Arts and Electronic Entertainment
History never seems to happen quite so fast as our progressive pundits predict that it will, nor as fast as we would seem to like it to. Nevertheless it does happen. Paradigms are abolished in favor of new orders, industries rise and fall, governments do change and in retrospect we can often look back call the developments speedy affairs. While they are in process though they tend to take forever happening and never come in quite the fashion we expected nor on the timetables presented us by the insightful analysts who hold forth on such subjects.
For well over a decade now people have been telling us that the PC will replace the television as the primary appliance for entertainment and information in the American household. It is a proposition I have never doubted for so much as a moment. Indeed in my household the transition has already taken place. We do still have a TV. In fact we have two. But we have three computers and we spend easily ten times as much time in front of them as in front of either of our televisions.
In the early nineties many people were opining that the entertainment industry would collapse within a decade before the tide of new media, driven primarily by the personal computer and the rise of the Internet. Obviously that hasnt happened yet, but every year the strain on the established titans of entertainment increases and emergent media become more and more popular. One need only look to hot topics like weblogs, file sharing, and online coverage of the Second Gulf War to see the signs of that inevitable change in the way information and entertainment is created, distributed, and consumed. It is coming, just slower than some enthusiasts hoped for or expected.
In 1993 Wired magazine, still in its infancy at the time, proclaimed that the video game industry was going to change the face of entertainment. The article in which this idea was put forth was about the strategy of Sega games. Their innovative vision was supposed to be a harbinger of things to come, but instead now they are out of the hardware manufacturing business altogether and struggling just to compete in the saturated game publishing market. Ten years later we are still waiting for electronic gaming to gain broad acceptance as a legitimate form of entertainment much less dethrone television as the king of American leisure time. It is just like those 50s era futurist posters. Where is the future we were promised?
Its still coming, its just taking a while to get here.
Electronic gaming is after all still a young industry and is at its core still an emergent artistic medium. PONG was really not all that long ago, and the days of musty arcades lined with ATARI stand up games is still a recent memory for many of us. Video games are still finding their personality, still defining their boundaries. In retrospect we will look back and wonder at how quickly the personal computer, and then the Internet changed everything, and I think also we will marvel at how games revolutionized entertainment. While this is happening though it gives the impression taking a lot longer than it actually does.
Electronic games started out quite simply, and very humbly. At the first they were just board games using electronics. PONG, Defender, Pac-Man, Missile Command: They all followed the standard conventions of board games but were made infinitely more interesting by the variances that were permitted by their new medium. The single player aspect was really one of the innovations of electronic gaming. You no longer needed a human opponent; you could play by yourself because the computer could be your opponent. (How deliciously ironic that now the focus is on having human opponents again.)
There was potential in this new electronic medium however for much more than just sophisticated board games, and early developers knew it from the start. The text based adventure game became one of the first pioneers of expanding the boundaries of gaming. If the computer could make board games more interesting and make them interactive for a single player, why couldnt it do the same thing for table top roleplaying, or for books, or even for movies? Thus was born ZORK. And ZORK begat Kings Quest, which begat Myst, who begat a hundred other titles until we get to 2003 and the impending release of Enter the Matrix. Perhaps it is not the earth shattering confluence of Hollywood and Redmond that some have heralded it as, but its certainly iconic of one of the great grails of electronic gaming: to put the player inside a movie in which they are participants. It is yet another step in the evolution of a young and developing artistic medium. Продвижение сайта предоплата. Гарантированное продвижение сайта. Продвижение сайта уфа.
And therein lies the key to understanding the past, present and future of gaming. It is an emergent art form. Once upon a time movies were a new media, as was television. Electronic gaming is this generations emergent medium, but in addition to being a form of entertainment it is also a form of artistic expression that is growing and evolving. The problem we encounter however is that many people, even within the games industry itself, do not realize this key fact about electronic gaming. For many developers and publishers it is still just a business model and not a form of artistic expression.
Government and the news media treat gaming differently than other forms of artistic expression. It seems not a month can pass that we dont hear about some ridiculous piece of legislation that sets limits on electronic games that our elected representatives would never dare place on mediums like film, music or photography. Almost weekly some new pundit is given time in the newspapers or on television to opine about how it should be a crime to produce games with mature subject matters or how there should be regulations on nudity or violence in video games. They do not treat electronic gaming with any of the respect they seem to show other artistic mediums because they do not view it as a form of art. To these pundits, and much of the public at large games are still advanced toys, made for children to occupy their playtime. It begs the question, Why? burn music to dvd
The simple answer is this: the electronic games industry has yet to produce an artistic masterpiece.
Those of us who have been passionately invested in electronic gaming for some time can quickly point to a dozen examples of high quality work within the field. Games like Civilization, TIE-Fighter, Deus Ex, and the Sims all display a quality of workmanship that sets them apart. It would be ludicrous however to attempt to compare on an artistic level any one of those titles with masterpieces of other mediums such as Shakespeares Hamlet or Bachs Pastoral Symphony. As excellent as those games may have been they are not works on that level and are not likely to outlive the generation that produced them. That is a harsh thing for those of us who love games to come to grips with, but until we raise our standards of excellence beyond what has yet been achieved we doom the medium to its current level of output and acceptance.
To understand this gap that currently exists between electronic games and other mediums we need to recognize that artistic pieces can in general be classified into either folk art or high art. This isnt a distinction applied by snobs in ivory towers but rather to a differentiation between common creations and outstanding works. Folk art is the lifeblood of any creative medium and the most commonly found type of work. It is the gasoline that runs the engines of our artistic expression and without it our cultures would be dry and uninspiring. Folk art is produced and consumed by the masses and will often vary in themes, structure, and quality from one region to the next based on the standards and expectations encountered in those areas.
Out from among these pieces however emerge examples of work within the medium that are of the highest quality. These works display a technical merit that allows them to be pointed to as consummate examples of their genre. These are the works that our cultures classify as high art. It is from among them that history chooses masterpieces: those singular works of art that survive centuries of change because of their ability to capture so perfectly the essence of human artistic expression within their chosen medium. Electronic gaming has struggled thus far to produce anything that can even be classified as high art, and thus has no potential masterpieces to present as proof of its artistic value.
Every other medium of expression has produced examples of high art for history to judge. Even Hollywood, young as it is when compared to its siblings, has films like The Godfather and Citizen Kane to its credit. Beautiful examples of proficiency in film making, and wonderfully capable of outliving the generation that created them to entertain future film lovers for years and years to come.
This is a feat that the games industry has yet to manage, and I do not believe that it is necessarily a question of technical proficiency that is really holding us back. One need only look to the likes of Will Wright or Warren Spector to see well presented game development theory in the technical vein. As an industry we are eager to engage in discussions about what techniques and forms are involved in the design of good games. I think however there are some crucial barriers to the development of high art within the gaming medium that go ignored in the current discussion and must be addressed before we can move on from our current state of affairs.
First among these is the issue of volume and access. Anyone with the creative urge to paint or play music can for a relatively small investment begin to try. Those who wish to devote a substantial portion of their time to those arts can also acquire the knowledge and tools to improve their work with comparative ease. These artistic fields are very easy to access and as a result many people do. We as human beings universally feel the need for creative expression and given the opportunity we will find a means for it. The oldest form of creative expression known to man requires little more than ones voice and a good story to tell, or at most a pen and paper. Even filmmaking, arguably one of the most cash intensive forms of expression today, can be embarked on with little more than a hand held camera and a vision.
That however is far from the case with electronic games. Even as the cost of acquisition for the barest minimum of tools has come down substantially over the past ten years it is still not nearly as affordable as any other form of art, and the level of expertise required to produce even the simplest games has substantially increased. The technical advancement of the medium is outstripping the pace of the education of the mass market and thus increasing the incline of the learning curve, making public access harder by the day. While it can be said that some developers are working hard to provide players with tools to make their own games (ie: Neverwinter Nights Aurora Toolset) these are exceptional cases and very experimental. There is no industry-wide interest in making development more accessible.
Compounding this dilemma is the simple fact that creating financially successful games is costing more and more each year, further limiting the access that the public at large has to the development side of this creative genre. Publishing houses are attempting to compensate for these costs by downsizing their creative staffs, consolidating development houses under a very limited number of roofs and reinforcing corporate decision making policies that stifle creative risk taking.
This tendency is only serving to cause further stagnation in an already limited pool of creative resources. Developers are getting frustrated and it shows in their work and in their industry conferences. The money flowing into the game industry is increasing by leaps and bounds every year but the ease of access for would-be artists in the field is not experiencing any commensurate increase.
Broader access is essential to improving the artistic quality of a medium because it is access that creates volume. The easier it is to pick up a form of expression the more artists that medium will have. Likewise the larger that pool of human creativity is the more quality you will see rise to the surface. If the cost or expertise required for entry is prohibitive, volume will remain low and the medium will stagnate.
This is a problem that the film industry wrestles with as well, but recent years have seen outstanding developments to improve the level of access to amateur and independent filmmakers and many would argue that the industry has seen a substantial increase in quality of output as a result. Some within the games industry are arguing for a similar structure to aid independent and amateur game developers, a key first step to maturing the industry. These developments stand to do electronic gaming a world of good and may serve as crucial stepping stones to overcome the problems of access and volume of output, but they are still in the early stages.
Secondly and of equal importance is a seeming lack of perspective among the developers and publishers themselves. Too many developers view their games purely as commercial products, or even worse as complex business models. They seem to have no respect for their products role as a form of artistic expression, and until they do why should anyone else? It has been said by many within the industry that gaming is an artistic medium, but vocally acknowledging that and understanding and applying that knowledge to design are two entirely different things.
One of the defining characteristics of art is that it has the capability to touch us on a deeply human level. High art is work that is not just technically superior in its chosen field but which also recreates in itself some authentic element of the human condition. It tells us about who we are as human beings and evokes powerful emotions from us as its viewers, listeners, or readers. We are challenged by art to examine ourselves and also our surroundings. It is this capacity for resonance with the human spirit that causes works like Oedipus Rex to survive centuries of cultural change and to still speak to us today. This is the primary element that remains missing from our games to date. It is the single most troubling obstacle that prevents electronic gaming from producing its first masterpiece and thereby proving its merit as a form of modern expression.
Even luminaries in the games industry do not appear to recognize this, or if they do they have failed to communicate its importance to their peers and are not incorporating it into their games. The subject of our keynotes and panel discussions revolves around such details as intellectual property development and offering significant choices to players. Worthy topics to be sure, and needing healthy public debate, but where are the messages about games as mediums to touch the human soul? The best games that we have to offer prove without exception that technique and technology are viewed more highly than artistic expression. When has a product of the electronic gaming industry ever made a player cry in anything other than frustration? Until that changes we will have no high art to offer society.
To date we have no Coppola, no Tolkien, no Mozart, and certainly no Michaelangelo. We have some very intelligent and extremely talented people in the games industry, but we have yet to encounter an artist capable (or perhaps willing?) to create a work of art that resonates with us as human beings. Whether that is a due to lack of ability or of artificial restraints remains to be seen, but I suspect the latter. The fact remains that our developers are still just creating innovative toys, and unless that changes the public perception of electronic games will not change.
So this year controversy over electronic games marches on as it ever has. Greece has effectively banned electronic gaming as a result of legislators targeting gambling not understanding the medium at all. In Washington this week the state legislature passed a bill which imposes a fine on retailers that sell games depicting violence to law enforcement officers to minors, knowingly or otherwise. In public discussion games are still treated as lesser forms of entertainment. They are regarded as somehow less profitable to us as people than books, movies, music, or visual arts. Even television, often anathematized as a lesser form of entertainment itself, garners more respect for its artistic value than electronic games do. Once again, the root of the problem is the perception of the developers and the audience. This industry has yet to produce the master works required to break down those artificial walls of division that segregate it from other accepted forms of art.
Lest we be consumed by pessimism regarding this state of affairs we would do well to remember that this problem of perception is not one that electronic games can lay unique claim to. Other emergent mediums of the past have suffered the same controversies and the same debates due to a lack of perceived value. Film and most recently television have both suffered through this same struggle, but as independent film development and public access television cleared the obstacles to broader access and higher volume of artistic work in their fields those controversies subsided. As a result the realization has steadily dawned on our society at large that television and film are in fact mediums for artistic expression and may be treated as such.
Sooner or later those barriers which have been enforced both within and around the electronic games industry will come down in like manner. As humans we long for freedom of expression and our natural impulse is to claim for the public domain every artistic medium that exists as an outlet to do so. We will eventually demand that the barriers be removed either through rational debate or through a subconscious refusal to partake of a medium that denies that avenue of expression to us. Electronic games will come into their own eventually.
As in historical changes of the past the rise of electronic gaming to prominence as an art form may not happen as quickly as our futurists would predict or our enthusiasts hope, but it will still happen. I still believe that the PC will outstrip the television and that the entertainment industry will be forced to recognize the potential of electronic gaming to be the most powerful conduit for artistic expression that we have yet developed. The only question is how long that will take, and who will be part of it when it happens.
Its still coming. That future is just taking a while to get here - and it may have to run violently over a few entrenched developers along the way.
If the games industry as it stands now refuses to incorporate this reality into its thinking and develop a public discourse on how to overcome these obstacles it may well have to undergo serious trauma before the mental barriers that hold electronic gaming back can be discarded. If however the leaders in the field are willing to engage now in a debate as to how best to remove those barriers we may well see a reformation from within that is much less calamitous. In either case the issues of access and perspective must be addressed before that inevitable change occurs. Then and only then will those works of high art on which we are waiting be created, and from them history will choose the masterpieces of the art of electronic gaming.
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