Tuesday, February 17, 2015

More on Games and Culture

This discussion was spawned from an indepth conversation on facebook amongst game developers about the role of game culture within the larger mass media culture.  This discussion was centered around the response of some self-identified "gamers" who respond negatively to increased scrutiny on cultural matters within the context of games.  More specifically, the identified "GamerGaters" who saw cultural critique of sexism as an intrusion into the subculture that is gaming.

Now, I don't want to get into a debate about GamerGate.  That isn't the purpose of the discussion.

What I got to thinking about is the responsibility of the culture creators to moderate or curate the culture in which they are creating.  We see this sort of behavior in other creative endeavors such as art, film, literature and music.  Curators sift through the creations and judge, based on the merits of taste and aesthetics, which pieces are worth exhibiting, worth studying, and worth leaving their imprint on that specific creative culture.  If you're in Dallas, you can go down to the Nasher Sculpture Center or the DMA and view relevant art that has been selected for exhibition for its relevant qualities.  The curators have been trained, studying art history and aesthetics, to choose the best pieces to represent not just the institution that is exhibiting them, but to exhibit the specific movement that the piece is a part of.  The result is a unified message of the specific subculture to which the artifact represents and belongs.

Right now, as Games begin reaching a higher cultural relevance, they are no longer viewed as creative play things but artistic creations of their own.  What has happened over the last twenty years is that the artists of the game industry have created their artifacts but have done so without a curator. The result is a cultural black hole.  This is starting to change, as more academics begin focusing on games as part of the larger mass media culture and generating new criteria for analysis based on existing standards and criteria, but this has caused a great deal of friction.

The resulting criteria is the result of an inherent dichotomy that has existed among Gamers.  For as long as video games have been unleashed on the market, its creators and enthusiasts have sought legitimacy from the larger culture.  An example of this sort of struggle was evident in the statements by Roger Ebert where after doubling down on the statement that games cannot be art eventually agreed that it is possible that they can be art after passionate defenses by gamers from across the world.  Even in the early days of computer games, pre-NES, there were artistic titles that deviated from the norm.  Games like Below the Root eschewed game conventions of the day to better adapt to the source material from which the narrative was drawn.  This meant that, in "Below the Root", violence as a method of conflict resolution was practically nil, and player death is identical to the more recent Shadow of Mordor and most modern games where you simply regenerate in your home while losing "game time".  This in an age when game developers were just stepping beyond the arcade-style game with games like Choplifter, Ultima, Lode Runner and Karateka.  Thirty years after the rise of computer games, the topic of computer games as art finally reached one of the preeminent pop-culture critics in the United States.  Games had arrived as an art form within the larger pop / mass media culture, and Gamers were proud,

What they didn't appreciate is that, once accepted as an art form, it would place their beloved games under heightened scrutiny by the guardians of aesthetics within the media culture.  The black hole of critique in which games were surveyed and critiqued strictly against other games collapsed, replaced by the bright light of the broader culture.  This bright light revealed an ugly side to game culture, the black eye that developers and publishers relished as long as it lined their bank accounts.  I'm not going to run down all of the really horrible things that the increased scrutiny has revealed about the game industry;  I lack the time to do so, but it is clear that it is an embarrassment.

What this light has done, though, has increased the friction within the game culture.  As games have become more popular, and the types of games and game players have become more diverse, the game culture as a whole has lagged behind severely.  As aesthetic critiques have increased in specificity and volume, catering to this larger audience base and the legitimacy of games as an art form within the larger media culture, the backlash has increased in vitriol.  The legitimacy sought by gamers for so long has brought about something that they never considered:  careful and legitimate analysis revealing some pretty reprehensible content when compared to the accepted cultural norm.

The larger point that I'm driving at is that, once an art form is accepted as part of the larger artistic culture, it is subject to the rules of critique.  That means that the critical eye may reveal some pretty disturbing information to those that love the art form.  And that's alright.  The point of the critic isn't for the fan, necessarily, but the artist.  The critic exists to review the artwork within the context of a specific aesthetic to provide directed feedback to the creator, so that the creator can potentially improve their craft for their next artifact.

Being a critic is difficult, and requires a lot of study and, in the case of games, being more than "a fan" or a "gamer".  The critiques provided by such critics will be shallow - they experience the games as they are meant to be experienced and that's that.  Most reviews will explain the game on a very superficial level and leave it at that.  Professional reviewers will explain the game at the same level, but provide a very different critique that typically is driven at determining if the consumer will receive value for their money.  A professional critic will ask very difficult questions about the content presented in the game that goes beyond the superficial content or monetary value determination. They will ask things like: What does this game say about the larger culture?  Why does this mechanic exist and how does it relate to the larger narrative context?  What does the developers choice of narrative structure say about the culture in which it was created?  Does the setting evoke a larger sociological analysis about the culture at large?   What about the gender politics of the game?

Some gamers don't want that.  They want their artistic medium but without the criticism.  This is a flawed request - legitimacy requires study and study may reveal uncomfortable truths about the subculture of gaming.  It may also reveal some fantastic things that should be celebrated as well, but expecting legitimacy without study is a fools errand.

And it simply isn't possible to de-legitimatize games as an art form.  The genie has left the bottle, and the analysis is going to come and the critics will pass their judgement.  Games will change as a result, because that is the nature of the critic/creator relationship.  Because creating a game that specifically defies the larger culture and its accepted norms is making a statement that is to be critiqued and presented back to the creator.

Games are art.  So, get ready, because games will only be a better place for it.

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