a game. And the importance of leaving space in a game for imagination, or the “meta game.” Meaning that the game continues in the player’s mind even when the console is switched off.
That’s how the creativity sessions are supposed to work as well. “We’re taking a group of people who more or less grew up with ‘fight or flight’ video games and saying, ‘We can’t just have great graphics,’” says Rusty Rueff, senior VP of human resources at EA. “There has to be deep, nuanced storytelling.”
Between presentations, producers and designers played video games. As they deconstructed competitors, there was gleeful criticism, along with something else: genuine admiration when they saw something unexpected. They couldn’t help it. Deep down, they’re gamers.