Tuesday, October 31, 2006

3rd to last section of the draft...

Can I just ask, would normal people these days recognise this Nancy Mitford reference? Should I take it out?

Love in a cold climate: game developers and their cultural environment

The way a game developer frames the potential of their work is also tempered by cultural realities. How do game developers see themselves in terms of creators of culture within a social context?

The game medium has a long way to go in terms of audience development, specifically the evolution of an audience actively looking beyond the mainstream for thought-provoking and meaningful experiences from games. The public has simply had little exposure, let alone access, to non-mainstream game content, and as a result audience expectations are limited. The thought that there does not yet exist an audience for more challenging ideas can only be discouraging for aspiring game design innovators. In this sense, aspiring film-makers and musicians already have a psychological head start.

While games do receive an increasing amount of attention from wider society, much of this is negative (from censorship advocates, for example) and draws on an implicit, commonly held belief that games are not credible cultural medium worthy of respect. As the videogame is seen purely as a low-brow entertainment vehicle, any serious content that features in a game (violence, political events, human tragedy), far from being interpreted as boundary-pushing social realism, is viewed as simply cynical and gratuitous exploitation. As game designer Ernest Adams puts it, from a social standing point of view we're in a mess:

“Our overemphasis on fun—kiddie-style, wheeee-type fun—is part of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. To merely be fun is to be unimportant, irrelevant, and therefore vulnerable.” (Adams, 2006)

Game developers, working busily away in their cubicles, are not immune to society’s dominant ideology as it pertains to games. It would be fair to say that if one were to dedicate one's life to creating a culturally defining statement, the videogame would not the most prestigious medium through which to do it; and game developers have internalised this reality. It is no surprise, therefore, that signs of cultural cringe can be observed within the game industry. Game developers routinely channel their creative aspirations into other activities (eg painting, writing, music) expressing pessimism about the potential of expressing themselves through games. Game development is often seen as a second choice, lesser career by creative professionals, and developers look with yearning at status and approbation afforded to their peers in similar industries. As industry veteran Dan Cook recently observed, “the game industry is filled with writers who want to author the next great novel, designers who want to direct the next great movie and artists who would be perfectly happy doing character design for a Saturday morning cartoon.” (Cook, 2006)

Of course, as is mentioned frequently by pundits in the “are games art” debate, similar cultural challenges have been faced and resolved before by other media: from novels to film, comics and television. All were demonized and harassed by mainstream society before they were championed. Ergo, the legitimization of games as an art form by mainstream society would seem inevitable.

But while these comparisons are useful in a broad sense, they are ahistorical and hence limited in their relevance to the game industry and the specific cultural and economic conditions in which it is evolving. The novel form was adopted fairly early on by the intelligentsia as a vehicle for serious content while the moral panic around novels was only just starting; television was rescued almost in infancy by state intervention in the form of public broadcasting initiatives; and comics have, arguably, never truly enjoyed mainstream acceptance as an art form (with the possible exceptions of French and Japanese cultures), despite notable works in the medium.

No, the recognition of the cultural significance of the game medium by society is not inevitable, and ironically this recognition may not even be welcomed by game developers themselves.

For many game developers, residing uneasily alongside a cultural inferiority complex is a feeling of resentment towards the way successful names from other industries have started to take notice of games and get involved in making them. Grandiose press releases are made from time to time about how such-and-such a Hollywood director (the Warshawski Bros, Stephen Spielberg (add reference), Peter Jackson) has vowed to step in and change the face of gaming by helping the medium to cross the final frontier towards becoming a true art form, with the Hollywood magic of storytelling and cinematography. To date, these collaborations have resulted in no major critical successes and many game developers find the notion of their medium being heroically redeemed, as it were, by outside intervention as vaguely offensive. The suspicion is that outsiders are attracted not out of genuine love for the game medium, but rather out of interest towards the rapidly increasing size of project budgets that game publishers are wielding. Complaints circulate in industry circles of film-makers ruining game projects as a result of unfamiliarity with the medium, Hollywood consultant seeing the naive and fawning game industry as easy money, film studios disrespecting game franchises in poor quality spin-off movies (reference). A classic tale of old media infiltrating and co-opting a new media.” (Cook, 2006)

So it is almost under siege-like conditions that game developers, alternately pawed at and buffeted by various political and cultural forces, digest the "are games art" debate.

“A growing disquiet exists among some gamers about critics and artists who don't play video games deciding whether or not they are art. Others gamers simply don't care.” (Hill, 2006)

Developers have expressed anger and hostility to the notion that games are an art form (Adams, 2006), revealing a kind of reverse snobbery. Perhaps these feelings arise an unconscious fear that if society suddenly decides that games are art, the game community will be subject to even more outsider interference than it is now, this time as a grab for new cultural territory by "art wankers".

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At 7:30 pm, Blogger Patrick said...

I'd say I'm one of those art wankers to a degree, I mean I tripped acid and had this crazy vision of casual games the other night. I definetly have thought of writing another novel (finishing another novel) and doing films and such, but now I know (and have for a while really) than any film or book idea I have really belongs in the interactive medium, because only in play can the full glorly of my thoughts be respected.

At 4:24 pm, Blogger Kipper said...

Many of my best friends are art wankers :-). Game development needs more of them, because god knows we've had enough anti-intellectualism in the workplace up until now. Mention the term "emergent gameplay" in some studios and people question your sexuality.

At 3:20 am, Blogger the rantolotl said...

Wear a rainbow sash while you say it, and they'll only question it behind your back...


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