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Video games are a legitimate form of cultural expression... right?
Video games are a legitimate form of cultural expression... right?
April 22, 2013 | By Brandon Sheffield

April 22, 2013 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design

Are video games culture?

Speaking at the Digital Dragons game conference in Krakow, Poland last week, Guillaume de Fondaumiere, co-CEO at Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls developer Quantic Dream addressed that perennial question.

While the discussion may seem overdone, it's one he has to have constantly, as he petitions the European Commission to register games, officially, as a form of cultural expression.

"I think there's a big confusion about what video games are," he says, "and usually when we talk about video games and do research on the internet, this is what usually comes up. Video games are violent, they're addictive, but most of the time they're not branded as being cultural, or being a form of cultural expression.

"I think that has to do with the infancy of this industry," he adds. "Games really started as toys. They were very much targeting children and teenagers. And I think there is still this perception in society that video games are still for children, that they're not necessarily for adults."

In the early days of games, they could only trigger simple emotions. They weren't sophisticated enough, he says, to provoke more than primitive responses, like fear, adrenaline, or the simple release of dopamine. "It's much harder to provoke anything more complex than that," he says.

But there's been an evolution in games in the last few years, says de Fondaumiere. "Not only did game developers themselves age, but we're also targeting different demographics now. People who grew up playing games, became adults, and wanted to play something else."

Games have started to inspire new forms of interaction, and new gameplay paradigms. Examples he gave include Final Fantasy VII, Ico, Heavy Rain, Okami, The Unfinished Swan, and Journey. These are "new types of experiences that offered a totally new approach to what games could be, and the types of audiences it could attract," he says.

"All games are a form of cultural expression"

The current institutionalized art forms are architecture, sculpture, visual arts, music, literature, stage, cinema, media arts (tv, radio, photography), and comics. Do games fit as the 10th officially recognized art form? This is the question de Fondaumiere has had to address officially.

"To me, all games are a form of cultural expression," he says. "I see no reason why games should be treated differently than any type of literature or any type of movie. I think that more and more video games are becoming artful, and are becoming a form of art that should be recognized next to the others."

And his proof is the increased proliferation of authors in games. People who express themselves creatively, and individually, such as Goichi Suda, Fumito Ueda, Michel Ancel, and Jenova Chen. What is that if not art?

"But does it really matter," he asks? "Do we really care? Do we need to be formally recognized as art? I think it matters. I think this recognition also brings to a certain degree new business opportunities, and when I started in video games 20 years ago I didn't shout it in the street. 'Oh, what do you do?' 'Uhhhh it's new media, it's *cough cough* video games.'

"Today I can say I'm a game producer," asserts de Fondaumiere. "This sense of pride is important because we need to lure new people to this industry. I've been trying to work with Hollywood talent for years now, probably about 15 years. Up until recently, each time I was talking to agents or talents, they would say, 'We don't do games, sorry. You have to understand - violence, addiction - it's bad for our image.'"

Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, was interested in working with Quantic Dream on games, but someone years ago told him that from an image perspective it wasn't possible.

"We need to dare to be creative"

While de Fondaumiere feels that getting games categorized as art will help inspire business through tax incentives and such, making more adult games comes with additional responsibility.

"I don't think of course that video games are the reason for violent behaviors, or are responsible for addictive behavior," he says," but we need to be careful of what we're doing. We need to be aware that our creations are being played by more and more people. Especially children. Of course we have our nice rating systems, but we know that our games are played by a younger audience than we intend. So we have to be a little more responsible with what we're doing.

"On the other hand, we shouldn't accept everything," he cautioned. "Because games have been viewed as toys, not cultural expression, there has been a lot of restriction in terms of what level of violence, sex, eroticism we can have in our games. We are much more restricted than film, for example."

Ultimately, it's up to game developers to change this perspective from the inside, he says. "We need to dare to be creative," concluded de Fondaumiere. "Seeing ourselves as a cultural form of expression, or even an art form, means we need as an industry to be more creative. We need to stop creating every year the same games over again. Create new IPs, which means publishers have to take a risk, but also players have to take a risk. The audience votes with their wallet in terms of what kinds of games they want to play."

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Michael Ball
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"Heavy Rain"
What exactly was new about Heavy Rain?

Michael Prideaux
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Crippling an otherwise average story by cutting out important scenes... actually I think KotOR2 did that.

Michael Ball
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I don't think Heavy Rain's mechanics can be called unconventional when you take into account that its gameplay relies on nearly all of the same principles as that of Quantic Dream's previous game, Indigo Prophecy; namely, it being centered around QTEs.

Janette Goering
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I think it was less that it was new and more that it was trying to take a lot of the core items from Indigo Prophecy and push it to a wider audience. It did very well at retail and had a bigger reach that IP did, which in turn I feel made more people rethink video games. Had IP been pushed as hard at the time it was released, it could have either been seen as what we see Heavy Rain as now, or would have been a commercial failure and Quantic Dream would have probably gone out of business.

gard skinner
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This reminds me of a TED talk where some guy got up in front of a room of older journalists and tried to justify gaming's value to storytelling.

I can never understand why the justification needs to be made. Gaming, as an industry and a community, dwarfs movies, books, gallery art, you name it. It's bigger than most religions, devotee-wise.

It's like they're still explaining the revolution. The revolution is over. It has been over for a decade. Everyone games.

Lukas Hagg
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I agree. The justification is in the audience. If people enjoy a type of medium, it will flourish. Granted, with that justification comes expectation from said audience, but the same can be said about the film industry.

I take Fondaumiere's words with heaps of salt. Of the five games named in the article, I've played three (Final Fantasy VII, Okami and Heavy Rain), neither of which I would say warrants the term paradigm shift. Don't get me wrong, FFVII and Okami are excellent games (Okami is one of my personal favourite games). But they are far from revolutionary in any aspect.

The common denominator of the games that I can see is that they are all fairly story intense, and that's telling. Fondaumiere, once again, comes across as far more focused on story (ironic seeing as the story of Heavy Rain is rather lackluster) than gameplay. The talk about getting Hollywood talent further presses this point.

Kheper Crow
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What world are you living in?

When I meet someone new and they find out I make games, I very quickly need to emphasize that I don't actually like to play games, due to all the cultural stigmas associated with gaming. In that same conversation I could bring up books and art and I would be perceived as creative or an intellectual. Movies are fine to because it is something easy to relate to. Gaming though, not so many perceived values.

And while it's true many people game, there is a huge difference between playing a game of angry birds and immersing yourself in cart life. Even within the gaming subset of the population there is a small minority of gamers who have actually played anything of significant cultural value.

The industry needs more people talking and more products showing that games are more than what they are culturally perceived as. We have a LOT of negative images we need to shake. I look forward to the day when I can meet a total stranger at a bar and have as deep of a conversation about video games as any other medium.

Kujel Selsuru
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"When I meet someone new and they find out I make games, I very quickly need to emphasize that I don't actually like to play games, due to all the cultural stigmas associated with gaming"

This is proof there is no future for human kind but nerd kind is another matter altogether.

Lukas Hagg
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@Kheper Crow

The best way to combat social stigmas is to challenge them. By cowering in front of them and submitting that "No, I'm not like that. Honest" you're essentially confirming the stigma.

In that sense, I can respect Foundaumiere, since he's standing up for a medium he believes in.

Kheper Crow
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Trust me, I've tried many different strategies. The best by far is dismissing being a game player and focusing on how it's pretty easy and fun work that pays well. Or by showing some of my kind of art pieces with the medium :)

I think this is more of an industry problem that NEEDS to be handled in a broader context. Which is why I think what Foundaumiere is doing is still incredibly important. The people making games really need to step up, move out of the shadows, and become more visible. Not only to the world of gamers, but to the whole of society. It's great that someone shows their game at PAX, but why have I never seen a game being sold at a public fair or market? Especially in an age where more people are open to the possibility of gaming. It's a shame those people are playing farmville when there are so many other experiences they just don't know about.

Merc Hoffner
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"Cultural expression"

It's a funny term, because the idea of expression is missing in videogames from a point of view of an entire culture. Let me explain:

Want to write? Get some paper and pen, or basic word processor, or needle and blood. In 10 seconds flat you can have something written. It's super obvious.

Want to draw a picture? Get a pencil and a wall, or paper, or skin or anything. In 10 seconds flat you can have something drawn. It's super obvious.

Want to film something? Grab any phone or any camera and press the shoot button and in 10 seconds flat you can have a bit of film. It's (now) super obvious.

Want to make a videogame? Get a computer, go on the internet, download a compiler or a development kit, read some instructions and if you know what you're doing, in 10 minutes you can have a line of code. Or a couple hundred lines of someone else's. It's non-obvious.

Let's be accurate here. There is a real videogaming culture. And that culture is expressing themselves - there are many immediate, convenient and universally intelligible outlets for people to do that. But for people to 'express their culture' THROUGH the medium of games is a whole other matter. As it stands, videogames of any level are made by a tiny fractional minority of the population who enjoy playing them, which is in turn a minority culture still in its infancy in the context of the general population. If videogames were as immediately achievable as any other medium, then we might soon be able to say they are representing the actual gaming culture. Until then the potential 'cultural expression' in the medium itself is represented almost entirely by the passions and directions of a minority zealot sub-subculture.

(PS, I expect film would come up as a counter example of a high barrier-to-entry medium that was accepted as a popular and legitimate from of cultural expression, but there are fundamental differences which are lengthy)

gard skinner
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Great angle, this is off to one side, a conversation I recently had about art and culture.

Writing- it's a pretty intimate 1 on 1 communication channel between author and reader. Sure there's an editor, but the author's vision is not really altered by others.

Music- often 1 on 1, or a small group. Art - very much 1 on 1.

Film- much bigger cast, although the director has a lot of power.

Games- a huge cast of players, sound techs, artists, storytellers etc.

So, from a culture perspective, gaming is better able to reflect a culture in that it has so many contributors to the final vision.

The games that will live on past our generation were all products of a large number of innovative contributors. You could argue, from a community-contribution standpoint, that games are the most reflective of our culture of any art form as they take a wider slice of experience to produce.

Hakim Boukellif
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If a drawing of a cube and a video of dog chasing its tail are cultural expression then so is
INPUT "What is your name"; NAME$
PRINT "Hello, "; NAME$; "! ";
Which, depending on your typing speed, can be achieved in less than 10 seconds, provided you already have the needed tools and skills (which is just as true for any of the examples you mentioned).

Certainly, the tools and skills needed for your examples are currently all easily accessible and often already available to most people, but those are all only relatively recent developments. The majority of the population in the western world being literate has only been true in the last two centuries or so. Does that mean books written before that time weren't cultural expression? Camcorders for personal use have only been available since the 1980s and phones that can record video for even less time. Does that mean movies made earlier weren't cultural expression?

You're also forgetting that people aren't just part of a single subculture. They're also part of the culture surrounding their family, world view, local community, town, province, country, continent, species etc. as well as other subcultures that may be completely unrelated to videogames. People are influenced by all those things and those influences end up getting reflected in whatever they express, no matter what medium they use for that.

Merc Hoffner
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On the first point - I think you made my point quite nicely: the example you just used is completely confused gobbledygook to most people, is ultra syntax sensitive (where a single minor description error results in perfect failure of the intended creation to appear), and the results are completely not immediately emergent.

Let me make this simple: Cave men paint. Cave men don't code. The corresponding and direct immediacy of drawing something and seeing a drawing make it an obvious and convergent medium of communication and expression. Sure, inventing language, and writing are abstraction layers on top, and my argument IS that that limits their adoption. And lo, their slow adoption DID limit societies. For centuries only the clergy could read and write. And yes, historians have now pieced together that for centuries the uneducated lay people were culturally unrepresented. Or even worse, misrepresented by those who could. The tools being universal, easy and immediate both for consumption AND production of expression absolutely ARE tied to the quantity, diversity, depth, recognition and acceptance of cultures and sub-cultures.

Like I was hinting at in the post script - coding games and making films really must be compared carefully. First I'd point out that cinema/video actually WAS regarded as 'culturally unworthy' for many decades, and didn't become accepted as something any 'normal' member of society would reasonably dedicate any serious appreciation or passion to until, well, the 60's. Funnily enough the time at which home recordings were just hitting public availability. Cinema was something people enjoyed and was good at representing idealized aspirational high society, but was certainly not regarded a tool for enabling general cultural recordings and expression until, well, the 80's. And didn't really 'transform' society such that society recognized filming everything as a cultural norm until, well, youtube.

Second, I'd point out that the technology to make games cheaply has been widely available to the public nearly as long as the tech to make movies, but the difference in actual implementation is the obviated human/tool interface: like I said, point a clunky 80's video camera or 60's cinemascope and what you see is what you get; Or, code a script and if you're lucky a bouncing pixel might appear. The barrier in directness cuts off 99% of the people who can express themselves even after they can afford it.

As to cultural expression, yes, obviously everything is interwoven. I personally feel that the interactive medium hasn't scratched the surface of the diverse range of things people would express IF the tools were more universal. It would represent cultrures. It would drive new ones. It would transform the cultures that have already emerged. It would lose delineation with other media, just as aspects of our personalities do between the multiple 'cultures' we each inhabit. But right now it's an I/O process for a minority of a minority, and an I process for a (large) minority.

Lars Kokemohr
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The problem with discussions like this one is that so many people don't care about art, they only care about the implications of something being art.

First of all there is a difference between "art" in the sense of "a piece of art" and "art" as "a means of art". Movies are a form of art but that does not mean that each and every movie is a piece of art. It only means that it is possible to create a piece of art by the means of a movie.
I would not even go as far as to say that all movies were culture. Do you think that a porn movie or a documentation has an influence on our culture? These movies will surely influence our rational behaviour but they will most likely not influence our culture as a whole.

Also: something being art does not mean it's in any way better or more honorable as something that isn't art. All it means is that it tries to display an opinion. If you look at art from the 1930s and 40s you will find many pieces of art that surely are not expressing an honorable opinion, but they still are pieces of art.

Michael Pianta
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I think pornography expresses culture (and influences it too). And documentaries definitely do.

Kris Graft
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Keep in mind that de Fondaumiere's reasons for advocating this are also practical from a financial and talent recruitment standpoint. By getting government organizations to officially recognize this means better financial support, and as he mentioned, attracting talent from other entertainment industries. He's not making the argument just for the sake of bringing up the old "are game art" chestnut.

Ryan Watterson
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Well the problem is really that we invented the most sophisticated form of mass media in the history of the universe and then wasted two decades expressing violence, addictions and an unhealthy obsession with sci-fi/fantasy power fulfillment fantasies. Too much time and money spent on voxels and not enough thinking about the forest for the trees.

The mainstream non-gaming masses such as EU government authorities view games as exactly what we have taken the actions to have them be viewed as. Joe Biden hasn't seen Cart Life or Darfur is Dying, or even if he has, everyone knows that the real beast in games is still Call of Duty. Cart Life is comparatively small time. Massively smaller time.

Heng Yoeung
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I think that when you say videogames should be viewed as "cultural experession" or that it is "culturally relevant" or that it is a "form of art", you need to ask "whose culture are we talking about?" What do I mean? Well, to me, art is an expression of the inexpressible through whatever medium you can think of; for example, paperback, cd, dvd, or what have you. Inasmuch as that is so, it transcends any particular culuture. For example, if I were to convey beauty in a painiting, can you parametize beauty by, say, using this kind of stroke or this kind of color? Or, what is the same question, is beauty from this culture different from that culture? No. Beauty is beauty is beauty. You know what it is when you see it; it resonates to you in a way that is more than the sum of its components and irrespective of a particular culture. Just observe the rising of the sun in early morning hours and tell me you aren't awed by its beauty. What in particular makes it beautiful? It's not any one thing. It has to be understood in its totality. It is comprehensible, but inexpressible. You just can't put it into words. This is the idea behind the zen sutra of the lotus flower whereby the Buddha held up the flower and no one uderstood, except one disciple.

So, in order for videogames to be art (or, again, same thing, cultural expression), it has to be culture-agnostic. Or, same thing, it has to be HUMAN culture, not American culture or Japanese culture or English culture, or what have you. The purpose of art is to express things such as the human condition, or some immaterial thing, or some metaphysical notion; in short, the inexpressible.

Videogames, at the present time, can't really be said to evoke anything art evokes. I do see, however, that it has the potential to evoke what art evokes because it is after all just another medium of expression. At present, though, videogames are mainly American culture expression or Japanese culture expression or even English culture expression. It is understandable that the EU doesn't view it as art. There is no inherent value for enlightenment or transformation. Blowing up some enemy's head into a few millioin pixels or just blowing things up in general is not art. The same thing can be said of other videogames themes as currently constituted.

The game which I think is close to art is chess. To a human, it is certainly not a science. You can't calculate all the possible moves you can make even in ten lifetimes in any particular game. You make moves through a combination of wisdom, intuition, creativity, etc., anything but a science. Furthermore, the game is inherenlty contemplative which all art attempts to evoke. What kind of things do you contemplate in chess? Well, materialism, sacrifrice, retreat, surrender, just to name a few. You can learn alot about yourself playing chess. At the same time, at the highest level, the level of grandmaster or international grandmaster, you can learn from these people about the ideas I said one contemplates.

Luis Guimaraes
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"The purpose of art is to express things such as the human condition, or some immaterial thing, or some metaphysical notion; in short, the inexpressible." "There is no inherent value for enlightenment or transformation. " "Furthermore, the game is inherenlty contemplative which all art attempts to evoke." "Beauty is beauty is beauty."

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

So all it takes for something to be art is somebody willing to look for things (contemplative) that aren't there (which is also relative) and make it sound something (immaterial, metaphysical).

David Smith
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"So all it takes for something to be art is somebody willing to look for things (contemplative) that aren't there (which is also relative) and make it sound something (immaterial, metaphysical)."

How about:
Portal reflects the lives of downtrodden, trapped people working for corrupt corporations and how, sometimes, those people can escape the trap.
Or maybe:
Portal is an allegory about slavery and revolution.

The protagonist and antagonist are both female, so you could probably work out something with that.

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"I think there's a big confusion about what video games are," he says, "and usually when we talk about video games and do research on the internet, this is what usually comes up. Video games are violent, they're addictive--"

Implying that Heavy Rain is little more than QTE sequences aside or even bringing anything new, why would we want this man addressing/representing the industry? He clearly is trying to pander to outside sources and also trying to elevate Quantic Dream as this "we are the only ones who are trying to make art" thing.

I've stated before that as developers we should not be concerned with trying to be art, rather we should be making the games that we want to play. Quantic Dream is frankly the opposite. If that's what they want to make, that's fine. But there are so many other talented developers that are making really good games, and not trying to appeal to Ebert (RIP/May the Force Be With You).

Blanket statements, perhaps, but it's a recurring thing anytime a major dev from Quantic Dreams comes to the stand. It's also ho hum, "Oh hey, new IPs, new IPs!". Obviously everyone wants new IPs. But if gamers are voting with their wallets, then innovate there.

Sometimes I feel that some of us forget we're playing games, and not just making them.

Jed Hubic
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If people stopped moaning about how the industry puts out the same games year after year, and instead highlighted some of the more refreshing/unique games whether small time or big budget, I at least, would be much happier.

Also why is it that Quantic Dream always seems to be representing the "cultural" and "emotional" side of the games industry via talks? It's like if choose your own adventure books were setting the standard for pen and paper RPGs.

...I might just be biased against them after being hyped on Heavy Rain, and then realizing that it's every reason why I can't stand the games as art arguments, after purchasing it unfortunately.

Elliot Sharma
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I'm sorry to say that I didn't feel any kind of emotion while playing "Heavy Rain", I only felt frustration. The problem is that David Cage is trying to shoehorn a movie script into a game and it just doesn't work. Also, making a player embody multiple characters in a single game is just stupid. That completely goes against any emotional connection that the designer is trying to establish. Video Games should utilize gameplay mechanics that are simple but allow for emergent gameplay. Storytelling shouldn't be told through cutscenes but through the environment and brief moments of scripted scenes. For all it's flaws Bioshock Infinite does storytelling extremely well and the emotions it made me feel are up there with stories that I experienced through other mediums.

As long as you insist on trying to shoehorn movie scripts into games and provide player agency through quick time events they will never be recognized as art, because as a designer you are unable to recognize the strength of the medium and use it to your advantage. Why will the general public care when other mediums can provide them much richer experiences.

Federico Perez
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I think the discussion is moot. In addittion, it clearly shows that he is very biased for story, which is not bad.
But let us remember games can be meaninful through mechanics as well, and such games are more likely to be more expressive, as the player enacts the message(theme or whatsoever) through the mechanics, instead of trying to identify with Leonardo DiCaprio.

I don't quite follow what he means by cutural expression; he mixes it up with art, emotional expression and business opportunities.

That aside, I do agree with his call to take responsability on what we create.