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The Designer's Notebook: Revenge of the Highbrow Games
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The Designer's Notebook: Revenge of the Highbrow Games

September 29, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

That quality characterizes other elite media too. Shakespeare is highbrow now when he wasn’t back in 1600 because Elizabethan English is difficult to understand now and it wasn’t back then. Likewise, you’re not going to catch the unbelievable number of multilayered references in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land unless you’ve read a lot of other things as well – and that means you’re educated. Complexity and depth make art forms highbrow. Placing demands on the audience’s mental energy does too. This suggests is that the real target audiences for highbrow games are:

The contemporary arts community, and other people with high aesthetic standards, whether for music, art, animation, story or gameplay. Are book-lovers and art-lovers a possible audience for highbrow video games? You bet they are. All we need is some video games that are, unmistakably and unashamedly, works of literature or art rather than popular culture. But they must not compromise. I’ve seen a few video games at art exhibitions in Europe, and I hope to see more.

Smart people, who enjoy using their minds when they play. These are the people who appreciate the serious simulations. If intelligence were the sole criterion, it would make all puzzle games highbrow; but they have to be aesthetically appealing or innovative as well.

Educated people, who find that their knowledge is a source of fun, and people who like to learn about new ideas. I don’t mean people with Ivy League degrees; they can be either formally-taught or self-taught. What matters is that they derive pleasure from knowing things and from finding their knowledge useful in an entertainment context. That’s why historical war games are candidates – people who know history get extra enjoyment from them. But we have to address a lot more subjects than war.

What highbrow interactive entertainment doesn’t mean, however, is:

Rich people. Rich people patronize elite art forms because doing so helps to maintain their social standing, and that in turn benefits the form by providing it with a constituency that’s too important to ignore. Rich people also spend a lot of money on expensive status symbols: cars, watches, designer clothes and accessories, hobbies like polo and yachting. But rich people aren’t an ideal audience for highbrow video games. Owning a private box at the opera house works as a status symbol because it costs a lot and people can see you there. Owning a video game doesn’t work as a status symbol any more than owning a DVD of a movie does. You can’t show it off to other people and feel cool about it.

If rich people have a role to play, it’s as potential donors (I won’t say investors) to the development in a highbrow game because they’re already interested in those kinds of things. Money doesn’t give you taste, but if you have money, you can certainly commission works that meet your tastes.

Cultural snobs. These people are a waste of space. We can debate whether opera is a more sophisticated form of entertainment than professional wrestling (the soap-opera “plots” of pro wrestling are at least as subtle as the plots of most operas, which isn’t saying much), but either way, I’m vigorously opposed to anybody who would try to prevent WWF fans from attending the opera if they want to. High culture needs more supporters, not fewer, and as long as it doesn’t have to sacrifice its integrity to get them, I say, let ’em all in! Elite does not have to mean exclusionary. Snobs are losers. They create nothing; they benefit no one.

So we’re getting somewhere. We have some potential customers, and a few games that are heading in the right direction, although I don’t think they’ve arrived yet. Most of the games people wrote to me about were nominated because they stand out from the common herd, but we can’t judge whether a game has achieved highbrow status by comparing it to earlier games.

The real question is, are there any games whose level of cultural acceptance as an elite form approaches that of other media – which means returning to the original question, where’s our Merchant Ivory? Can we make games, or rather, interactive entertainment experiences (the word game carries too much baggage) that receive that level of respect? I think we can, we should, and we will, provided the vision and courage are there.

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