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Urinals and Pixels: a Letter to Game Developers

by David Wehle on 06/23/15 03:42:00 pm   Featured 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.

 

This was originally posted by my wife on Medium.com, and I've reposted it here with her permission.

Update: A response to the various comments surrounding the article has been added to the Medium.com post.

After Tale of Tales’ recent declaration that they are leaving the industry, gamers’ reactions have ranged from dismay that another indie game company has failed to outrage that such a company even attempted to exist. The variety of responses soon had me thinking about the tension between gamers and game developers, and as an artist, I naturally went to art history for understanding.

And I actually found some connections, so I’d like to start with a small art history lesson. You’ll have to forgive me. I was a visual artist before I ever was a gamer, so this is my home turf. It all relates in the end, I promise.


The Japanese Bridge (The Water-Lily Pond) by Claude Monet

We often think of the Impressionists — artists like Monet, Renoir, and Degas — as infallible, untouchable. Most people love their art. It often adorns calendars and coffee mugs because it is almost universally accepted. However, some people would be surprised to learn that during Impressionism’s inception, society hated it almost as much as they love it now. The Academy, Paris’s all-powerful art organization that decided which artworks deserved recognition, repeatedly rejected the Impressionists. The culture derided their art as “mere cartoons,” demoting their paintings from even being considered art. Even the title Impressionists came from an insult by journalist Louis Leroy, who complained that compared to an Impressionist painting “a preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished.” That had to hurt.

Okay, by now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with videogames. With a history spanning literally tens of thousands of years, visual art has had plenty of time to debate what it is and what it isn’t, and it concludes that it can be almost anything.

Remarkably, visual art includes Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, a series of realistic religious murals, and Duchamp’s Fountain, which is essentially an urinal, all under the same broad category. This didn’t happen overnight, and it couldn’t happen without a lot of people getting angry, complaining loudly, and occasionally resorting to violence. That same Duchamp actually resigned from his post as a director of the Society of Independent Artists, an organization meant to promote the avant-garde art the rest of the fine art community rejected, after he submitted his urinal to one of their exhibitions. Even their outrage was too much for the young artist.


Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

Unlike fine art, videogames have been around for a handful of decades. Compared to the ancient age of art, games are not even a toddler. Shoot, they’re more like a fetus. I’m not criticizing games for their infancy, but it’s only natural that games, like visual art before it, are enduring their own set of growing pains. My husband recently finished his first indie game, a walking simulator after the style of Dear Esther or Gone Home. I helped with the voice acting and a lot of brainstorm sessions, but it was mainly his project. Expecting a barrage of angry comments that consistently accompany any “artsy” game, we both lived in fear of the release date. My husband even developed insomnia from all the anxiety and trepidation. With the gap ever-widening between game developers and gamers, each harshly criticizing each other without any hope of reconciliation, it’s easy for me to understand why so many game developers — most recently Tale of Tales — are bailing. It’s a harsh environment that we sensitive artists can hardly endure, but if we look at history, it’s easy to recognize that this is absolutely normal. We like to pick on gamers as an especially aggressive, opinionated group, but they generally fit the mold of people-who-just-hate-new-art. Unlike their fine art predecessors, most game developers have the journalists on their side. They’re actually a step-ahead of the poor Impressionists we now admire so much.


Sunset by Tale of Tales

Why bring this up at all? It’s because I am sad. I’m depressed that so many artists are leaving game development because of their audience, that they are actually letting their audience dictate their art. Even though Duchamp resigned from the Society of Independent Artists, he kept making art. He didn’t let the angry mobs stop him. Now his art is in countless museums, and Fountain was recently voted the most influential work of modern art by 500 art-world professionals. Please don’t stop doing what you love just because history is repeating itself. Eventually the debate over what a game is and what it isn’t will surrender to more interesting questions, like what makes a game good and important. Until then, I encourage you to keep fighting the good fight. You have countless examples of those who did, and they are the artists we now revere. Your experiments now may become monuments later.


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