The light was shining straight into my face. I didn’t complain because I was standing on a stage, addressing a section of the game design vanguard at IndieCade with Christine Love in a maid outfit sitting next to me. Instead, I was one of the first that weekend to speak about the political impact game designers have when making their games, whether or not they had an ‘agenda.’ I started off my talk with a Salman Rushdie quote, akin to ‘Art isn’t entertainment. It’s a revolution.’ More talks on the same stage would pound in the idea that game developers are artists; their work is political. There are many who are still resistant to this idea, that they design merely for fun and nothing else. I would say that’s the ideology of the majority of game developers even though we like to bask in the benefits games being called art gets us. Eric Zimmerman gave ten or so tips on game design which were basically ‘how to manage being an artist,’ and Mary Flannigan reconstructed a history of computer science that showcased innovators striving to find beauty and meaning rather than technological advancement.
The gaming community, or let’s say the ones with voices- popular developers, media, and maybe celebrities if we have those- have a cake eating problem. We want to be taken seriously as an artform but don’t often value critical analysis. Game criticism and academia are held in disdain and shoved in corners, dubbed inapplicable. Recycling the same themes, mechanics, and ideologies of game design passes through reviews and feature articles without scrutiny. We are very happy to wallow in the same when all of the attention we get is for being something different, something new.
This was nailed in for me when I saw the reaction to Lucy Kellaway’s article on Financial Times, “Game theory.” Mostly, we get an outsider perspective on the cultural relevancy of video games from someone, actually a panel of people, who doesn’t really play games. She goes through her experiences, and ultimately sums up that for a non-gamer, she didn’t feel like there was much to talk about. This made a large section of gaming’s conversation upset, because of COURSE she just doesn’t GET IT. It’s like an illiterate critiquing the written word, the blind complaining about the irrelevancy of a Renoir.
Why, instead, didn’t we all stop and ask why? For instance, what would something of cultural relevance look like to her? To the general public that doesn’t play games? Or really, to anyone who actually analyzes games in any manner, since most people who play games know shit-all about game design. That all of the things that ‘require’ her to ‘get it’ are extremely inbred conventions that don’t mean much outside of navel-gazing rationalization? Why should someone be familiar with an X-Box controller (I’m not) to be able to comment on video games? Why should someone intuitively understand platformers (I don’t) to critique video games? Why should someone just understand that they have to empathize with a gun toting character that never has their sociopathic behavior commented on (still boggled about this)? Really, with all of the ways contemporary art and philosophy makes statements, video games very very very rarely do this. Notice in her analysis, she most connects to Proteus and Journey, the two games explicitly tagged as ‘art games’ in our gaming subconscious.
The honest truth is that we’re not at all in a stage to make a statement like Ulysses because we’re barely even trying to do as such. If affecting a person, if embodying philosophy was our intent as game designers, any person familiar with art and aesthetics would be able to get it. Video games are not in some special reality, they aren’t so different that you need some arcane knowledge to get it’s messages. Rather, we have many superficial, unexplained, and frankly discriminatory barriers to entry that have no reason to be there other than ‘that’s just how things are.’ Let’s not pretend that AAA games are looking to be artistically profound with every other motivation secondary, and hell, that goes for most non-AAA games too. With most games not being about reaching that artistic peak, it is honestly knee-jerky and myopic to be defensive.
If gamers are the only people who can decipher games, then there’s something on the game developers’ shoulders to address that. Art balances between the universal and specific- there is often a connection of the personal, special occurance through the accessibility of general experience. If someone ‘doesn’t get’ a painting or a movie, it’s not because they were unable to experience it, but in games, that’s where we’re at. Something tells me Lucy is a lot more acquainted with critical theory and philosophy than most developers, and if there was something to dig up, and she was allowed to, she would have. I think it’s possible that it’s us that doesn’t get it.
We talked about voice. I asked Christine and I asked the audience how we silence minority voices. We craft definitions and conventions that naturally exclude many people; game mechanics that imply the player is a boy or man, controllers for those experts at handling them, conventions that require an understanding acquired over years of gaming. Can you blame Lucy for shrugging her shoulders at something that is continually marketed and designed for 16-24 year old boys? Is that really the marketing demographic for things that are culturally relevant? We need to stop screeching at those who ‘don’t understand us,’ because we’ve made it that way. Instead, it’s time to open up this medium and actually work at making it say the things we want it to.