Arts·The Artists

The Dragon Slayer: Meet the reclusive visionary who saw what video games could be

Chris Crawford, who worked with Atari at their peak, "understands that games are just the human condition remixed."

Chris Crawford 'understands that games are just the human condition remixed'

Though his industry was becoming increasingly concerned with the bottom line, Chris Crawford understood that video games could revolutionize storytelling.

Chris Crawford had his Jerry Maguire moment in 1992, where he gave what was termed "The Dragon Speech" — an impassioned call to arms, equating his goal for games as a medium for artistic expression as a metaphorical slaying of the dragon.

Close to 25 years later, he's no closer to completing his quest. What happened?

In this episode of The Artists, we meet Chris Crawford on his sprawling ranch in Oregon. He's a unique character, with an almost carnival barker's voice as one of his trademark characteristics (as heard in that famous speech). We see a man at a crossroads — he's had failure after failure in terms of the games he has been working on and he wonders where it all went wrong.

Watch a clip:

The Artists: The Dragon Slayer clip

5 years ago
Duration 1:30
Though his industry was becoming increasingly concerned with the bottom line, Chris Crawford understood that video games could revolutionize storytelling.

Watch the full episode.

Flash back to 1992. We see Crawford dressed in a slap-dash outfit resembling a medieval knight. He is speaking at the renowned Game Developers Conference, which he founded in his living room only six years prior. This is what is now called "The Dragon Speech" — Crawford's impassioned call for change in the game industry. He steadfastly believed that video games had an incredible potential for creating art, but the industry instead was just concerned with the bottom line. He outwardly challenged the designers and developers in the audience. With a theatrical, "For truth! For beauty! For art! Charge!" Crawford finished his speech by galloping out of the room.

(CBC Arts)

Crawford would never return to the industry that he was so integral to in the 70s and 80s. Like many designers, he started with a fascination with board games — in particular historical war-based games — and he soon grew to realize that the power of the computer could bring the fundamentals of the board game to life. He went to work at Atari at the height of their influence and power. There, he learned to stay true to his voice no matter what. 

The game is a medium of expression. It's something I do because I have something to say about the way I see the world.- Chris Crawford

After the collapse of Atari, he struck out on his own, creating the seminal game Balance of Power, which came out in 1985. He also started the Game Developers Conference in his living room in 1988 with 26 of his contemporaries. Each progressive year, the conference grew exponentially. This would set up Crawford for his ultimate betrayal. In 1994, the GDC wrestled control from Crawford and in turn, sold the rights to the conference in upwards of $3 million.

(CBC Arts)

It was difficult for Crawford to recover — but he did, after a time, devote himself to his work. He ended up devoting his life to creating an interactive storytelling system, attempting to recreate the incredibly complex real-life world of people and their relationships in the confines of a computer. It hasn't been easy; Crawford has been moving increasingly to the fringes of the computer gaming industry. But he still holds out hope that he will be able to finally once and for all slay his dragon.

Watch all ten episodes of The Artists now, a new CBC Arts series about the video game designers who changed the world.