Why is legitimacy important to game developers? In a word: respect.
We should be respected for the work that goes into making a game. We should be respected for the artistic elements of a game. We should be respected for the intrinsic value of a good game. We should also be respected as something more than creators of silly diversions for children.
Legitimacy also expands what topics we can cover with games. Often people see a game about a tragedy as simply belittling the topic because games are not seen as a legitimate medium.
How can we address adult issues such as the horror of war, the meaning of romantic relationships, or deep topics such as guilt and penance if we are stuck making works that can only be appropriate for children? Being seen as a legitimate medium means we can tackle more issues, tell more stories, and work on the "innovation" that the market and critics keep demanding from us.
Finally, in the United States, legitimacy means we would enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment. Although most judges rule that laws restricting games are unconstitutional, it would be nice to get to the point where lawmakers would consider a law restricting computer games to be as harmful to their career as a law restricting books.
Less cheap shots by politicians means that we can focus on building a viable medium for creating artistic expression as well as opening the themes available for making just fun games.
The next question is, what can developers do to achieve legitimacy?
We could sit around and hope for the best. Assuming that we don't fall victim to the fate comic books had to endure, we will eventually become an accepted part of life as the medium matures and old opponents retire from their crusades.
A more proactive developer may choose to help preserve game history. By preserving game history we give context to our games and can demonstrate the long history of development.
It also gives people, such as academics, an opportunity to understand computer games beyond just what is the current ephemeral state-of-the-art as presented by contemporary marketing. Preserving game history also shows that we care enough about the medium that it should be preserved.
The best solution is to become politically active and focus on protecting game from political influences as well as advocating the legitimacy of games as a medium. This tends to be time-consuming, however, and most of us don't have a lot of time to dedicate directly to such a cause.
What can you do on a regular basis to support legitimacy?
The most important thing is to understand and preserve the history of game development. As mentioned before, preserving history is important. Much of our history has already been lost.
Even if your game isn't poised to be the breakthrough game that gives our profession newfound respect, the development history is still important and should be preserved. Understanding the history of game development will also make you a better developer and better able to discuss games in a thoughtful way.
You should also focus on the positive aspects of games and include them in development as often as possible. Games excel at teaching others, telling stories, and encouraging social interaction, for example. Focus on these positive aspects in your project.
Understanding how other people perceive games is also important so that you can avoid negative stereotypes. Juvenile sexual titillation and hyperviolence enforce the preconceived notions that many people hold. Controversy for controversy's sake can emphasize the childish nature of our games as well. You also should not be afraid to challenge people. Some of the most meaningful works of our time have challenged us.
Finally, take your games seriously. Artistic legitimacy means that we must understand the work we're doing. Just creating simple entertainment or showing up to a company to collect a paycheck doesn't help us achieve legitimacy. Consider how can we emphasize and improve on the positive aspects of gaming.
If you don't take your work seriously, how can anyone else?
Brian Moriarty, Noah Falstein, Richard Dansky, and Victor Jimenez were members of the original Project Horseshoe group along with myself, and helped investigate this issue.
Title photo courtesy of Project Horseshoe.