The middle child at peace

It's been close to two years now since I made a provocative wager on this blog. Most commenters at the time took me up on it. Recently, the underlying question seems to be on some people's minds.

Chris Hecker's recent IGDA keynote fretted about how video games might avoid ending up in the "cultural ghetto" along with comic books; Matt Burns wrote a piece, seemingly at least partly inspired by the keynote, on video games and cultural legitimacy. Harvey Smith (on twitter and facebook) took issue with games industry people for their tendency to denigrate the achievements of comics as a shorthand for highlighting video games' failings.

But the more I've thought about it, the more I wonder: what if this cultural ghetto isn't so bad after all?

There's danger in putting too much emphasis on an analogy. And while much is analogous between the history and state of video games and comics, people tend to get lost in the specifics, and wrapped up in the emotional investment they have in each medium. The point isn't to argue for the merits of either, but to recognize that most people just don't care.

And then I start to wonder, seriously, why do we care if the world at large cares about us? Why do we need the cultural legitimacy merit badge? And I start to wonder if it's not all just insecurity on our part. And if maybe we're not seeing the value and beauty of the space we're in because we're too busy looking over the fence at Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles.

I'll reiterate that, despite my original argument's oversaturation of bile and dissatisfaction, I still stand behind the wager. Video games will not achieve the same cultural stature as film, television or the novel in our time. But I regret that everyone got too wrapped up in defending comics to note the more useful and relevant section of the argument: on investment versus passivity, and how video games' nature and inherent strength is also, in the quest for mass acceptance, their major weakness.

Passivity and disposability are the currency of popular media. Experientially, the value of film or television for most viewers is the ability to sit back, turn off, and consume. The most popular entertainment is the work that requires the least foreknowledge, the shortest attention span, that supplies the most instant gratification-- the entertainment that requires the lowest investment. This all translates to accessibility, which is the key to wide appeal: anyone-- ANYone-- can simply place themselves in front of the screen and watch. Great art may take mental investment to appreciate, but a film doesn't simply stop if you don't "get" it.
Hence, the potential audience for any kind of expression in that medium is near-infinite, all viewers being equal in the watching of the thing.

Whereas games require comparatively enormous individual investment. The chosen input device (and there are many) must be learned and become natural to use. The inputs for the individual game you're playing must then be mentally mapped to the input device. The rules of each individual game must then be learned and internalized. And then, while the entertainment experience is ongoing, each player is actively judged for their performance: did you make that jump? Did you hit that note? Did you kill your enemy? Did you clear that map? Video games are the only popular entertainment that you can actually fail at. And so many potential players ask, what's the point? Why do I care whether I'm good enough to be entertained? And games have lost them.

The other issues of technical requirements, exorbitant prices, embarrassing content, weak public image and such do contribute, but distract from the core of the issue: that interactivity is itself a barrier to entry. And games are interactivity. The human mind will never change so much as to favor our work on the whole over the allure of the passive. Video games present interactivity as a language with the potential to say great, meaningful, important, timeless things. And it's a language many people simply aren't interested to learn.

This leaves us, then, as something of a middle child. I'd wager that we already mean more to more people than comics do (and if we don't, who cares?) and that conversely we'll never be a behemoth to match truly passive media. And maybe this is the best of both worlds. An audience that, having crossed the barriers to entry, is by its nature more invested in our work; a public profile by which we have the means to occasionally reach into the mass consciousness, but which affords us the freedom to continue experimenting with subject, form, and style; an industry which is truly international; which is capable of producing both multi-million dollar blockbusters and single-creator labors of love (and releasing both on the same platform); which manages to be neither too big nor too small, and is the more vital, unique and exhilarating for it. We are a medium for us, and while there are more and more of us every day, we'll never be for everyone. In a way, it's liberating: freedom to make incredible things, without being everything to everyone. It's why I still stand behind my wager that we won't be the next film, books, or TV. But I no longer look at it in terms of the qualitative. It's simply true. And possibly reason for celebration.

The urge to outgrow what is already our little brother is only a sign of insecurity; the urge to overtake our big brother, to destroy and subsume passive media, is vanity. The assumption of inherent value--that to be the biggest, the most dominant, the one new medium of the century, is in fact desirable at all--is perhaps natural, but also seems a fairly limited interpretation of the media landscape and our own role in it. We should be proud if anything that we are marginalized for the very thing that makes us great; that we are not less than what the mass audience wants, but different. In acknowledging the strengths of the lot we occupy, we might strive to accomplish those
great, meaningful, important, timeless things within it, instead of looking always for a way out.

To be at peace with our identity as the middle child is to be comfortable in our skin, secure in our nature, and hopefully to one day fulfill our own potential, not anyone else's. We are what we are, and what we can be no one else can. If we make the most of it, we'll hopefully someday lose the urge to talk about ourselves in terms of what we aren't.

[This post continues in the comments below, wherein Chris Hecker helps me expand my thinking on the issue.]


Luke said...

I'm going to be optomistic; games could become culturally relevant, I don't see any inherent reason why not, however I agree they probably won't any time soon. I don't see the reason for this as the interactivity or the investment required, but the lack of true quality. I also don't think we should see it as okay to never achieve this relevance; the number of games being sold such as The Sims or Halo or whatever shows that people do have the space in their lives for video games, as they have the space for watching TV and going to the cinema. They are willing to overcome the obstacle of learning how to interact with a game if they feel that the investment will be worth it in some way. Why shouldn't we be having a meaningful experience during this time?

It would be crazy to suggest that every film released at your local cinema is worth your time to go and see or that every new show on TV is worth watching; complete bilge is still being produced on a regular basis and being enjoyed even - see Transformers 2 for reference, but these media seem culturally relevant because we know that it's possible to make There Will be Blood or The Wire, we know that they can be great.

I see two main problems here:

As you said in the original post, the industry at large seems happy as it is, driven by sales from a core audience 'eating' the games as I recently heard it described, so why change? Really there's no need right? That's obviously cynical but I don't think it's too much of a reach to say that the industry is largely producing products rather than entertainment.

Games are unusual in that those 'in the know' - critics, journalists, long-time gamers, will sing the praises of a game that achieves nothing more than being a game and functioning well in those rules rather than offering any meaningful experience. There are plenty of movie critics who love Guy Ritchie's films, while others call them rubbish and mindless. But even the sternest critic of games will admit a certain affinity for Halo or Gears of War. Which is why it makes me sad to see you say it's ok to not be accepted.

Paul Bauman said...

Interactivity as a barrier to popular legitimacy or in distinction to passive consumption really only works with one particular straw man, though: the argument for games as a cultural analog to popular cinema.

I think some critics, in the increasingly tired "Citizen Kane" discussion are aiming in a different direction than this particular argument indicates. Artistic and/or "cultural" legitimacy is obviously not tantamount with popular accessibility. One could make a strong case that the interface to understanding something as artistically relevant is a substantial barrier.

And besides aren't there design camps that are already working toward breaking down that interface to gaming? (I'm thinking the motion control technologies that have been largely bemoaned in the more "invested" gaming circles)

But I do enjoy the middle child analogy here. It's important to appreciate the particularity of our enjoyment and experience of the medium.

And I still don't think the wager is won. It's only been 2 years, man.

feitclub said...

Maybe it's not just a matter of wanting to be number one, just wanting to be something other than a punching bag. At this point, video games are the default scapegoat for what seems like an increasingly long list of unrelated problems. Obesity, spree shootings, ADHD, etc. I agree with your sentiment that interactive entertainment can never outgrow passive entertainment, but can't it at least reach a level where it is not vilified at every turn?

Because frankly, there's another factor at work here: sharing. When I read a great book or watch a terrific film, I tell people. I tell anyone who will listen. I think it's a shame that so few people I know appreciate it when I recommend a great game. Again, it's not about being "bigger" than any other media, it's just a desire to be part of the conversation.

Anonymous said...

That was a fine post, but I am confused about the somewhat blurred presentation of two different issues, although one is certainly more in focus than the other. I very much agree that aiming for a kind of quantitative equality with the passive media is a superfluous goal, but why should we give up the qualitative goal? The Goal that pushes us beyond our early design conventions (meaningless death, challenge as complete barrier to experience, stock first-person shooters, hollywood story-telling conventions, etc) and allows us to create works of art that really speak to the human condition (and all the other cliches).

I think looking over the fence at Kubrick, Welles, and even Moore, because some comic books have hit far higher plateaus than any game so far, is a good thing. Even if we should become comfortable with staying, for the most part, in our little esoteric "ghetto", certainly we need to strive to create the great success stories, the great monuments to our medium, even if we can only find them way, way back in the depths of this little place we've created for ourselves. That is what, to me, is at the heart of this cry for legitimacy.

Alex Vostrov said...

Is it about cultural relevance or about creative vitality? Consider for example the variety of discourse that goes over books. If one day we woke up and all the books were gone, we would be set back centuries, perhaps millenia. Now, would anyone notice if all games ever made suddenly vanished?

I don't think that your prediction is correct, in the broadest sense, by the way. Comics don't have the same secret sauce - interactivity.

What you view as a disadvantage, I view as the one essential thing that games have. I just don't buy the passivity argument, given that people are eager to interact in other parts of life (for example, with other people or even with word processors). Starting out from this premse, I see something quite different.

I agree that games currently focus on superficial themes, for the most part, and I suspect that this will kill what we call "games" now. However, given that interactivity is just too damn good to keep hidden, I think that some sort of interactive artistic medium will re-emerge and gain cultural relevance.

Steve gaynor said...

Paul/David: that's the distinction I'm making, and the difference between comics and film: comics have their key artistic achievements, but they don't have respect as an artform from the culture at large. So clearly the Citizen Kaners aren't just looking for great individual works, but a wholesale acceptance of the medium as "the real deal" by some vague notion of "everybody else." I don't think great work is the key. It's the form itself. If a tree falls in the forest, and it's a really awesome tree that totally says a shitload about the human condition, but nobody's listening because they just don't really see what's so great about trees in the first place, or trees are just too hard to get into, etc.

Steve gaynor said...

Does that mean that all I'm really trying to say is that we should concentrate on trying to make the best trees we can for the people that love them, and stop worrying so much about whether anybody else is listening? Probably.

Chris Hecker said...

While I appreciate the zen attitude, I think it's misplaced in this case. I see no evidence that our current situation has lead to more experimentation than happens in the "big three" of literature, film, and music, and in fact, I'd say we are more conservative because we got too big and risk averse before we figured out how to make interactivity work. I dis comics as being in the cultural ghetto, but our ouvre pales in comparison to comics on the axis of speaking to the human condition. They failed to make it for the reasons I outline, to the point where even Maus and Chris Ware couldn't save them, but at least they have Maus and Chris Ware. We have no equivalents.

Like Luke above, I think the active versus passive point is one of the many points of friction we have towards accessibility (I call it "training the player" when I talk about it, usually), but the real failing is we don't have the content to make it worth people's while to learn. People would do it if the game on the other side of the learning curve paid off, but it doesn't. People are not lazy, they just have a good innate sense of ROI, and we don't have enough R for their I.

I'll elaborate on this stuff when I post the slides and audio.


Steve gaynor said...

Chris: I am skeptical of the argument that we simply aren't making good enough games yet. Clearly I'm not saying we shouldn't be trying to make better games. But I think that the idea of incredible product being the cure to nobody-takes-us-seriously-disease is kind of misguided.

Consider the goddamn Kane thing. Was everybody and their mother into movies before they turned artistically legit? Yes. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, etc. etc. Then a bunch of German Expressionists running from Hitler end up in Hollywood and suddenly critics have something to crow about. But people were already spending weekends at the pictures. Real, pervasive mass appeal is the prerequisite, not the result. The Sopranos and The Wire and Mad Men made people realize that this thing everybody already watched all the time could also be art. But the people had to be watching already, otherwise they just wouldn't care.

So our Citizen Kane will be the equivalent of Watchmen, or Maus, or Jimmy Corrigan, not Citizen Kane. It'll be that oddity that gets a bemused article in the grownup magazines and is assigned to college freshmen in liberal arts programs. And we'll know that there's so much more out there if they would just look, but they won't.

Now here's the question: is there any real reason to be unhappy about that? Where does that vague, uncomfortable desire to gain the implicit approval of "everyone else" come from?

If it's the Crumb/Clowes/Wares-ian desire for cute girls to be enjoying your work, I'd think you'd have that all sewn up, having worked at Maxis ;-P I joke, but really, what is the origin of this insecurity with our stature?

What's so wrong with being the comics?

Chris Hecker said...

> the idea of incredible product being the cure...is kind of misguided.

I think the history of film actually rebuts this fairly clearly. Citizen Kane and other films from the 30's and 40's are not a very interesting movies to look at for these purposes. The film to look at is Birth of a Nation, from 1915, and the surrounding films. Film was not respected as a culturally relevant medium when it started out. Only the poor and immigrants went to movies in the bijou and nickleodeons, and only failed theater people made them. It wasn't until the content got better (they figured out how to use film grammar to make movies that mattered to people, BoaN being the first "modern film" in this sense) and the delivery platform got more ubiquitous (more, cleaner, theaters) that film actually became culturally relevant.

I think the other questions you ask are related. If you think we're already making games that are "good enough", then sure, it makes no sense that somebody would have higher aspirations for the form.

For me, it's about thinking our form has the potential to do so much more than it currently does, and feeling like we have a duty to humanity to reach that potential. As I've said before in talks, how often do you get to be there at the beginning of a new art form? Averaged over human history, it's probably on the order of once every thousand years or so. It seems almost criminal to squander that opportunity by being satisfied with our current state, which, as I show in the linked talk above, is basically irrelevant to society right now. We can, and should, do better.


Frank Lantz said...


"but the real failing is we don't have the content to make it worth people's while to learn. People would do it if the game on the other side of the learning curve paid off"

What if the learning curve *is* the content?

Steve gaynor said...

Chris: basically what I'm saying is that whether I believe the content we've made thus far is "good enough" is irrelevant. Like anyone in our industry, I think we make great things and we should strive for more, as I say in the essay. But I don't believe that it will make everyone love us.

For one, as Frank implies, depth of meaning in our medium is linked directly to depth of interactivity. A deep dialogue with interactivity both requires greater investment to engage with than does passive media, and is more indirect in the way it speaks with us than are moving photographs. Ah, then the games we make need to be both extremely simple and accessible, AND deeply interactively meaningful. I don't know if this isn't paradoxical.

The Birth of a Nation comparison is a little off. Perhaps "only the poor and immigrants" visited the movies before Griffith's breakthrough. But the mass audience is always eager to embrace the entertainments of their lower classes-- look at the blues, exploitation cinema, hip hop, and so forth. Games are not seen as being for the poor or minority, but for children. This makes our situation, again, that much closer to comics' than movies'. And it's not a barrier that many on the other side find attractive to surmount, even if some of those perceived childrens' entertainments are supposed to be really, really great. It's a question of the form.

Chris Hecker said...

Frank: While that's a nice rhetorical device, that's actually mostly orthogonal to what I'm saying. I agree that training the player is part of the content. The point is, most people don't find games worth playing, and I think there is hard data to back that up. If true, why is that? There are three potential answers in this thread: 1. the games aren't good enough; 2. the people don't see the goodness that is already there; 3. the question is moot and we shouldn't care and/or we should accept it.

I don't think this is the place to get into a deep discussion because blog comment threads are just so annoying to participate in, so I'll leave it at that. Clint and I obviously throw our lot with #1 as we've discussed many times.

Steve: a pretty good historical argument can be made that comics started out with more cultural respect that film, but lost it when they did the same guys-in-tights content over and over again. Plus, the reception of comics in other cultures shows there is nothing inherent in the form that says "for kids".


Johnnemann said...

And of course, in the period during which movies and television became dominant cultural art forms, it was a lot easier to dominate. Culture was much more homogeneous. Almost everyone in the US saw Singing in the Rain when it was in the theaters and I Love Lucy when it was broadcast - these days our media consumption is much more varied, and becomes more so as people and companies form new and smaller demographic groups.

So my point is that it might not even be possible, in this day and age, to become a dominant form of media. That ship may well have sailed, and the cultural landscape may be too fragmented for people to gather around even a single medium in the way they used to gather around a single work.

Steve gaynor said...

Chris: I don't think your list included what I'm attempting to describe, which is 4. Games speak in a language that is inaccessible to much of the audience, regardless of what is being said, "good" content or not.

Which is to say that we should of course strive to be better, more meaningful, more thoughtful, and so forth. This is simply true of any creative work. I'm questioning the motivation, the why of doing these things. I'm questioning the value of doing better work in pursuit of the promise of turning into a real boy, of gaining mass acceptance, of being welcomed into the Important Art Club along with the passive media we so respect and, apparently, envy. I think that final reward might be an illusion, and I hope we will become great for greatness' sake, not to justify our existence toward a vague notion of approval by the masses.

Chris Hecker said...

Wait, I never said to do it because the other guys have done it, that's a complete straw man. The comparison part of my talk simply shows that we are in fact not on the same level, and rebuts the popular arguments that we are. There are, of course, huge advantages to being in that club, and those can't be ignored, but that's not the reason to do the work.

Of course we should do it because interactivity deserves to be explored.

As for interactivity being inaccessible, my rebuttal there was that people will do things they are motivated to do. We do not sufficiently motivate them to play games. We shall see in 50 years who is right! :)


Steve gaynor said...

To be fair, I've only seen a summary of your talk and am only really referring to this blogpost and the comments thread in the stuff I'm saying.

But you are making me think about what you mean by there being real advantages to being part of the club. And I'm thinking it largely sets up a positive feedback loop of more people in general taking the medium seriously, which draws more different talented people to making them, which results in more different better games, etc. Which does seem true and good.

It also makes me think about how the inaccessibility of the form is only partly inherent to it. The other part being poor usability design (which has increased steadily or better over the last 30 years of game design, so it can and will materially improve,) and more practical questions of platform and delivery methods, which can and hopefully will improve.

Thanks for giving me more to think about.

spadders said...

I don't think anybody who's played Trials HD is still asking the question "When will a game make me cry?".

Mike said...

Who are we striving to be relevant to and why are we so concerned that they like us? Do we make games because we are hoping "they" will think it is something "important" or because it is the medium we feel we can best express ourselves in? I don't do my job hoping some schmuck in the New York Times will write about me in the Lifestyle section, I do it because it excites me.

And I hate the Kane crap - Kane wasn't "relevant" until the 60s when a bunch of film students and/or the French figured out how far ahead of the curve Welles' mastery of medium was.

Unknown said...

I don't think if you emphasise much on analogy.Just go ahead with your good work.


Merus said...

I suspect a lot of the calls for cultural legitimacy are driven, in a large part, by sore memories of criticism from family members and loved ones. The logic goes that if the intelligentsia accept games, it will serve as a defence against exasperated family members, which is clearly faulty but it's what people are clinging to.

I think the more interesting question is: why do games exasperate some people to the point where they try to interfere in our customer's play? And, coupled with that, is there something about the way the games are designed that ends up infuriating people who aren't the player? (There's a young lady I met recently who told me she found the thought of her cousin playing Modern Warfare 2 with voice chat "sad". I didn't get the logic at all.)

PASTRIES said...

it bothers me that so many people seem to think you need to use words in order to "speak to the human condition"

P.F. said...

I can't speak for anyone but myself, but hell.

As much as I like Hecker's keynote for calling out designers on the need for improvement, I don't give a crap if Ebert ever thinks games can be art, I don't care how many older people roll their eyes at them. (Outside of a passing, "Oh, wouldn't that be nice?" anyway.)

That has nothing to do with why I care about games crawling out of the 'ghetto'.

I want the quality of my pet medium to increase for my sake. And to be frank, although I do enjoy FPSs, gunplay, and power fantasies, I'm getting really freaking tired of this machismo-agenda crap.

But then again, I guess that underlines a difference in the term art for me. I don't think we need a game that "proves" something -- games like Earthbound and the indie community and so many other things in general have proven it to me well enough.

I'm just sick of the fact that, more and more, the majority of the money spent in the modern industry is pointed solely towards the lowest common denominator. Not only that, but we've got a vocal "core"(?) demographic that not only violently defends these titles, but actually goes out of their way to attack other genres and non-conformative trends.

A community that raises said adolescent power fantasies above their actual stations and simultaneously stifles creativity elsewhere, in my mind, is in the 'ghetto'.

So at least by my own custom definition, I do think being in the 'ghetto' is a terrible thing. But then I suppose I'm supplanting the entire discussion from "The outside world thinks of us as being lowbrow" to "The industry is turning lowbrow even by our own standards."

In the end, I just really do think we need to keep questioning the industry, and we need to improve. If it moves us up a notch, so be it; if it doesn't then that's fine too.

XIX said...

I too was originally a bit confused and with the whole, "art" and "games" argument.

Until I realised that it had nothing to do with either games or art, both of which I love intensely. Instead it was primarily concerned with promoting the act of writing about games.

Armed with that understanding, everything makes perfect sense.

It's just trolls with a plan for monetization.

My personal feeling is that all form of media is in the exact same sinking boat. The future, will be different and now is a really, really, really dumb time to try and become "just like films".

PS here is some non-art for you.


PPS Destroy 2000 years of culture sure sounds like a mighty fine plan to me.

PASTRIES said...

XIX, i agree that it does often feel like a lot of the people who seem very concerned about games been "taken seriously" and "communicating meaning" have an agenda that prevents them from examining the numerous and beautiful ways in which games already do both.

not sure if it is as deliberate and self-serving as you make it out to be, though.

love the comic.

AreDub3D said...

"And then I start to wonder, seriously, why do we care if the world at large cares about us? Why do we need the cultural legitimacy merit badge?"

It's not a merit badge. Why does it even have to be about perception?

It's that some of us want to make games with the same spirit, intentionality and even message as if we were writing a play, painting a canvas or making an art-house film.

"Art" is both self evident and subjective. But it is largely driven by the artists' intentions and abilities.

Why not make games like this? Why not give the

Because they can't make money?

Unknown said...

You speak about interactivity as a barrier for mass consumption, but I wonder if an argument can be made for escapism, and interactivity serving to enhance this experience.

There's no doubt that passivity plays a significant role in escapism as we currently experience it--it's all too easy to enter a new world by relaxing on the couch--but I think it can be said interactivity certainly enhances the points to which we can truly "escape."

If this is true, there's a sort of risk/reward relationship at work: I can do little work and escape, or I can do more work and increase my escaping. The fact that most games currently establish themselves as making this difficult (and as you say, allow for entertainment with failure) doesn't mean it must be this way, or should be. It seems entirely plausible that we can make games, right now, that use interactivity to enhance immersion without allowing for significant failures that decrease it.

I'd argue that we've been seeing a trend swing this way for years now (where people choose to work for their escape) with the massive boom across varied demographics in gaming.

This enhancement of experience is what I'd argue would account for games in stepping up on a level of their 'big brothers.'

PASTRIES said...

AreDub3D, I'm not sure what your point is. Nothing is stopping you from "[making] games with the same spirit, intentionality and even message as if we were writing a play, painting a canvas or making an art-house film"... in fact, I'd argue that plenty of people already are, and have been, for years.