Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

10 February, 2009

Article on legitimacy
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:36 PM

I wrote an article on legitimacy for Gamasutra entitled Legitimacy For Game Developers.

Regular readers will probably recognize most of the topics presented. This article was intended more for a professional game developer audience given that site’s readership.

This is kind of a companion piece to my previous article on RPGVault, which was more aimed at game players instead of game developers. I think we still have a long way to go to attain real legitimacy.

This article was also picked up on Slashdot. Of course, this means that some of the people commenting aren’t in the intended audience. One of the tags was “boohoo” on there, and currently there’s “awww”. :P

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  1. We sure won’t have any artistic legitimacy while portals/retailers continue to be squeamish when something beyond idle banality shows up. Case in point.

    If we can’t get these kinds of themes into our games and out to audiences, we’ll be stuck with the stigma of being entirely trivial.

    Comment by jason — 12 February, 2009 @ 5:02 PM

  2. This is precisely the issue I worry about with legitimacy and the future of games. We can’t address topics not suitable for children because people automatically assume that games can’t (or shouldn’t) handle any content not suitable for children.

    This is particularly interesting because one book series I really enjoy, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever has a particularly distasteful scene at the beginning. But, the scene is accurate and has repercussions all though the series. Would the same people complaining about Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble! also be calling up their local library to get the Thomas Covenant books banned? Perhaps, but probably a lot fewer people than would complain about a game.

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 February, 2009 @ 2:57 AM

  3. There would be more griping about a scene like that in a game, Brian, but only (assuming the player doesn’t actually participate in the rape) because games are still thought of as children’s entertainment by society at large. And that perception isn’t limited to non-gamers. In more conservative areas of the country, many adults who play are not comfortable talking deeply about games because they don’t take games very seriously.

    I’ve been toying with the idea that the game industry is basically like rock ‘n’ roll. To this day, rock music is still associated with youth, despite old listeners and old bands. And it’s still associated with childish values. That’s because rock music is and has always been dominated by a culture of rebellion and neophilia (loving things simply because they’re new). That culture doesn’t spring from the medium itself, and there are rock musicians who don’t subscribe to it. But the public perception remains, so rock music is generally considered a casual topic and not to be taken too seriously.

    Game development is dominated by a similar culture of rebellion and neophilia. Thoughtful social commentary does occasionally occur in games, but thoughtless entertainment is more common. Hell, just look at game journalism to see the culture of gaming. It’s generally youthful, irreverent, and sarcastic. Like rockstars and rockers, the gaming community is dominated by people who choose to be on the periphery of society.

    Gaming will eventually garner as much respect as rock music… which is to say that it might show up at the Superbowl, but not in serious conversations with one’s elders.

    By the way, I usually (though not always) find it ridiculous when an artist says social stigmas prevent him or her from addressing a topic or excelling in some way. History has shown that artists can get any message across if they do it artfully, rather than bluntly and brazenly. Limitations are often what inspire masterpieces (which is not offering any commentary on whether or not a particular subject or scene should be censored).

    Comment by Aaron — 13 February, 2009 @ 1:36 PM

  4. “History has shown that artists can get any message across if they do it artfully, rather than bluntly and brazenly.”

    This is probably the most important lesson game developers need to learn yet.

    Comment by Destral — 13 February, 2009 @ 7:14 PM

  5. Thanks very much for that article. It clearly laid out a number of things I’ve been struggling to communicate myself.

    I’m an undergraduate who loves games from the culture to the history to the products themselves, and with my career as a developer yet to really begin, I’ve often wondered what it takes for the videogame medium to achieve the exact kind of legitimacy you write about. I think it’s an uphill battle to be sure, fighting a few decades of blunt advertising communicating that games are almost exclusively mindless entertainment for adolescent boys. But at the same time, it’s exciting to imagine the potential history of an entire new artistic medium yet to be written.

    To tell the truth, that’s part of the reason why I’m entering the field of videogames and not some easy-money tech or design field. There’s just so much room for the medium to grow that I’m confident something culturally significant will change in my lifetime. And – hey! – I’m going be alive during my lifetime so why not jump on that chance?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if many other people of my generation feel the same. No matter how many game devs actually care about achieving cultural legitimacy, there is going to be an interesting stint in that direction in the coming years.

    Comment by Scypher — 15 February, 2009 @ 7:34 PM

  6. “History has shown that artists can get any message across if they do it artfully, rather than bluntly and brazenly.”

    As long as the industry embraces the Orwellian “Mature” ESRB nomenclature, it will be like the TV producer trying desperately to get eyeballs by proclaiming their work is “edgy”. Anyone with a modicum of experience will see that for the marketing code for “sexually explicit, gore infused and profanity laced” that it is. People look at what we laughingly call “mature” and see teenage male sex fantasies, power trips, profanity and gore. That’s certainly not all that games have to offer as a medium, but since it’s the bulk of what *is* being offered, it’s easy to pigeonhole the industry.

    Put another way, as long as the gaming equivalent of “The Grapes of Wrath” or “Schindler’s List” (if we ever get such) would be lumped in with God of War and Leisure Suit Larry, we’re going to suffer from a severe perception problem. As far as that goes, there will be games that *don’t* have “mature” ratings that still have important things to say, if taken seriously.

    Our industry will get much farther by producing things of value than by demanding respect and playing the martyr card. That’s something that we as devs have to do, and let the public opinion sort itself out. Every time a new Tomb Raider or Mortal Kombat is pitched, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, if we really care about these sorts of things as an industry.

    Comment by Tesh — 17 February, 2009 @ 2:15 PM

  7. Aaron wrote:
    By the way, I usually (though not always) find it ridiculous when an artist says social stigmas prevent him or her from addressing a topic or excelling in some way.

    I suspect this is because you haven’t run into the situation in your own career. Consider if movies couldn’t show violence, then how could you have a masterpiece like Saving Private Ryan that gives people an accurate glimpse at the horrors of war without showing violence? Or, what if the pendulum swung too far the other way and the law was that you can’t mention religion; how could you make a work about the good work that Christianity (or Wicca, or whatever) has done? You can argue that the creator could pick a new topic, but what if the topic they want to work on has an important message for society?

    The problem with comparing video games with rock ‘n’ roll is that video games are an entire medium, where as rock music is one genre within the medium of music. Imagine if the situation was: “Music is not something you talk about in serious conversations with one’s elders.” Is it right to cast out a whole medium like that? I don’t think so. I think that games can add a lot more to some topics because of their interactive nature. But, if society always looks at games that deal with serious topics as those games “trivializing” the topic, then we will not see that anytime soon. For me, this is a real shame.

    And, you are correct in that one of the biggest problems is that games are seen as something for kids. Comics were the same way in the U.S. Note that in other countries where comics are not seen as something just for kids, like in Japan and some countries in Europe, you have a lot more robust industry that caters to a wider audience with a much wider variety of topics.

    As for gamers being outsiders, there are always going to be the fringe element. But, I don’t think gaming is necessarily dominated by the fringe anymore. We’re seeing some mainstream acceptance for gaming. My goal in talking about legitimacy is to encourage that process along. Of course, I hope that we don’t lose the fringe; in many media, the fringe is where we see a lot of the growth. Pablo Picasso wasn’t always part of the mainstream, but he was a major force in taking fine art in new directions; of course, many years later we see Picasso as something to be lauded and studied, even if many of his contemporaries didn’t appreciate his work as much in the past.

    Tesh wrote:
    Our industry will get much farther by producing things of value than by demanding respect and playing the martyr card.

    As I mentioned before, this article was intended for (professional) game developers. My goal was to inform them of the issues and motivate them to do something about them. This isn’t an ultimatum to society as a whole that we demand respect or a plea that they should feel sorry for us. The first step is educating the people who are primarily affected by the issue. Once the developers get thinking about the issues, my hope is that they will start placing a higher priority on producing “things of value” instead of just doing whatever to get a paycheck.

    Comment by Psychochild — 18 February, 2009 @ 5:42 PM

  8. Good points. Rock is just a genre of music and so not a great analogy.

    You’re right that the gore in Saving Private Ryan is vital to the experience, as is the violence in The Passion of the Christ and the nudity in Schindler’s List. But before these films were aired, similar impressions were made by way of less graphic scenes in films like Ben Hur, The Longest Day, and Spartacus. The game industry doesn’t have to start from square one with graphic depictions of violence and sex. But it has to earn a little trust before asking for a lot of trust.

    To win over the naysayers who don’t believe the medium is capable of great storytelling and education, developers must begin with games that don’t challenge conceptions of “appropriate” or “tasteful” entertainment. It’s good practice to begin any argument, any intellectual challenge, with an act of sympathy. You usually have to earn a person’s trust before that person will genuinely listen to you and consider your points. In media, this means sympathetic presentations and themes. Hamlet could probably be told with a bunch of green-haired punk rockers and Ophelia dancing naked in a cage, but you can’t expect an average audience to even give such a presentation a chance unless that audience has experienced and appreciated more subtle stylizations first.

    By the way, I’ve written in favor of gore and violence in games. I just think we need to ease up to those goals gradually.

    I’m coming mostly from a literary perspective. Literary history is full of books and plays which were written under tight censorship and excel in form largely because of that censorship. Shakespeare’s plays are great examples. Bram Stoker’s infamous vampire would have been completely different and arguably not as compelling if Stoker didn’t have to be subtle with his treatment of sex and violence. 20th-century Chinese authors could (perhaps still can) be held legally accountable for the actions of their fictional characters… as if they had performed the acts themselves! Even that, ridiculously extreme as it was, inspired some interesting works. Everyone agrees with censorship, but different people believe different things should be censored. People are right to fight what censorship they believe to be unjust. I’m just saying that censorship is rarely a good excuse for artistic failure.

    Comment by Aaron — 18 February, 2009 @ 8:27 PM

  9. Aaron, I agree that violence and sexuality need to be used wisely. As I said in the article: “Juvenile sexual titillation and hyperviolence enforce the preconceived notions that many people hold.”

    On the other hand, I don’t know if I agree that we can do the same thing movies can: addressing an issue in a less graphic way and still have it be meaningful. The strength of games is the interactivity, and therefore the impact of the game has to be done through that interactivity. Implying a situation may not work if some of the actors (the ones controlled by the player) cannot be held to the script. A movie scene loses its impact if one of the actors on screen is off-cue; the same is bound to happen in a game where the player doesn’t necessarily know how his character should act to fulfill the needs of the scene.

    Yes, very clever developers can probably figure a way around this. Unfortunately, we don’t have thousands of years of study in interactive media the same way we have a long recorded history of linear media. Therefore, I don’t think it’s fair to say that games can easily handle the same situation in a more subtle manner just because movies (and other linear media) have.

    As for works of art flourishing under constraint, I’ll agree this is true. However, I prefer of those constraints are self-imposed rather than imposed by people who mean well but end up harming the medium. If developers want real constraints, they can feel free to join some of us making self-funded indie-scale games. That will stretch your creativity just fine without government or trade organization interference.

    Anyway, thank you for your thought-provoking responses. This has been a really good conversation for all involved, I hope. :)

    Have fun,

    Comment by Psychochild — 19 February, 2009 @ 4:45 AM

  10. “My goal was to inform them of the issues and motivate them to do something about them. This isn’t an ultimatum to society as a whole that we demand respect or a plea that they should feel sorry for us.”

    Indeed. That’s how I read your article. My comment is to the same effect; our industry has some structural deficits and philosophies that only we, as designers, can overcome. We’re only as legitimate as we make ourselves to be, and thus far, we’re not really doing much but reinforce the negative stereotypes.

    Comment by Tesh — 19 February, 2009 @ 11:09 AM

  11. This was a very thoughtful thread – I echo Aaron’s comments that developers have a huge opportunity to develop games *on subjects they find important* through artistic subtlety and care.

    As for the “childish values” that some rock’n'roll and some games orient around (we might name some specific ones here to be clear) – I think that these values are what need some specification. Neophilia and rebellion are a couple of values (or orientations to life) – but so are trustworthiness, friendship, and loyalty. I’ve seen plenty of games concerned with those kinds of values – think of Planescape: Torment, the Secret of Monkey Island, or the King’s Quest series. All of them are steeped in (what I think are) deeper values – and we should not confuse their “childish” content with not-so-childish themes and values.

    That’s why I was so adamant, in my very contentious reply to Brian’s article, that the gaming industry (these days) is not really in the business of making ‘real’ children’s games. Rather, we tend to make games with childish themes/values.

    Thanks again for the very courageous article Brian. Perhaps you’d be interested on expanding on this some time.

    - Chris

    Comment by Chris — 19 February, 2009 @ 11:16 AM

  12. Game Design Grab Bag 2

    [...] Brian’s blog about the same [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 19 February, 2009 @ 11:46 AM

  13. The thing is, there are games out there that tell me that there is plenty of room for the types of games that would place us closer to Dante Alighieri than Larry Flint. Rockstar could possibly make a really good case with the way they have set up GTA IV. Perhaps the next DLC for GTA IV could deal with the life of an illegal immigrant from Mexico, the journey into the US, avoiding the border patrol and the law-abiding citizens armed with shotguns and trained attack dogs. Once the player reaches their destination, they are met by a relative or family friend, who tries to hitch them up with a job in construction or gardening. The player can take this route, maybe, or maybe they can fall in with a bad crowd and go into crime. The player might be offered the possibility to follow each path as far as they will, but there are consequences: the steady, non-criminal jobs pay little, are demeaning, and the player is constantly harassed for being an illegal worker(possibly in a language they barely understand, except for those occasions when the other person has learned a few choice swear words in Spanish to spit in his direction). On the other hand, a career in crime alienates him from the few people they know and can trust – this point can be driven home by having one of the player’s new found cronies get shot by the others after a job for ‘not pulling their weight’, with the ensuing increase in the share of the booty for the rest.

    Of course, this would touch a lot of sensitive subjects, but, at the same time, if it was treated with maturity and good research by the devs, there is no reason why it couldn’t be deemed a legitimate exploration of a socially relevant subject, rather than exploitation.

    The money and time investment would be significant, but nowhere near those required for a full game: the audience is there (it’s only DLC for one of the most popular games of 2008) and it could be priced to move (slightly less that The Lost and Damned, for example, with about the same amount of content).

    I’m also curious to see if maybe Saboteur, Velvet Assassin and I am Alive take a chance at being a little more thought provoking, but since there isn’t much out about these games yet, all we can do is wait and see.

    Comment by Destral — 19 February, 2009 @ 7:55 PM

  14. Game Journalism Fail

    [...] get all worked up over game journalism? It’s my old friend legitimacy again. Without real journalists and critics, we don’t move forward as fast as we might otherwise to [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 6 January, 2010 @ 4:02 PM

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