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Games Shouldn't Be Anything
by Chris Pasley on 04/07/09 09:00:00 pm   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

I am getting exasperated by all the game developers out there who every day make a new rant about what games should be. Games should be art, games should be mindless fun, games should be power fantasy, games should be emotional. It's almost as common as people saying what games shouldn't be. Games shouldn't be movies, shouldn't be novels, shouldn't be polarizing, shouldn't use these sort of controls or these mechanics or these types of characters or be made solely for that particular gender. Enough!

Games shouldn't be anything.

Much of my reaction to this constant preaching probably originates from my college days when I was constantly bombarded by the bigotry of standardized academia about what was and wasn't “literature.” Somehow I was supposed to believe that Ethan Frome was world class art, but Dhalgren was just escapist fantasy (as if literature didn't have its own grand and well-documented escapist history.) Angry at what I saw as arbitrary line-drawing, I developed a firm distrust of any theoretic attempts to categorize and guide the creation of new works based on these flimsy designations as forced stagnation, tied to rules and conventions that are only set because someone first did them a hundred years ago.

The game industry is suffering from the same thing science-fiction has suffered from for years: genre envy. Like SF among its fiction peers, we want our works to be respected at the same level as film classics or timeless works of literature. That's understandable; we're artists (or craftsmen, depending on your point of view) and we want our efforts not to go unrecognized. I personally feel that games can be every bit as great as any of these recognized art forms, but for all the squabbling about what games should or shouldn't be to either accomplish that goal or dismiss it, we miss what makes those classic works worthy of worldwide respect. No one decided that Citizen Kane should be a great movie. They just made what they wanted to, and it turned out great. I can't imagine that Shakespeare spent too much time debating how he could make Twelfth Night respectable; he just sat down and wrote masterpieces. This is what I feel we're beginning to lack; we have lots of meaningful and enthusiastic debate, but in the end it's pointless for a gaggle of game developers to say what games should be. If you think a game should be a certain way, then just make it that way.

If your game truly is great because of your contributions and your point of view, then the rest of the industry will see that and follow suit. If you think the elegant and sophisticated story of BioShock didn't cause a stir among developers, then you weren't paying attention. The course of popular media is shaped not by the debate of onlookers, but by the works themselves. Greatness builds upon greatness; without Chaucer there would have been no Shakespeare.

Now to bring the rhetoric back to earth: I'm not saying we shouldn't discuss our art. I'm not saying we shouldn't debate. Debate can be where the seeds of great ideas originate, and a good argument is healthy and useful for unseating old and established ideas. But first we have to do away with the idea that games should be one thing or another. Have your thoughtful introspection. Have your power fantasy. Have your games shaped for only one gender. No matter what you call any of those things, there isn't a single one that can't be fantastic, and we're censoring ourselves to think that a game should be any one way or accomplish any one thing. Our computer screens are to us what blank canvases are to painters; we may be in the era of realism, but that doesn't mean someone else can't make an impressionist masterpiece.

So, my final point at the end of this rambling: quit talking about it. Do it. And others will follow.

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Aaron Pierce
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Couldn't agree with you more, my friend. Well said.

Christopher Wragg
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Agreed, that's all I have to say to this.

Neil Sorens
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In my view, a great deal of discussion about what games should aspire to be pertains only to our periphery. The vast majority of game developers have little or no say in the direction and purpose of the game their are making. They may have influence over individual parts: story, art direction, game mechanics, etc. However, all these elements are subservient to an overarching purpose: to convince consumers to buy the game by offering entertainment value to the game's owners. The primary purpose is not to create something beautiful or awe-inspiring, to satirize, inform, reflect. Yes, there are a few expections, which is why I said "a vast majority" rather than "all."

Most games are simply toys created with software. They are products designed to entice and to entertain consumers, nothing more. Miyamoto says, not quite in those words, that all games should fall into this category. From a business standpoint, he is absolutely correct, and the business standpoint is the one that allows the vast majority of games to be created at all. People buy games for their entertainment value. A game that does not entertain cannot make money, and game that cannot make money rarely has sufficient resources behind it for the vision of its creators to be fully realized. Think Mozart with a ukulele or Michaelangelo with Play-Doh.

Toys share another similarity with software games: toys are often changed/upgraded slightly and sold as a new product. The most popular toys are almost always new versions of older toys. What other form of media does this? I'm picturing Beethoven re-writing some of the harmonies and various instrument parts for his 5th symphony, adding another movement, and calling it no. 6. Or New Line Cinema throwing a few extra battles into Return of the King and selling it as Return of the King 2: Great Battles of Middle Earth. I suppose you could argue that this happens in the music world with remixes and covers, but those are more analogous to remakes (Quest for Glory VGA, various "HD" XBLA classics, etc.) than to sequels.

So I guess the short version is, saying "do it" doesn't really apply to most of us, who have little choice but to create what makes the bean-counters happy. We're the tuba player, and we play what someone else has written for us. There's little point in making those few notes rebellious or out of sync with the whole. Although we can discuss and imagine and plan, we can't "do it" because that is not our role, and we can't hire our own orchestra.

Chris Pasley
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I do understand what you're saying, and yet how many of the greatest works of art and music were written on commission, with patrons demanding statues of giant bronze horses or odes to their wives? Movies and novels face this same dilemma; without a studio or a publisher or a distributor few works that are not deemed ripe for general consumption ever see the light of day. And yet they still manage to have wonderful experiences in all genres, from blockbuster to art house. Is it not possible to create a truly great FPS WWII game? The limitations you're talking about are real, but shouldn't be any real barrier to creating great work. You can either make Starship Troopers or you can make Blade Runner. Both are futuristic SF movies.

And I don't think most game devs are the tuba players. They're Mozart's assistants, filling out chords and harmony based on his themes. Whether the theme was based on a heavenly inspiration or a barroom ditty doesn't matter; it's what they do with it that counts.

Still, it would be a lot easier if more game devs get to the position where they get to make the decisions. If that's heading your own studio, or just being very persuasive in selling your vision, great. The world is an easier place for you. But for others, that's why the indie game scene is there and growing stronger.

The biggest real debate in my opinion that has any great merit is convincing people that having to decide between popularity and greatness is a false choice. I mention it a lot, but I think BioShock was a great example of that. It broke new ground in a lot of ways while still being remarkably sellable. There's no reason any one of us can't do the same.

By the way, a piece written by Mozart for the ukulele would have kicked ass. It's the talent, not the medium.

Jeff Beaudoin
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Good post, Chris.

Neil Sorens
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I agree with the sentiment that there tends to be too much navel-gazing. I also constantly see developers failing to apply the same lessons they preach (Koster's Theory of Fun vs. Star Wars Galaxies, for instance). And of course, there is usually little of practical value to be learned when some guy with unlimited creative freedom, time, and budget does his GDC presentation, because few of us will ever be in the same position.

In making my previous comment, I had actually gone off on a tangent about how in the video game world, patrons don't commission developers to create video games for the purpose of prestige and their own gratification. Then I erased it as unnecessary before posting. It's interesting that you'd you use the patron angle to support your argument.

Maybe tuba players isn't the best analogy. I think the movie business is a more apt comparison. Most of us are key grips and cameramen and the like, while all the important decisions that determine the direction of the final product are in the hands of just a few people: the producer, the director, the lead actors, etc.

My argument is not that you have to choose between making a successful product or a magnificent piece of art, only that most of our contributions are too low-level to influence the overall direction of a game. We rarely even get to pick what projects we work on, much less have any say in what gets green-lighted. We're not paid enough for one project to be choosy about the next one. And how many artists can you have collaborating on a single project before no single vision is discernable in the final product? Clearly, there cannot be 100 artists on a 100 person team.

You may be right about Mozart's skills translating to other instruments or musical genres, but it is very rare to see that happen in the game industry, especially among game designers. Almost all of the big ones are one-trick ponies, creating the same type of game over and over and falling short when they try to expand their repertoire: Meier, Molyneux, Wright, Garriott, etc. Even when we are in positions of relative power, we're often not making what we want to make. We're Tarantino directing a tear-jerking coming of age drama or Bay chairing a low-budget, effects-free remake of Singleton's Pluck.

How can we make art when we're realizing someone else's creative vision, not ours?

I also have a quibble over the "Bioshock is art" canard. How can it be art when the original creative vision is compromised and watered down because of focus group testing? If you're letting your audience dramatically alter the direction of your creation and are sacrificing your vision to improve your commercial prospects, you're not making art. In my opinion.

One last point: like beauty, art is the eye of the beholder. Our primary audience is not a particularly sophisticated or appreciative beholder. As I said before, they (not unfairly) perceive our work as toys, not artistic endeavors. Our hurdle is that our creations, by their nature, must be successful as toys in order to be appreciated, and toys aren't given serious consideration as an art form.

Bob McIntyre
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Neil: "I also have a quibble over the "Bioshock is art" canard. How can it be art when the original creative vision is compromised and watered down because of focus group testing? If you're letting your audience dramatically alter the direction of your creation and are sacrificing your vision to improve your commercial prospects, you're not making art. In my opinion."

You can say that Bioshock is bad, bland, lazy, or uninspired art because it's compromised or watered down. That's fine. Call it crappy art if you want, but it's still art even if you think it's dumbed down and not very creative.

To your "last point," any mainstream medium has this exact issue. Try putting something on network TV or getting a big-budget movie filmed and run in theaters, or getting your band any kind of serious support from a major label. If you want to compete on that level, you have to make sure that it'll play in Peoria. The lowest common denominator has to be willing and able to pay for it.

By the way, we make games, not toys. A toy is an object like a GI Joe action figure. It's just a thing, it has no rules or play mechanics. You can make up a game to play with toys (like a tabletop war game), but the toys themselves are not games. We generally produce games in the form of data, so unless you play with DVDs (as frisbees?), they're not toys. For that matter, downloadable games don't even have a physical manifestation that we can handle. But I agree that games, right now, are not widely taken seriously as a medium capable of expressing ideas other than "you should steal cars and attack people for no reason."

Chris Pasley
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It's not even about art. "Art" is a meaningless label, like "literature." It's about making something great, whether it's the games industry's "Godfather" or its "Die Hard." It doesn't matter if Roger Ebert says it's art as long as it's awesome. Let history decide whether it's art. It shouldn't really be important to us. We should just be making things they way we personally think they should be made.

About focus groups, I agree they're a necessary evil, but I think it's important to pick and choose your battles from them. Even "artists" will get opinions on their work from time to time, but they should know when to ignore that advice on important issues. Using a focus group shouldn't invalidate something as art - but then again, as I said, it doesn't really matter anyway.

Adam Bishop
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"No one decided that Citizen Kane should be a great movie. They just made what they wanted to, and it turned out great. I can't imagine that Shakespeare spent too much time debating how he could make Twelfth Night respectable; he just sat down and wrote masterpieces. "

I think your overall point is a good one, but I can't really agree with the bit that I quoted. Many artists absolutely make their art with the goal of it being important, great, etc. George Orwell said that he wrote with the goal of promoting democratic socialism. Fyodor Dostoevski wrote his novels largely to argue against nihilism and socialism (which were largely intertwined in Russia at the time). Citizen Kane was definitely an attempt to make a "great" movie. "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys was Brian Wilson's attempt to make an album as important as what the Beatles were doing. It's true that the creators' intentions don't ultimately decide what succeeds or fails commercially or culturally, but I think it's incorrect to suggest that artists don't set out to create "great" works of art.

Neil Sorens
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Well, my conception of art--and there are many other valid ones--is the realization of a creative vision. Bioshock isn't that. It's a product designed to consumer specifications. But the point is not to quibble ad nauseum about the definition of art, which can be as narrow or as broad as you like, but to explain, by contrasting our roles as game developers with those of acknowledged creators of art, why we can't just "do it."

Toys and games are built expressly for interaction that provides entertainment or other kinds of enjoyment to their users. Their differences do not have a significant effect on society's perception of them, but their common purpose does. In other words, you're right, but for this particular discussion it's irrelevant.

Chris Pasley
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You can make anything to have a point or a broader message, but that's not what I'm talking about. Obviously Orwell made the movie to be good; very few people go in trying to make a bad or mediocre movie. But what he didn't do (I don't think) is trumpet the elements that he thought would make a movie great art and wait for someone to make something like it. I think what few successful "artists" do is sit down at a blank canvas and decide "I'm going to make an important work of art to be revered by all!" Amateurs do that. Instead they (mostly) focus entirely on making a great painting, and then society agrees to call it art afterward.

Eric Carr
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"Games Shouldn't be anything."

I think it should read "Games should not suck."

As long as we can do that as an industry, then yes, everything will get better and more respected.

Good article.

Chris Pasley
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Tim Carter:

"The problem, Chris, is that the established institutions of game development DO indeed state what games *should* be. They should be big-budget first-person shooters about marines fighting aliens. (You get what I mean.) So a lot of this discussion is about throwing off the chains of those with limited creative imagination."

You're assuming big-budget first-person shooters about marines fighting aliens can't be awesome. ;) There had been a million sci-fi movies made when Alien came out, but it still managed to set itself apart. Discussion is fine, but not when it doesn't lead to action.

"So essentially, you're position here is that we sholdn't argue; we should just avoid the controversy. "

No. I'm saying do argue, but rather than pointing fingers and declaring a million definitive definitions of what games are and should be (rather derisively as some people have done lately), the people who make these arguments should walk the walk and actually make these games. Also people shouldn't set arbitrary rules like "Games shouldn't be like movies with 45 minute cut scenes!" I think MGS4 was amazing, for example, and if Hideo Kojima listened to the gestalt of the collective game developer wisdom, that game wouldn't have been the strange masterpiece that it was.

"Deciding to avoid this controversy is a just as much a position on what "games should be" as jumping into the fray and making a vocal stance."

Talking about the controversy does not do nearly as much to resolve it as making a game that blows the controversy out of the water would. Lucky us, it turns out we all know some game developers who could do this for us!

Jeff Beaudoin
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The difference between toys and games is absolutely relevant. Games are directed experiences, and that is how expression within them is achieved. Toys are not.

Your point that "Art is in the eye of the beholder" doesn't make sense. That quote refers to the quality of the art, not its existence, so inferring that we must make games that are judged as toys in order for them to be art is ridiculous.

Also, this contradicts your point about Bioshock, as you are saying that we have to make art that appeals to the masses in order for it to be art, but Bioshock is not art because it was altered to appeal to the masses (an idea that is ridiculous in itself).

Insisting that artistic vision can only be fulfilled by a single person with no outside influence, carrying the torch of their intention for the game is nonsense. Game creation is, by and large collaborative, which does not inherently inhibit artistic expression, as you seem to imply. The Sistine Chapel was not painted by Michaelangelo alone. If you want more direct control over the artistic expression in a game, make some indie games. There are plenty of tools out there for you to use.

This debate is sort of ridiculous. Since I have thrown out examples from music and movies in past responses on this topic, here is a literature one:

Lord of the Rings is a good book, but so is Harry Potter. Can't we have both in video games?

Raph Koster
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FWIW, Theory of Fun came AFTER SWG, and was driven in part by seeking to understand some of the things that went wrong in SWG.

Also FWIW, I don't know of ANYONE in the industry who really has "unlimited creative freedom, time, and budget." :)

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Chris Pasley
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It's odd to complain that today's games are watered down for mass audiences with one hand and then dictate that game conventions should be drawn only from that same mass audience. Metal Gear Solid 4 was awesome. It was an unorthodox design that made the game a cinematic masterpiece, while making sure the gameplay was fun.

You say taking the player out of the game with an FMV is BAD GAME DESIGN. That's just the sort of bromide I'm complaining about. The Final Fantasy and Metal Gear series are loved and revered by millions. It works for them, and all the theoretical truisms you cling to are often not lessons learned but dogma repeated blindly.