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Opinion: Why Raising 'Kane' Won't Help Games' Legitimacy
Opinion: Why Raising 'Kane' Won't Help Games' Legitimacy Exclusive
April 16, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

April 16, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander
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    24 comments
More: Console/PC, Columns, Exclusive



The knell for deeper art, broader sophistication and greater maturity in games just keeps getting louder, but do we really know what we're asking for?

The question of "gaming's Citizen Kane," for example, has become so widely-echoed that it's begun to frustrate fans and industry-watchers alike. Maybe history will show us we've already got our Citizen Kane. Or hey, wait, aren't the cultural and practical differences between film and games so broad that it's useless to analogize?

There's nothing wrong with craving watershed moments for video games, of course. But problem with the Citizen Kane question, as with other similar demands, is that it's begun to reverberate wildly without any practical follow-through on what the answer might look like.

Being dissatisfied with the status quo is easy -- proposing practical alternatives or concrete answers isn't. It's easy to complain about the creative constraints of a hit-driven industry. And it's easy to take issue with the fact that a "recession-resistant", $21 billion industry still serves such a small segment of the market.

Because really, for the purposes of this discussion, it does. It may be fun to point to vague concepts like "casual gaming", "the success of the Wii," or any one of the thousand regular studies that purport that "the average gamer is a 35-year-old woman."

But while there is legitimate progress behind the vagaries -- audiences really are becoming broader, no matter what data you use to back it up. Peggle and Wii Fit don't really fulfill what core fans, bloggers, discussion groups, game critics and industry-watchers are really asking for: artistic legitimacy for games.

"It's a red herring, because we think that having a Citizen Kane will prove our artistic legitimacy, but masterworks are not how artistic legitimacy is proven anymore," says renowned designer and academic Ian Bogost.

If more internet commentators did a quick Wikipedia check before leaping into the debate, they'd see that the Citizen Kane issue is moot, anyway. Although its cinema technique helped movies fully come into their own, films were generally considered "artistically legitimate" right off the bat, so there's really no translatable parallel for games.

"The world doesn't work that way anymore," says Bogost. So as for raising Kane: "We should stop it."

According to Bogost, legitimacy simply can't be judged in the current era in the same way it could when we had few radio stations and fewer television channels, and all art and entertainment existed in individual walled gardens.

"Legitimacy has become distributed, a mesh," says Bogost. "We should all just work on our little vertex of the mesh, like we're weaving a big macrame of legitimacy."

That singular groundbreaking title we crave just won't appear. Rather than expect a Kane-like watershed masterwork, then, Bogost advises people look for multiple individual successes in the broader, evolving landscape.

"Success comes from earnestness, I think," he says. "When we work on ideas that are important to us and make them resound sonorously in our chosen medium, we create little peaks in its topology."

Bogost sees "earnestness" games like Braid, and in the work of Jason Rohrer: "He means it," he says. "It's about things he cares about and expresses well."

Perhaps such "peaks in the topology" indicate that games have not so much answered the legitimacy question -- but rendered it irrelevant.

Just for fun, though -- does Bogost think games have achieved the fabled grail of artistic legitimacy? "The squirrely answer is that I don't think artistic legitimacy exists," he says. "It's a fiction. The simpler answer is no."


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Comments


Richard Cody
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With Braid and Jason Rohrer they hit it. Perfect examples of art, get anyone to play any of those games (especially Rohrer's) and the decision would be unanimous.

Portal is another example. That's a story that'd be boring in a movie, but in the game it works perfectly. That is a game story mastered in its delivery.

Tim Ullrich
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Is it essential that games get recognized as an officially socially-accepted art form? They are in my opinion entertainment more akin to television than movies. You can make the case for games such as Fallout 3 being more like an interactive movie but where is this need coming from? Is it developers and game artists looking for the gold star or unicorn sticker so they can tell their parents? If games need to be looked as art, let's look at them like we would something by Marcel Duchamp and not Rembrandt.

Daniel Kromand
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I would like to disagree that movies were regarded as "artistically legitimate" off the bat. Movies were generally perceived as low-brow and most early actors were first rejected from the world of theater. Sure, some artists used the medium for creating pieces of art, such as Man-Ray, but that was approx. 15 years into its history, plus there's a long way from using a medium in a piece of art to getting the normal narrative form accepted as artistic.

John Paul Zahary
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I believe that artists and gamers need to take a step back and look at the big picture. As this industry progresses, we are constantly breaking new barriers in technology, sound and gameplay. It seems that this "critical turning point," is in the eye of the beholder - what he or she is looking for.



In Citizen Kane, the critical points for me were the use of lighting, camera angles and use of cinematics to convey the feeling in the story. This is something that fine-tuned gaming engines and realistic lighting are doing in video games. However, do not forget where we began.



Gaming has moved from arcade experiences, to the personal home, to global and social interaction through online gaming. Euphoria natural motion has been applied to games like GTAIV and The Force Unleashed to facilitate lifelike, ever-changing AI and environments. Some say OnLive could end the need for consoles. Blockbuster games gross more capital that Hollywood movies. Where do you go from here some might ask?



"Success [will continually come] from earnestness" as stated above.



The envelope of development, technology, and game-play experience will persistently be pushed - gaming and society itself are being merged where a hobby for some has turned into a way of life. The sky is the limit, with many different audiences to choose from.

Simon Prefontaine
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Where is film's "SimCity" ?

Timmy GILBERT
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The question paved by the Citizen Kane of the video games is not meant to be answer, it is just the symptom of something else.



This question is indicative of a drive, the drive for change, progress and growing our beloved medium.

In an attempt to jutify and illustrate this drive, people start arguing. Drop the citizen Kane and another things will come out! This drive is important, it is the sign of vitality of our medium.



Plus, aside from art legitimancy, we still need to pursue Kane (and eisenstein), i don't think we have gotten there yet.

Steve Gaynor
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If your goal was to finally put a lid on the "gaming's Citizen Kane" debate, then I hope you nailed it. If I never have to hear that title brought up in the same sentence as video games again-- hell, I'll throw the "are game art" topic in there as well-- it'll be too soon. Kind of ironic that out of what I assume is exasperation with these topics being driven into the ground over and over, you wrote one of "those articles" that you're trying to put a bullet in.



As for the article itself, well, "here's something Ian Bogost said" isn't necessarily that compelling of a justification for putting the discussion to rest. One guy's opinion, case closed? I dunno. I think that even in a "distributed mesh" there are vertices that peak so high that they pull the surrounding points up along with them, and integrally change the topology for all points generated that follow. I also believe that, if we have the potential for it, these points will naturally appear over time, and that we should stop worrying about it and, as seems to maybe be the unspoken intent of the article, stfu about it.

Tom Newman
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Citizen Kane raised the bar significantly for production techniques and quality far beyond the status quo at the time. Videogames have already had moments like that (GTAIII, FFVII, MGS; too many more to list). After Citizen Kane, several productions tried to match that level, the same way every "sandbox crime game" tries to match the level of GTA.



Citizen Kane did not suddenly turn movies into art. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of films being produced today are entertainment only, with very little artistic merit. Also, very few films that could be considered art have had any commercial success.



What really legitimized film was box-office numbers. GTAIV was talked about on every major news outlet not because it was art, but because it made a boatload of money on the first day of it's release.

Dave Girard
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Bogost is dead on. The demand of artistic legitimacy for games is kind of ridiculous and is coming from people who don't know what it means to be legitimate in today's artistic climate. "Artistic legitimacy" coming from gamers means filling up some nebulous creativity jar until it reaches the line drawn by themselves. They are simply tired of being called children and it says more about the gaming media than it does about games. Do we really want to be playing Duchamp's Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors or Deleuze & Guattari's Rhizome? You could say that Portal is a postmodern game but this all comes back to the game media, who wouldn't recognize it.



I love art and love games but I'll settle for hammy anime conspiracy plots because I've seen enough bad attempts at art.

Isaiah Taylor
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Its hard to admit the fault of an artistic outlet. Coming from a field that struggled for its own artistic 'recognition' [photography] I can only say time will tell. Hard to say to an entire nerd-culture to 'stop asking for more' when we keep getting a glossier version of 'less'.



Asking for legitimacy is one thing [and i'm with you to a certain extent Leigh & friends], but in a culture of Terminator-esque games and titles that end with 'z', this should only encourage to ask...demand, more from this broading media. They got theres so why get up in arms when I'm merely 'asking' for mines?



Of course its tiresome to consistently hear 'Where's my Citizen Kane' video game, hell there are critics in the movie industry asking for another 'Citizen Kane'. Bogost is smart he makes valid points. I just don't think its a "video game culture" asking legitmacy from the film community and/or art community. The video game world has made it to a very noticible plateau, very similiar to what hiphop [in the late 80's] and photography[early 40's].



We may already have our Citizen Kane, but even Citizen Kane was recognized to a certain magnitude when it was initially released.

Michael Rivera
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Well, I don't know that much about film, but I always thought Citizen Kane's legacy was more demonstrating what was possible with the medium rather than legitimatizing movies as art. By that standard video games have already had their Kane a few times over (and these games even mirrored Kane's lackluster box office earnings to boot).

Allen Seitz
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I don't usually comment on articles here, but thank you.



I'm of the opinion that you can't be a hero or a "Kane" in the present. Those honorific titles only exist in the past tense. First you have do something worthy, then history judges you one way or the other. You can't be legend in your own time. (Unless you're a legend twice over or something.) So when people ask for our CK, what are we supposed to do? "Yeah, I'll get right on that."



What CK contributed to film were new production techniques and a higher quality bar. In video games we call that polish and production values. A previous commenter suggested that our CKs were GTA and Metal Gear Solid, then. I'll agree with that.



Also, what CK apparently invented, any film could use. Even a documentary could benefit from the new technology. But video games don't have as much common ground between them. The polish in MGS doesn't translate to DDR or Mario Kart, for example. The high production values of MGS don't even help us with other more similar "one guy sneaking around a map" games like Zelda or Assassin's Creed. Video games are too diverse for one game to raise everyone's quality bar all at once.

Isaiah Taylor
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I think what we are collectively looking for is 'content' on the level of that of a well written book, a well constructed painting, or an epic symphony. Depending on where you're coming from, games have done exceptional in a 'parts vs. sum' way of looking at it. But you'd be hard pressed to say that this one game did it all exceptional.



I really don't see a problem asking for exceptional work. Devs get frustrated? Fine.

Tim Huntsman
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Simon Préfontaine Asked:

16 Apr 2009 at 7:25 am PST

Where is film's "SimCity" ?





http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koyaanisqatsi ;)

Dave Girard
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KOOOYAAAAAAANISSSS YAHTZEEEE

Jesse Crimson
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The idea that film began as "art" is incorrect. Much like video games, they began as a novelty medium. They were shown between variety stage acts, in lecture tours, and later in Nickelodeons. It wasn't until the development of dedicated "theaters" (two decades after film's invention) that movies finally found a mainstream audience and began telling fully developed narratives.



I don't think it's a mistake for the game industry to "think artistically," even if that means incessantly bringing up the "Citizen Kane Syndrome" every other week--despite the fact that Citizen Kane wasn't the most important, first, or most revolutionary of art films.



What movies like Citizen Kane (and much earlier The Birth of a Nation) showed the world is that big budget, mainstream films could also be art. That being artistic with the medium didn't mean you had to be producing small films that no one outside of a museum would see. I have enormous respect for small game designers doing artistically minded work, but I'm craving something larger scale. The industry does indeed need its D.W. Griffith, its Orson Welles, its Hitchcock.



Of course games aren't the same thing as film. I don't think that's what's informing the persistent analogy. But they share much in terms of the way both industries are structured (production, financing, distribution, etc.) and how both media are made creatively (similar division of creative labor). They also share a similar history. Films were a novelty for 2-3 decades before hitting their stride.



Games are right on the cusp of emerging from the "novelty" stigma. The industry's going in two complementary directions. So-called casual gaming, while reaching a broad audience, is taking games back to that "novelty" era. Meanwhile, non-casual gaming is hitting higher and higher budgets and production values and is utilizing more and more complex storytelling methods and modes of interaction--but the audience isn't growing all that much. Seems like a good sign to me of where the industry's headed. And if it takes keeping "Citizen Kane" in our sights in order to bring more artistic gaming to a bigger audience, then so be it!

Armando Castillo
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The industry is just looking for validation when is really not need it. We don't need a Citizen Kane because we have our own master pieces think ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, Mass Effect, Half Life, Portal, Etc, etc....

Video games as art is an unnecessary argument because detractors would always dismiss them as such, but when you think about art is nothing but an experience. Here is what I mean:



The Pieta

Casablanca

Mass Effect



Those are some of my favorite works that I have ever seen. They all provided an amazing experiences. Who cares what other industries think, I am having a great time playing wonderful, artistic and fun video games.

Bobby A
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If there is really a large group of people looking for this so-called "artistic legitimacy" who are not game developers themselves then I say it's up to them to teach themselves how to make games and get out there and make some artistically legitimate games.



After a few years as a contractor working for a list of companies, I have yet to speak to a developer who is interested in doing this.



Come on, let's see it!

Bob Stevens
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Games need a Cahiers du Cinéma more than they need a Citizen Kane. One of the reasons Citizen Kane is so highly regarded in the first place is that Cahiers created and nurtured auteur theory.

Derek Lebrun
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This is the 3rd anti-games as art piece I've read on Gamasutra in the last 2 months. Coincidence?

Richard Terrell
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@ Stephen Keating



The work you speak of is being done on my blog. You asked a lot of very important questions, and they're the kind of questions that I ask myself and address. We should talk.



Here's a link...

http://critical-gaming.squarespace.com/blog/2008/10/11/dw-prerequ
isites.html



Cheers

Christopher Wragg
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@Tim Ullrich

I think there are a lot of reasons behind why this push for artistic legitimacy is around. One such is indeed the breed of developer who is dissatisfied with the production of works he feels below him and is indeed "looking for the gold star or unicorn sticker" so that he can toot his own horn a bit. But that's not the only reason for the argument (quite a minor one in fact). There are a lot of developers genuinely frustrated at the stagnancy evident in, if not all, a large portion of the game industry. Many games produced are almost carbon copies of other games (I truly don't have a problem with this, as long as there's a market keep up the good work fellas). Even more of this frustration comes from a subset of the players. There's a large number of players who enjoy games, if not solely, for their "artistic" merit, enjoy them a lot more for it. In all honesty the most vocal advocates of this group just won't be happy until "ALL" games meet their criteria, which they never will (hence the arguments continuity, damn us people and our opinions =P ).



@ Dave Girard

Your right about one thing, another large portion of where this push comes from is the idea that once games are accepted as a legitimate art form, people will stop treating gamers like children. In truth this is no small issue, and having the world recognise games as art isn't a bad way of accomplishing that. I think the argument about art in games isn't ridiculous at all, it's in fact a necessary discourse that not only seeks recognition from the wider world, but also drives the industry to new heights. A bad attempt at art is infinitely better than no attempt at art.



@All

One of the biggest issues here isn't really the artistic content, as many have said already, much of the artistic content is already there, we may well have had our Citizen Kane moment. The problem lays in the fact that games don't and never have been in the public eye to the same extent that movies are. I think we'd be about there when you can open a newspaper and find next to the article detailing the new music and reviewing the new movies, you could find a section reviewing the new games (sure, in some magazines and newspapers you can find that, but never to the same extent as the movie, music or book sections)



In truth whether people are right or wrong about art in games, or our own Citizen Kane, the discussion should never, ever be told to stop. It's this constant flow of ideas, critiques and discovery that aid the industries growth, if everyone stopped demanding change then change would not happen. If one day everyone said, "ok that's artistic enough", then the potential that games have as a media would be wasted. The simple fact that we can have such discussions already puts the industry on par with the film industry in artistic creativity or the potential for it, even if the public doesn't recognise it.



As for legitimacy, it's a by-product of time. Nothing legitimised over night, everything went through a process of being hated by those who were rooted in their current mediums of art and entertainment, and then as those who supported the new media (for whatever their reasons, but it's usually the young), grow up, they begin to take on the positions of import in our world. They become our politicians, our big business owners, our art studio owners, our doctors and psychologists, our museum curators, and if the important people accept something as mainstream, then it becomes mainstream, it's how it's always happened, and it will continue to do so time and time again.

jaime kuroiwa
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The problem is not that we don't have a Citizen Kane game or achieved artistic legitimacy, but that the moment has already passed us by.



It's called Tetris.



Now that that's established, can we move on? Please?

Gregory Kinneman
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Jaime, you said it all. Games should not be movies. They should be games. We already have great ones.


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