The Designer's Notebook: Revenge of the Highbrow Games
September 29, 2006 Page 1 of 4
One of the more enjoyable things about writing this column is seeing what kind of responses I get, and after last month’s edition (“Where’s Our Merchant Ivory?”) boy, did I get responses. The topic was “highbrow games,” and I said I thought we didn’t have any yet. To explain what a highbrow game might be, I used an analogy from filmmaking. The Merchant Ivory production company makes what I think of as highbrow films – rich, nuanced works dedicated to exploring ideas and relationships among people. The difference between high culture and popular culture, I claimed, is that high culture refuses to compromise its standards for the sake of a larger audience.
Apart from the Merchant Ivory analogy, I deliberately left the definition of “highbrow” rather vague, partly because I wanted to see what interpretation my readers would put on it. What I’m going to do now, after taking a look at some of the points of view I heard, is to continue exploring the question of what a highbrow game is and who its potential audience might be. But first, let’s see what’s in the mailbag.
We can dismiss the more stupid responses pretty quickly. As I predicted, there was a fair bit of reverse snobbery (“I’m proud that I don’t like literature or classical music, and video games should never be for anybody but people like me”) as well as some regular snobbery (“Merchant Ivory films are powdered-wig costume dramas for middle-class faux intellectuals”). Actually, most Merchant Ivory films are about post-colonial India, not noted for its powdered wigs. Both attitudes are ignorant and tiresome.
A surprising number of people don’t read very carefully – to all those who asked if I understand how games are financed, read the article again. I said more than once that elite forms of entertainment have to be funded differently from their popular culture cousins. Oh, and to those who somehow concluded that I’m an art critic: My online bio says clearly that I’m a game designer. I’m about as qualified to be an art critic as I am to be an NFL linebacker.
One would have a hard time finding
a powdered wig in 1983's
The Courtesans of Bombay
Unfortunately, the reference to Merchant Ivory confused some readers, who thought I was asserting that games should be more like movies. I didn’t say that, however, and I’ve never believed it. For the last fifteen years I’ve been warning that games aren’t movies and that most filmmakers don’t understand interactivity. I was talking about the spirit that informs Merchant Ivory’s work, not the mechanics of the medium. In fact, I named several different kinds of entertainment that have elite forms: books, dance, music, and film. For the record, I’m not saying video games should be more like dance, either.
Several people pointed out that much of what we see as high culture achieved that status because it’s old. Longevity imbues a work of art with respectability regardless of its original purpose – and of course, time tends to weed out the inferior works. For every Mozart there are dozens of classical composers who went to their graves and are forgotten.
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