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Making Games Art: The Designers' Manifesto
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Making Games Art: The Designers' Manifesto

March 31, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

The Image Problem

Computer games have always had a major image problem. The games that get the most publicity tend to be the most violent, sexist, juvenile, and just plain dumb. The public perception of gamers, one not supported by current statistics, paints the picture of Doritos and Mountain Dew-fueled teenage boys with a violent, sexist, juvenile, and just plain dumb streak. So what image would you expect game designers to have (if they had one at all)?

Games are marketed in a way to serve this real but niche audience, creating in the process a public perception of a violent, sexist, juvenile and just plain dumb game industry. Of course there are many, many games and gamers that do not fit this model, but they are not receiving the same amount of press or promotion. If you look at how film, music, novels, or most any other expressive form of culture are promoted, the problem becomes fairly clear.

The existence of casual games, the Wii, serious games, art-games, etc. have not put much of a dent into the problem. Part of the problem here is that the AAA industry and the press that covers it don't recognize these other kinds of games as legitimate. In many cases, games are marketed and developed for a similarly stereotyped and narrow demographic.

The rich history of video and computer games over the last thirty years should be referenced to see that games can be much more than violent, sexist, juvenile and just plain dumb.

In part because of the living-in-the-now culture, in part because of technical obsolescence built into modern computing, there is very little historic knowledge of the history of video and computer games.


There are a number of useful solutions, some already in action, some that can be borrowed from other media, some that need to be put into place. An important step is largely a PR maneuver -- change public perception of video and computer games as part of the larger continuum of games running from card and board games to game shows to sports.

The point of this is to make the seemingly obvious point that games have been part of our culture for as long as we've had culture, and that we can see them as something more than mindless entertainment for teenage boys.

Making the rich history of video and computer games more easily accessible is something underway, but only in a fairly limited form. XBLA and the PlayStation Network have both begun to publish classic titles, as has Nintendo for the Wii and DS; Namco and other companies form the golden era of arcades have re-released their games; Atari 2600 titles are available on a number of half-baked devices; and emulators exist for most every console of the last 30 years.

Still, there are so many games that you must work hard to access and play; in most cases, it is beyond the means of anyone other than dedicated archivists and those with access to the few public collections.

Given that games are more suitable for play at home, and taking yet another cue from film, there would be huge value in something akin to the Criterion Collection -- an organization dedicated to the preservation and study of important titles that are released in elegant packages suitable for collecting.

This is more than just packaging. It is treating games with the respect given the best artworks from other mediums. A key component of all Criterion releases is the booklet included with the DVD that presents in a reader-friendly (not academic) voice the history and a critical appraisal of the film.

Another solution is to broaden game criticism's middle circle. Most every medium has three levels of publication and press surrounding it: the broadest includes publications that follow the industry's release schedule, reviews new works and does gloss pieces as part of the promotion surrounding new works.

The middle circle is a more critical, reflective form of discourse relating to the medium that provides longer-term critical analysis. And the smallest circle is the work done by academics to study and reflect upon the medium from many vantage points -- technical, social, artistic, ethnographic, etc.

The game industry has the first circle in spades, and game studies is quickly becoming a recognized part of academia. But the middle circle of popular, thoughtful criticism? Not so much. Film has publications like Cineaste, music Rolling Stone, and literature The Believer, but games do not have a smart, critical periodical.

Of course, there's some great work underway such as The Escapist, Rock Paper Shotgun, and Edge magazine. There are also insightful blogs such as Greg Costikyan's "Play This Thing!" or Ian Bogost's "Water Cooler Games." But there's no primary destination that has broken through beyond a small readership and made headway into the larger culture.

We need a New York Review of Games, we need enlightened writers publishing through the New Yorker, Art Forum and Interview, we need thoughtful commentators on PBS and CNN. We need a proactive effort on the part of media to get positive stories about thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games and the culture around them.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

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