Monthly Archives: July 2009

Game Dev as Auteur

Last November, waxy pointed to an Esquire piece about Jason Rohrer and my mind has been buzzing ever since. (This is the article which uses the phrase I have since adopted to describe most video games out there: “murder simulators.”)

Roger Ebert, in a toss-away response to a write-in Q&A five years ago (in)famously decried video gaming’s potential to be emotionally evocative, and therefore lacks, even the chance, to have the same cultural impact as film and literature. (arstechnica response). I was very surprised by this because I’ve been assuming that it took many decades, at the beginning of the 20th century, for film to be acknowledged as a valid art form. I have to assume that Victorian purveyors of literature looked at movies and saw the End of Days. He must be old enough to remember the same reaction from the film industry to television in the 1950′s. And yet, he has no problem repeating the same pattern for gaming.

Of course video gaming has every potential to be as important as “your favorite artsy-fartsy film goes here.” Duchamp made art out of a urinal – I’m pretty sure, in the right hands, the video gaming platform is at least as expressive as molded porcelain.

I’m not saying today’s games have a lot (any?) artistic merit, I’m saying the potential is there. I’m saying that when you take someone who has zero cultural baggage associated with music, movies, television and print media, who has been gaming since emerging from the womb, full-time, they will look at gaming as their platform for expression. By the law of numbers, somewhere out there is the gamer dev version of Eno, Picasso, Scorsese, etc. who knows what to do with the platform besides make billions of dollars.

Of course, I have no idea how to achieve artistic merit in gaming, or what it even looks like. I can’t conceive of it because I’m too old. It’s not for me to come up with what it looks like because my time has passed and there are new generations of kids who are ready to define their own culture with their own tools (if we let them). I pray they don’t care about Hendrix or Sgt. Pepper or Monty Python or Vonnegut except as historical artifacts.

While the rest of us are wringing our hands over how to “save” music and newspapers and make the world safe from Pirate Bay, (see Gladwell blows a gasket over “free as in beer”) this kid is out there conceiving art through the medium she knows best: gaming. Nothing else even makes sense to me.

For over a decade I’ve had a running conversation with my older son about the artistic viability of video gaming and Rohrer is the first glimpse of what I’ve been trying to say all this time. Here’s a guy coming at it from a completely, purist perspective. And of course, I think it’s all free-as-in-sexy that all his games are licensed under GPL. Personally, I don’t care if he’s “selling out” by accepting pay for work. What has me gaga is the idea of Rohrer as the early manifestation of what the next 100 years looks like. By simply trying to be emotionally evocative, he is breaking ground on a new world, because once artists can control the medium to express a range of human emotion, the door is open to a world where gaming, not movies, not TV, not music is the completely dominant cultural force – for entertainment, for education, for info-tainment (“Frontline: The Game” !!) and yes, for artistic expression.