What Videogames Need
The following is excerpted from Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Nomads, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form, available from Seven Stories Press.
There's a videogame about a dyke who convinces her girlfriend to stop drinking. Mainstream gamer culture by and large does not know about this game. I know about this game because I made it.
I created Calamity Annie in 2008. I made it by myself: I wrote the dialogue, composed the music, designed the rules, scripted the game, and drew all the characters. It was made in a couple of months. The development costs were the cost of the food that went into my belly. I made the game in a program called Game Maker, which, at the time, cost fifteen dollars.
I am nowhere close to the only person who has used Game Maker, nowhere close to the only person who makes digital games outside of the games industry's publisher model. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such creators. A few of them have achieved some mainstream recognition, like Jonathan Blow and Jason Rohrer, who were profiled in Esquire magazine. But these rich white dudes were professional programmers before they came to videogames, and so they don't represent the new dynamic that I'm excited about: hobbyists and non-programmers making their first games. There are lots of tools that allow people to make and distribute games without ever having written a line of code and without having to pass through publishers' gates. In years to come, there will be a lot more tools. I hope that there will also be a lot more people.
I once heard the criticism that the phrase "what videogames need" can usually be more honestly rephrased as "what I want from videogames." In that case, what I want from videogames is a plurality of voices. I want games to come from a wider set of experiences and present a wider range of perspectives. I can imagine -- you are invited to imagine with me -- a world in which digital games are not manufactured by publishers for the same small audience, but one in which games are authored by you and me for the benefit of our peers.
This is something the videogame industry, by its nature, cannot give us. I like to think about zines -- self-published, self-distributed magazines and books. Send me a dollar and a self-addressed envelope; I'll send you a stapled book of some stories from my life, or some pictures I took of out-of-the-way nooks of my city, or researched accounts of historical murders, or some jokes about sea life. (What does the merman's waiter bring? He brings the MERMANATEE.) I like the idea of games as zines: as transmissions of ideas and culture from person to person, as personal artifacts instead of impersonal creations by teams of forty-five artists and fifteen programmers, in the case of Gears of War 2.
The Internet in particular has made self-publishing and distributing games both possible and easy. Authors are able not only to put their works online, but to find audiences for them. Publishers want to be gatekeepers to the creation of videogames, but the Internet has opened those gates.
Currently, the only real barrier to game creation is the technical ability to design and create games -- and that, too, is a problem that is in the process of being solved.
Digital game creation was once limited to those who knew how to speak with computers: engineers and programmers, people who could code. In the games industry of today, coders are an inescapable fixture of the hierarchy of production, since games that we play with machines need creators capable of negotiating with machines. Game creation is daunting for someone who doesn't code professionally. But more and more game-making tools are being designed with people who aren't professional coders in mind. It's now possible for people with no programming experience -- hobbyists, independent game designers, zinesters -- to make their own games and to distribute them online.
What I want from videogames is for creation to be open to everyone, not just to publishers and programmers. I want games to be personal and meaningful, not just pulp for an established audience. I want game creation to be decentralized. I want open access to the creative act for everyone. I want games as zines.
It's a tall order, maybe, but the ladder's being built as you read these words.
Why transform videogames, though? What do I get out of it? What, for that matter, do videogames get out of it?
In 2005, movie critic Roger Ebert infamously remarked that he does not think games can ever be considered as art. (By whom? By him, apparently.) He argues, mostly by assertion, that he doesn't feel game designers can exercise enough authorial control over the experience of a game. Ebert has gone on to make no attempt to justify or defend his remark or engage in any kind of debate, other than to allow, five years after the original remark, that he should have kept his opinion to himself.
Ebert is wrong about videogames as a form. But frankly, I don't care whether Ebert is wrong or not. Achieving "artistic legitimacy" is not a good reason to transform videogames. Who legitimizes art? To cede the right to decide the value of games to an authority that has nothing to do with games -- or to concede the right to decide what is and is not art to any authority outside of the artist -- is a dangerous trap. Creation is art. It doesn't need validation beyond that.
What it needs is to be free. That an art form exists should be justification enough for people to be able to contribute to it, to work in it. We finally have the means to allow more than just programmers and big game publishers to create games -- and the vast majority of people in the world aren't computer engineers, or designers employed by Epic Games.
What do we gain from giving so many people the means to create games? We gain a lot more games that explore much wider ground, in terms of both design and subject matter. Many of these games will be mediocre, of course; the majority of work in any form is mediocre. But we'll see many more interesting ideas just by the sheer mathematical virtue of so many people producing so many games without the commercial obligations industry games are beholden to. Remember, I'm talking about hobbyists, people who make games in their spare time with the tools they have on hand. And even if a game isn't original, it's personal, in the way a game designed to appeal to target demographics can't be. And that's a cultural artifact our world is a little bit richer for having.
To visualize this new world of games, think about network television versus YouTube. The former spends a lot of money and time creating content designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Because network shows need to justify themselves monetarily -- they need to catch enough viewers to earn advertising dollars -- they can rarely afford to be brilliant, daring, or bizarre. (Sometimes a director has enough force of will, and fights the network hard enough, to create a show that is all of these things. But it's certainly not the norm.)
YouTube: millions of videos from millions of authors. Most of them are mediocre: boring, familiar, or unwatchable. That's to be expected in an arena where everyone is allowed to contribute. But others are sublime, brilliant, valuable: Grishno's "Transgender in New York" videos, wendy vainity's surreal computer animations and music, or shane duarte's Simpsons remixes. As long as there's some sort of infrastructure, valuable works -- those by both dabbling amateurs and dedicated artists -- can reach their audiences.
YouTube has its own infrastructure of user ratings and featured videos, but people are just as likely to share the addresses of specific videos with the friends they think those videos will appeal to. And there's far more value in the collective content of YouTube -- even given that there are more piles of trash than treasure -- than in the collective content of a television network, simply as a function of the number of people contributing and the overwhelming volume of their contributions. YouTube's content is far more diverse, too, since involvement in the television industry isn't a requirement for entry. Network television shows are all made by professionals working in the field, a far smaller set of people than the set of people who own webcams. YouTube's content is made much more quickly and cheaply because it's not (usually) designed with a commercial agenda: videos can be recorded and broadcast, and their value assessed later.
YouTube also gives people the means to make videos of themselves, their friends, their babies, and their puppies -- video snapshots -- not for the world at large, but for their social circles and themselves. YouTube is a means of transmitting a video directly from the author to an audience -- one that can be as small and specific as the author desires. Videos become more specialized, and hence more personalized. A medium that was formerly accessible only to those with money and training can now be used by anyone for personal ends.
If Internet television is in the process of reinventing television, imagine how game design tools for nonprogrammers and the free distribution of games online might reinvent videogames.
Teaser image by USB, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet