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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

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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