Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

6 November, 2006

Weekend Design Challenge: Legitimacy
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:02 PM

I was at a “think tank” called Project Horseshoe over the weekend. (That’s why this WDC is a bit late.) The goal of the get-together was to spend time thinking about the difficult problems in game design. I submitted an issue that became the focus of a small group of very smart game designers:

Games As Legitimate Medium

This the single most important question facing our industry, in my opinion.

I hesitate to use the word “art” here, but that’s usually how this is described. A less loaded way is to ask: What will it take to have games considered a legitimate medium? Right now most people consider games as something for kids, and this is why we get slammed for things you see in nighttime TV.

To paraphrase Scott McCloud in Reinventing Comics: “As long as the broader community assumes that comics [or, in our case, games], by their nature, are without social value and, by their nature, are suitable only for kids — then charges of obscenity will always hit their mark.” So, what do we have to do to be considered a serious medium like movies, books, and TV?

Related to this, how can we make “mature” games without resorting to sexual titillation or hyperviolence?

So, now is your chance to prove that you could have participated with top of the field (and me ;): what is your thoughts about this issue? Read on for a bit of insight into what we discussed.

A full report is being worked on, but here’s a summary of our main thoughts:

  • Legitimacy will likely happen sooner or later: our efforts focused on trying to make this sooner rather than later.
  • Legitimacy has some problems. Once you get legit, you sometimes loose your edge.
  • There are three areas of legitimacy: commercial, moral, artistic.
  • Games have probably already gained commercial legitimacy. Unfortunately, we’ve seen mostly negative aspects because of this: fear of risk, etc.
  • Some media have one event that defines it: consider the movie The Birth of a Nation, which is consider the pivotal work that made movies become respectable.
  • Other media slowly become accepted over time. Rock ‘n’ Roll music does not have a singular event, and was demonized until very recently when “Urban Music” (Rap, Hip-Hop, etc) took over as the new musical demon.

One thing we didn’t really get to talk about is how to make “mature” games without resorting to sex and violence. Bonus points for anyone that discusses this in depth on here.

So, what are your thoughts on this topic? Is this one of the most important topics facing the game industry? Were we right in our thinking?


  1. Artistic legitimacy happens when an entertainment actually changes the world for good or bad… such as The Birth of a Nation, which (as I recall) reinvigorated the KKK.

    Or Dickens Novels, which were commentaries about the social ills of their day.

    Or rock… which was changing the world in the 50′s and 60′s (especially during Vietnam), but didn’t become legitimate until the old guard retired and the teenagers of the 50′s took power.

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 6 November, 2006 @ 2:33 PM

  2. Artistic legitimacy happens when someone achieves genuine celebrity from working in their medium. Sad, but true. First you need to hit mainstream sales and then you need to generate real personalities. Then little kids will start saying “I want to be a games programmer when I grow up” in class when asked by their teacher – bet your life it’s very few that do right now.

    One reason why comics, games and even the novel took so long to go mainstream is quite simply that all tend to be created by relatively withdrawn and introverted individuals. Cinema, by comparison, became legitimate and mainstream in the blink of an eye. We need someone like John Romero but actually successful. We need someone that Jay Leno wants to interview. And we need to sell a whole load of games.

    Comment by Cael — 6 November, 2006 @ 4:27 PM

  3. There was a heck of discussion in IRC last week, and I recorded it here:

    Feel free to download yourself, blah, blah, public domain, etc.


    Related to this, how can we make “mature” games without resorting to sexual titillation or hyperviolence?

    This threw me for a long, long loop. There seems to be some equation between maturity and well… immaturity. What!? *blank*

    Issues of sexuality and violence can and should be handled in a mature consideration. This is most frequently and best done in artistic expression. (Academia consider everything with a whiff of maturity, and it’s not always umm… worth reading. =P) I don’t see why we shouldn’t use art as a launchpad for legitimacy. It makes sense.

    Comment by Michael Chui — 6 November, 2006 @ 5:24 PM

  4. In looking at the transformation of the comic book medium two defining moments popped out at me.

    1. The emergence of the graphic novel format that allowed people with unique voices to publish their visions and stories outside of the established publishing channels. During my prime comic-book reading age Alan Moore and Frank Miller are two visionaries. In particular, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Return graphic novel and Alan Moore’s (I think) Forward to the books were defining moments for me. Alan Moore’s Forward spoke of the concept of heroes and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Return turned the traditional comic book concept of heores around.

    2. The adoption of the medium for purposes other than commerical (profits). Comic books where being used to teach kids about important issues like drugs, financial education, domestic abuse, etc. We see this occuring with still pictures (artistic shots) and moving pictures (documentaries). I think we are starting to see this in video games with Katamary Damacy as a recent example. The basic concept and mechanics are being adopted by insurance companies, charities, etc.

    Thus, video games have to resonate at a level beyond mere fun, play, or profits. It has to have cultural weight. The plot of Katamary Damacy is about a prince trying to restore the stars and much of the game is about the concept that a small mustard seed can grow to be a might tree (using bibical metaphors). In not resorting to sex or violence, we can look to the great Japanese designers for inspiration (particular the Nintendo-family of designers).


    Comment by magicback (frank) — 7 November, 2006 @ 10:35 AM

  5. I aggree with Cael. The game industry doesn’t have any charismatic leaders that are respectable mature adults.

    There are some very smart people, they’re all introverts. There are some very outgoing people, they’re either failures or might as well be jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch.

    If the IGDA had taken Wil Wright when The Sims was the hot ticket a few years ago (before that online mess), and coached him a little (some image consulting, maybe a PR person, joke writer, etc.), and gotten him a spot on late night television, and inteviewed at good morning america, I think the industry would have gotten a lot more respect. A good mature game that isn’t all about violence and boob physics. A man at the helm who isn’t an embarrassment. The ingredients were as close as the game industry has ever gotten and nobody capitalized on it (except for in the sense of the all the money hats that were made). And really that might be the problem. There is no cohesive speaking group for the games industry, to have taken advantage of the situation.

    So, now we have this World of Warcraft thing. Does Blizzard have a lead game designer who worked on that thing that can captivate an audience of common folk (carry on a human conversation)? If so, why isn’t anyone trotting him out to talk to the world? There is an expansion coming, are there commercials on TV, or before movies that include footage of the game designer in an interview talking up the game?

    Raph, I think it was at AGC, mentioned the coming changes to the old big game companies, and the impression I got was what Cael is saying, some of the designers need to have their names and faces out there. They need to become the movie stars. It needs to be shown that there are people creating art, not a corporation churning out graphics.

    Comment by BugHunter — 7 November, 2006 @ 4:28 PM

  6. You like heroes with a twist, Frank? Try Moore’s “Watchmen” and anything by Warren Ellis, particularly the first two “The Authority” collections.

    Comment by Cael — 7 November, 2006 @ 4:30 PM

  7. Further to the actual topic, this might help a little. It might even lead to a Games departemente at the Louvre – there’s one for cinema, after all.

    Comment by Cael — 8 November, 2006 @ 1:13 AM

  8. Frank has a good point in looking at the comic book medium for an example, but that also illustrates some of the problems with “legitimacy.” Some people are convinced that the graphic novel (or some other key turning point) has given comics legitimacy as a medium. Others, though, still see no value in it.

    Heck, even in the “arts” we have paintings that aren’t considered “art” by the vast majority of the nation. How many people still look at a Pollack drop pattern and say “just a messy drop cloth?” Yes, many of the “more educated” understand its value, but this brings up the big question- how will we measure legitimacy? Whose approval are we seeking?

    Some will say we’re already there- though they’re largely a minority. Some acknowledge that any medium can “be art,” but we’re all still producing “paint by numbers”pieces rather than “real” works of art.

    To some, we’ll never be more than “toymakers.” Of course, others see toys as legitimate.

    Comment by chasyork — 8 November, 2006 @ 8:40 AM

  9. Legitimacy isn’t an easy topic, and it’s certainly not a binary state. When discussing the issue of legitimacy in games we brought up graphic novels, and one designer said that he thought graphic novels were partially to blame for people being less literate these days. The irony of a game developer looking down his nose at graphic novels!

    And, yes, sometimes art doesn’t always appear legitimate. But no matter what someone’s overactive imagination sees in a Pollock piece, no one can shout loud enough to get the picture banned. Yet, if someone thinks a game isn’t appropriate for little Johnny, the politicians fall over themselves to say how they hate games and want to restrict them painfully.

    And, as I said above, we already have a bit of commercial legitimacy. We make enough money that games can’t simply be ignored in business. Yet, we don’t quite have the moral or artistic legitimacy that other art media tend to enjoy. In the U.S., this means being considered free speech by the general population.

    Some more thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 8 November, 2006 @ 11:34 AM

  10. We definetly need someone with good image skills to do latenight TV appearances, I’d like to step up to the plate eventually, now that my career is gearing up and my zits are statistically disapating.

    The real currency of legitimizing the medium is a game that involves social dynamics. Think about, social dynamics are whats at stake outside, the game, so in order for games to be percieved as socially relevant they have to deal with society in some representative simulacrum. The Sims was slightly sufficient to that effect, with its implied satire of suburbia. We’ll see how the Super Columbine Massacre RPG! does as Slamdance.

    Comment by Patrick — 8 November, 2006 @ 5:31 PM

  11. I have several discordant thoughts that don’t really form a cohesive whole, however:

    1. What do you care what other people think?
    (with apologies to Richard Feynman).
    Or in other words: does legitimacy even matter?

    2. If it does matter, in whose eyes are you trying to be considered “legitimate”?
    Some media have considerably more “legitimacy” in non-western cultures than others (eg comics in Japan).
    Even within a single culture there is a broad spectrum of what is deemed “art” (eg Giuliani and the Brooklyn Mueseum).

    3. Since I said the “a” word… Are there any board games that are considered “art”; are there lessons to be drawn from the success/failure of our non-digital brethren?

    Comment by emanon — 9 November, 2006 @ 3:07 PM

  12. Legitimacy may not really matter (as in whether engaging in a war is legitimate). History will tell.

    However, cultural impact and significance matter. And the underlying emotional question is “are video game designers taken seriously?”

    Some speak of a charismatic figurehead, but I’m leaning more towards a strong leadership. So my question is “are video games taking a leadership role?” and “who are the leaders?”

    I imagine Andy Warhol and the push of pop art movement was a “leader” for the comic book format.


    Comment by magicback (frank) — 9 November, 2006 @ 11:05 PM

  13. Legitimacy very much matters when you are a young industry, and it definitely matters when politicians are taking every chance they can get to restrict the content of games beyond what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights allows for. I think I can speak for every game developer in saying that we want our industry to grow. Gaining legitimacy in the eyes of our population at large would help us to grow.

    Comment by Disgruntled Iowa Game Developer — 10 November, 2006 @ 7:09 PM

  14. Adult topics…

    The issue of games achieving legitimacy is something I’ve talked about a few times before. (Example: I think that this is one of the most important topics facing our industry today.
    As I’ve said before, part of ach…

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 3 April, 2007 @ 11:55 PM

  15. Books that have influenced me

    [...] is good, but focuses a lot more on comics; it also contains a great quote I use when talking about Legitimacy. I recently got Making Comics and hope that is as packed with useful information. (One of the other [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 27 June, 2007 @ 4:27 AM

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