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An emotional connection to the games we play

Game developer of "Cloud" and others
Game developer Jenova Chen speaks at the 10th Chinese Internet Research Conference held by USC Annenberg (Photo/Andrew Lih)

As a kid in Shanghai, Jenova Chen bartered with his parents for the chance to play video games. He studied computer programming to please his father, but spent his leftover energy playing hours and hours of games copied onto diskettes that he traded with friends. With his parents tightly restricting any outlet other than studies — including novels and TV — Chen thrived on the emotional rush from playing The Legend of Sword and Fairy.

As he got older and his friends started to outgrow video games, Chen realized what was missing: a mature, emotional connection to the entertainment — something bigger than guns, swords and avatars.

Chen, who became an award-winning game developer and changed the landscape of adult Internet gaming, told his story at the 10th Chinese Internet Research Conference held by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He was joined at the gathering by Ge Wang, founder of the video game developer Smule and creator of groundbreaking iPhone and iPad music apps, and Ting Chen, chairman of the Wikimedia Foundation, which supports and oversees Wikipedia.

The guests spoke to a diverse group of students, business and entertainment professionals, game developers, academics and technology leaders at the conference. Other speakers probed a wide range of issues, including the rising influence of microblogs, the explosive growth and development of online games, the mechanics and politics of Internet controls and Beijing’s use of online mapping services as a way to extend its global impact.

Since its inception at USC Annenberg in 2003, the conference has investigated all aspects of the Internet in China, where more than 500 million people — 60 percent more than the entire population of the United States — are on the Internet. The technical aspects include online gaming, microblogging, search engines, e-commerce, content regulation, Internet governance and international domain names. The USC gathering also explored how social media is breaking down barriers of distance and social station.

“People want to know what’s going on within China regarding the Internet,” said Clayton Dube, head of the USC U.S.-China Institute. “How are Internet developments affecting the social, political and economic landscape? And how is China, with its mammoth online population, affecting the Internet for everyone — in terms of governance, economic choices and censorship? Those are the topics we’re exploring here.”

The three keynote speakers, all natives of China, demonstrated the breadth of talent having a strong impact on the Internet and how that country’s users are transforming an understanding of collaborative knowledge, music and video games that evoke complex emotions, said journalism professor Mei Fong, who organized the conference.

“What really distinguished this conference is the keynote speakers,” Fong said. “All three are China-born, Western educated and are forging new paths in the digital era, whether it be music or gaming or knowledge sharing. This is, I think, inspirational to young Chinese people who are being urged by their parents to stick to the ‘safe’ technocrat jobs in technology.

“These three demonstrate that when you marry technology with creativity, the sky’s the limit.”

For Chen, the answer didn’t come right away. He made 12 games before he came up with the idea for Cloud, which was based on a young boy, confined to a hospital room, who dreams of escaping by flying. He developed the game as a student in the Interactive Media Division at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and with the help of a $20,000 grant from USC. Within three weeks of its release in 2005, school servers had trouble keeping up with the demand for downloads.

Chen, who never before had heard from a player, started to receive emails. “One email I received said, ‘Tell everyone involved they’re beautiful people.’ My entire life, no one had ever told me I was beautiful,” he joked.

But the sentiment told him he finally had made the connection he’d always wanted.

“There was something in this project that set it apart,” Chen said. “We tried to analyze what went right. It was a new continent for video games, and the continent was emotion.”

Chen realized people can be hungry for feelings, and he set out to make games that could fulfill the appetite for emotions beyond those sparked solely by excitement, competition and violence.

After earning his master’s degree, Chen co-founded thatgamecompany, which he still serves as creative director, in 2006 and began his work on Flower, a game that took two years and a dozen prototypes. The goal was to create something that was positive, uplifting and challenging.

“We realized how difficult it was to make a game unlike anything that existed,” he said. “It basically is like searching the fog.”

The game, which became a hit, is featured as part of the Art of Video Games, a Smithsonian exhibition.

Chen got the idea for Journey, his latest game, following a conversation with Charles F. Bolden Jr., a former astronaut now serving as the administrator of NASA. Bolden recalled how astronauts’ spiritual selves changed after seeing Earth from space. They felt something that changed their lives — awe.

“The problem with today’s entertainment media is there’s not a lot of awe left,” Chen said. To feel awe, you have to feel small, he explained, but existing video games focus on empowering the user. “You are the center of power.”

The idea of Journey is to strip the player of empowerment — no avatar names, no chatting, no weapons, no detailed mission — to evoke a sense of wonder and awe as users try to navigate a wild and unmarked territory. Players are alone in a desert landscape until they stumble across other online players.

And that interaction is precisely what Chen was seeking. Instead of competing in the games, the natural instinct is to cooperate.

Since its release in March, Journey has become Chen’s most universal game, with popularity spread across the United States, Japan and Europe, and he’s received more than 500 supportive emails from players.

Chen hopes to make the future of video gaming and interactive design even more nuanced to evoke additional emotion, he said. He sees the recent surge in simplistic online games, which use basic programming and little art, as a step backward. He called the trend “heartbreaking.”

“I hope to change that,” he said.

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