In Sweden, there’s still an ongoing discussion around games as art and games as culture. It has moved away from the “can we all agree that games is art” and “can we all agree that games is culture” to the more profitable discussion of “can we get governments to agree that this is art/ culture?” so that we can get support from the government.
In addition to that discussion, add that games are a growing market, reaching further and further beyond their old target markets, and you get an industry willing and most certainly able to pat itself on the back and say “we’re done. We’re good.” Because if games are art and culture and the audience for games is growing, surely, there’s no need to change anything in how we do things?
The market has spoken! We’re all good! We’re not in need of making any changes whatsoever because we’re already free and clear.
It is an argument I’ve heard before and it is an argument used not only in games but in the tech industry in general, sans the art claim. But the tech industry has issues that are related to things like user safety and data collection strategies that can harm the people using the apps. Look at Facebook and the heavily skewed algorithms. Look at YouTube, causing people to become extremists through streaming suggestions. Look at Twitter, unable to protect marginalized groups from abuse.
The truth is – in my opinion – that games have much more potential than they are currently living up to.
The games industry is male dominated, white, and when it comes to both content and mechanics, self-referential to the point of incest.
“God of War 4 is doing well. Let’s steal the God of War gameplay.”
Before God of War 4 it was Red Dead Redemption or The Witcher. Before those games it was GTA V. Whatever is the most popular, steal that.
In general, I believe that stealing ways to simplify your own work is a good thing, but when it becomes a goal in itself, and when that goal overshadows the game you are making, I don’t think stealing is such a good idea anymore. Let’s say a new and popular game is released while yours is in production. How likely is it that all of a sudden production swerves and you have to make that new game? If the response is “very likely” then you’re in trouble.
In my most hopeless moments I’m thinking that innovation is a thing of the past. Not even the content feels very new. Warfare, evil cults, vengeance on the fridged wife and children or basically whatever weird shit Kojima comes up with.
Art can totally be self referential and so can culture, but what happens when it is? We get 50 Shades of Grey which is a racier fan fiction copy of Twilight sans vampires. We get Dean Koontz and Dan Brown writing according to formula. We get Jerry Bruckheimer movies that pretty much look and feel the same and while they’re amusing in the moment, none of them are breaking new ground in a way that changes the world or how you think or feel about the world.
The last game that made me think about the world was “Papers, please”. That’s hardly triple-A, but from a content perspective it outshone every Red Dead Redemption, Witcher and God of War out there, in the sense that it made me think and feel in ways I hadn’t done before.
I wish I could properly explain why I’m afraid of applying the labels art and culture to the current games culture and industry. Perhaps it is because I don’t want companies to be able to hide behind them and to feel they can avoid accountability because of them.
We already have a massive issue surrounding our inability to hold ourselves accountable for choices we make around games around content and around mechanics. What if the “art” and “culture” labels make it worse? What if that becomes another tool in the box full of “it’s just a game” and “if you don’t like it, don’t play it” and reviews that never go in depth in any way except as a way to describe the mechanics, graphics and physics?
I’m concerned because games and the activity of playing games should be accessible to all, there should be plenty of content for all of us, not just chasing evil cults, or getting vengeance for whatever. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a Jerry Bruckheimer movie now and again? But the light entertainment must also give the heavier topics room to exist. We’ve only scratched the surface of what games an do, what they can help us process. What experiences we can share.
I think I’m afraid that none of that will happen if we say “good enough”.
I want to be better, do better. I don’t want to play copies of other games indefinitely.
I am, however, irrelevant. What I most want is for people who have been left behind, those who are rarely represented and whose stories never told, that they get to shine, that they get to be positively represented, that they get to be the hero in their own stories. I want games that make me feel things I’ve never felt in contexts I’ve never had. That’s the power of games.