What is a Luxurious Video Game?

Over the last couple of months, I’ve reacquainted myself with magazines. The last time I really bought and went through them was in high school, particularly standby indulgences like the Gothic & Lolita Bible and FRUiTS, jealous of all the wonderful clothes and duping my guy friends to tell me they found Mana hot. Magazines were a portal into fantasy worlds of luxury, a place where everyone is styled and blissed to the point of looking purposefully bored. This experience would be out of my reach, unable to convince my parents that they should order some androgynous clothing off a website in a language they couldn’t understand. As an adult, the presence of luxury in the things I read now, about architecture, food, and of course, fashion, is omnipresent. It’s assumed you’re reading because you want to know what the best is, stewing in envy until you’ve consumed it. There is something a little more menacing about this, as these are sorts of objects and experiences I can witness at the mall or walking down the promenade of an affluent part of town. It’s so realized, obvious, like life doesn’t really make sense if it’s missing.

What luxury is to these fields of art is pretty clear, the materials or availability are rare, it’s in some way artisanal or uniquely made. That it costs a lot of money is a by-product rather than a telltale sign of luxury, though being able to discern that comes along with being socialized as a person of a certain affluence. Many of the art worlds are centered around the luxurious, with success tied to how your work fits into becoming a luxury product, accessible mainly to the rich before it can trickle down to the public. The prevalence of luxury in my magazines unnerves me; from the everything-grown-just-outside pâté at some restaurant-farm in upstate New York to modular incubator spaces that supply their own energy on the rooftops of Hong Kong, luxury is supposed to be the idea, what everyone is supposed to strive for, a vision for the future where the luxurious has become profane and there is some other trend to replace it. This isn’t completely damnable, as the 20th century did highlight anti-establishment art that sought to subvert the usual ways ideals were commodified, and with each passing generation we find stronger focuses on the low-brow and popular culture brought on by those practices.

Being someone associated with video games, naturally I asked myself “Well wait, what exactly is a luxurious video game?” I find this very specific to video games’ apparent immateriality, commonly thought of purely as a digital product. Sure, there are games that are more expensive than others, and some have collector’s editions, but these don’t really match up too much to the luxury in my magazines. There aren’t interviews about how one artist lovingly crafted this after a hike through Thailand, inspired by the nature, people, and culture, or something of the sort. Because they are digital, they aren’t often rare, rather easily duplicated; what was the difference between the Mass Effect 2 at the Smithsonian and the one in my Steam library? I mentioned this tension before when speaking to how expressive games are stuck in a weird place between art worlds and industry, that beyond out of print cartridges and limited print discs, we don’t really have a strong idea of what an artisanal game is. Are game engines ‘rare’ materials or creation methods? How do even begin to approach this sort of question?

Through comparison to other art forms, of course! Nathan Altice gave a talk a couple years ago comparing video games and fashion, finding the fashion industry to be a closer analogy than film’s (definitely watch it, was my favorite talk at that event). I was surprised to learn how fashion has such a similar contention with art vs commercialism that games does, down to the clothes are for buying and wearing, not for being looked at comment from a prominent fashion magazine editor. Nathan’s comparison takes us to the couture and ready to wear aspects of fashion, aspects that are seemingly missing in games. He compares smaller games made by independent auteurs for highly specific non-commercial audiences, his example being anna anthropy’s dys4ia, to function in a similar way that couture does, which is an article of clothing designed for one particular person’s body. Having made games for particular people before, Mainichi for my best friend and EAT for a past partner (Mission would be my ready to wear example), I can tell you that I’m not swimming in hundred of thousands of dollars and held in an industry-wide esteem that would support these endeavors. Nathan’s comparison reveals a couple things about how games block its own luxuriousness, first, by not realizing that custom tailored experiences (something I find in non-digital games) are valuable in and of themselves and can be personally made, and secondly, there isn’t something inherently damaging about a game that repels or doesn’t fit mainstream audiences. Many comments about my games are how much they are inaccessible to gamers with certain expectations of games, and also the locality and financial constraints of people being asked to use real money. I didn’t make Mission and EAT for every person on the planet, though people asked me for edits so they can play it, they are specifically for those who it’s geared towards: the affluent tech class gentrifying San Francisco and my ex who couldn’t understand the contexts of my financial struggles.

I would go one step further from this, challenging the assumption that games are something completely ephemeral through its digital form. Video games, all games really, require physical objects for us to actually interact with them, yet our analyses of games rarely include them. I’ve talked before about how video games ignore bodies in design and criticism, and this works into what could be seen as a luxurious game, highly specific physical interfaces with one crafted digital experience that speak to each other, instead of general hardware platforms housing many lowest common denominator games. Obviously this would be a huge undertaking, but isn’t that what all high-end products are like? When reading styling advice, there are parts of your closet that you’re fine with getting at Target and H&M and others you can plunk down for Burberry. We could see the the DIY games of the past few years as a sort of middle state between the Walmart and Alexander McQueen, speaking to a low-fi aesthetic that will pass by mainstream consumers of games and hit an alternative scene of players, but not necessarily made for a particular person or with particular hardware.

There is an obvious caveat about classism and wanting to resist anything that allows those with wealth to own a part of culture that others can’t access. This is mostly a thought experiment, but I’m curious to find out how to subvert this. My gut-instinct is to rail as hard against the anti-art sentiments that we find and get these sorts of experiences patroned by institutions so they remain accessible to others, or at least, have the funds made by couture pieces subsidize the ready to wear games of our future. If anything, it’s a nice way to frame a pressing art games problem, and really, a call for far more indulgent games than we are coming up with.

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