The games industry makes a lot of money, more money than film and music, as is loudly celebrated by the publishing suits. But the medium still has a long way to go. Of the four benchmarks that we could use to judge a game’s success – revenue, units sold, cultural impact and diversity of content – the industry often seems to care only about one: the almighty dollar. High unit prices mean that although Modern Warfare 2 broke sales records and raked in obscene amounts of money, it still comes nowhere near a Harry Potter novel or even Celine Dion in terms of mass market appeal. In an age where interactivity is part of most people’s daily lives, games should take their place as our pre-eminent art and entertainment form. In order to achieve this, however, they must take risks and – at least to some extent – leave behind childish things.
“Diversity of content is the top thing, because, once you have that, the rest follows,” said prominent independent developer, Chris Hecker, as we sit down for a chat. As we talk, it becomes clear that he cares deeply about games and believes in their staggering potential. But it is equally clear that he is afraid that commercial pressures will prevent the medium from living up to that potential. “I would really like to see games have the breadth and depth of the other big art forms. You look at the bookstore, or a list of the recently released films, and there are works about space marines, pregnant middle-aged women, kids struggling with divorced parents, political thrillers, the list goes on. We basically only have the space marines. I like space marines, but, as I tell my six year old, you can’t eat only candy all the time or you’ll die,” he said.
Hecker has had plenty of experience working with industry giants such as Microsoft and collaborating with Will Wright on Spore, and he has become an increasingly outspoken critic of the way the industry operates, as well as one of game’s most energetic champions. He claims that games are lagging behind other media in reaching a mass-market audience because they still pander to a narrow set of users. For a long time, the games industry remained a closely knit club of geeky boys, which meant that most developers were making games that were fun for themselves and the likeminded people surrounding them. There have been positive steps towards diversification, such as more unconventional characters, but this insular culture did not lead to widespread content innovation.
There are three possible paths, according to Hecker, that games might take which can be analogous to other products – toys, comics or cinema. “Games as toys” represents a future where games are made just for fun, but do not attempt to be anything more. “Games as comics” denotes games as an art form with amazing potential and a few incredible stand-out works, but which ultimately ghettoizes itself by producing the same kinds of content (i.e. superheroes) until it is impossible for it to be taken seriously by the mainstream. The third route is “Games as film,” which, to Hecker, represents the ideal popular art form because it is diverse, deep, and culturally respected, spanning the pantheon both of art and entertainment forms. Needless to say, he’s hoping for the third path.
The problems that gaming faces in earning a respect on par with cinema are rooted in the industry’s unique history. The industry grew too big too fast, becoming incredibly successful before it had a chance to figure out its core principles. The bulk of games that were made simply emulated what had been successful before – think only of the endless sequels we’re still bombarded with – and this bred a widespread risk-aversion that unintentionally stifled creativity.
But game makers such as David Cage recognize the need to break this cycle and depart from formulaic conventions. His game Heavy Rain attempts to be engaging rather than just fun, and Quantic Dream’s steadfast refusal to be corrupted by the easy options of guns and violence opens up a world of possibilities, including that elusive third path that Hecker is aiming for. Games might be growing up, and it is about time, says Cage. “We need to stop making games for kids. That’s enough.”
Cage hopes that Heavy Rain will be to games what Citizen Kane was for films. Since the industry is so fond of hefty sales figures, the fact that this unconventional game has sold over a million copies to date could well determine a shift in direction for game development. Quantic Dream stuck to its avant-garde guns and was lucky enough to be able to finance their venture, but the very fact that they attracted such attention for doing so points to what a rare occurrence that still is.
Indie developers exert a positive force in driving game development forward, but, without the mainstream industry on board, the medium as a whole cannot hope to live up to its promise. “I think it will be a question of taking baby steps, but a couple of decisions in the MW2 No Russian level could have had more impact on humanity than Braid will ever have in its lifetime,” said Hecker, who firmly believes that creativity and commercial success are not incompatible. “I look at it like a Venn diagram: there’s the circle of stuff that is interesting, artistic, creative and meaningful, and there’s the circle of stuff that will sell. Those circles overlap, so why not pursue ideas that are in the intersection?”
Looking at these conflicts between commerciality and creativity, it can be helpful to track the development of other media and art forms such as film. During a recent talk at GameCity Squared – a games festival in Nottingham, UK – award-winning director and producer of the classic film Chariots of Fire, Lord David Puttnam, compared the stage games are at now with pre-1930s film. Before people realized film’s potential as a storytelling medium, penny arcades in the early 20th century showed short films of car crashes and other events that showcased the technological novelty without attempting to engage the audience in a narrative. This focus on technology over creative content is holding the games industry back, argued Puttnam, to the point where most games are little more than the equivalent of those first simplistic films. “My reason for being here is to beg you not to hide behind technology but to challenge yourselves to make connections with people. You’ve done the exploding cars, so now my challenge to you is the same as was put forward by Steven Spielberg; to produce a game that makes people cry. The game that does that will alter the medium forever,” he told his rapt audience.
Game studies author Professor James Newman believes this focus on technology over content comes from the games industry refusing to celebrate its own cultural heritage and learn from its mistakes and successes. In his upcoming book, Best Before: Videogames, Obsolescence and Cultural HeritageM, he said that the discourse used by the games press and industry marketing constantly fixes the audience’s attention on forthcoming releases. “We, whether as players, academics, or members of the global industry, simply are not encouraged to place value on old games,” explained Newman, who is also co-founder of the UK National Videogame Archive, which aims to preserve and catalogue the cultural heritage of games. “There is a tendency to fetishize future developments which effectively closes down the discussion of old games and relegates them to legacy systems or marginalizes them as retro curios. The best game is always the next game, and this tendency to reduce videogames and gameplay to replaceable, upgradeable technologies that are, whether ‘new’ or ‘old,’ always inevitably poor imitations of an imaginary, perfect and perfectible future, has serious consequences,” he said.
The progress that games have made, including innovative milestones such as Heavy Rain, should certainly be celebrated, but the crucial thing is for the industry to continue to strive towards cultural importance. Without self-awareness and self-criticism, there is little hope that games will find their creative comfort zone. While there is undoubtedly money to be made in churning out yet another highly polished FPS with a familiar franchise title, the longevity of such a strategy is highly questionable, not to mention what it means for the cultural legacy of the medium. By looking at what has already been done and learning lessons, the industry can finally come of age and grow comfortable in its own skin.
Games can stop being gadgets and become art, regardless of what Roger Ebert might say. Gaming can leave behind exploding cars and move on to producing its masterpiece or touchstone work of art like the oft-compared Citizen Kane.
Discovering what that will be is the entertaining part. Citizen Rain perhaps?
Alice Bonasio lives in the UK and writes for games™, 360 and Edge Online. She has recently been involved in a project with the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and researched gaming trends for Professor James Newman’s book Playing with Videogames.