Saturday, October 07, 2006

Well that was the introduction (posted yesterday), and this is the next bit. Like the intro, it still needs work:

This essay looks at how game developers perceive themselves and their work within the context of a wider artistic tradition, and some of the recent industry debates around this topic. It’s hard, however, to draw a clear line between the game industry and the art/academic world while there is a growing collaboration and awareness between the industry and the new academic discipline of Game Studies. On the other hand the game industry is notorious for being a particularly insular world. I have often been surprised to watch debates play out in both industry and academic circles, seemingly with little idea that the very same discussions (albeit using expressed quite differently) are being mirrored in these parallel universes.

Where to look for clues? beyond self-identification

In any discussion of game developers’ and "art", it would be ill-advised to limit ourselves to what developers actually say directly on the topic. Aside from anything else, it is not a topic often discussed in any depth.

Occasionally I see debates on developer forums: “are we artists? Is this art?”, and so forth. These conversations are usually very unsophisticated; the history of aesthetics is not a level designers’ forte, and why would it be? The debates usually resolve themselves with a chorus of “who cares?” and I find myself sympathizing.

It’s clear that most game developers feel rather alienated from “high cultural” tradition and the discourse that accompanies it. . First, the world of fine art itself is often completely unfamiliar to them, as it is arguably to the greater part of society anyway. The game development scene has evolved completely outside of the conventional arts world.
But some of the feelings commonly expressed by game developers reflect more than just a sense of foreignness, there is a also a sense of alienation: comprising suspicion, defensiveness and even reverse snobbery. This sense of alienation is unsurprising. Games are not only denied respect in our society, they are regularly brought out as a whipping boy blamed for many of society’s ills and restrained by the state, which then goes and actively supports “good” entertainment like ballet, fine art and classical music.

For these reasons, conceiving of and articulating ideas about arts practice in a traditional sense is naturally less current within this milieu. So how do we look for clues about “arts practice” and the idea of the “artist” within the game development scene?

Certainly, self-identification, though apparently a defining factor in the traditionally circular definition of art (“What is art? That which is produced by an artist. What is an artist? He/she that produces art.” [reference]), could be a rather unhelpful indicator of consciousness within the games industry. It’s possibly as inappropriate as requiring that a refugee say “I claim political asylum under the UN Convention of 1951” in perfect English in order to receive refugee status [reference].

Perhaps I have not escaped my conditioning as a game developer, because from a personal perspective, moreover, I’m almost tempted to think of the label “artist” as a bit of a branding exercise anyway.

Jack Kroll of Newsweek certainly saw it like that when he seized upon Sony’s marketing campaign for the Playstation 2:

Why can't these game wizards be satisfied with their ingenuity, their $7 billion (and rising) in sales, their capture of a huge chunk of youth around the world? Why must they claim that what they are doing is "art"? And should anyone care whether this emerging medium is art or not? The point is, the game designers care. They lust after the title of Artist.

Well no, actually in this case, it’s the brand managers that care. It is marketing departments, not game designers, who create advertising campaigns that trumpet pompous and self-aggrandizing comments conflating games technology with aesthetic meaningfulness [the article was written in response to Sony’s claim that the “Emotion Engine” – the central processing unit of the Playstation 2 – was so powerful that it would create “emotions”]. While Jack Kroll is reactionary and hopelessly analytically superficial in his discussion, the most striking irony was that he was not the first to feel that his intelligence had been profoundly insulted by Sony’s marketing hype.

Game developers felt insulted first.

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