Planetoids in Minecraft, by Mike Prosser. Image via Flickr/Creative Commons
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Why indie gaming’s obsession with moneymaking hurts us all

The dominant story of this video game-making generation is the one about the struggling artist who made a breakout hit and never needed to work again, and that’s limiting the kind of games that are getting made.

For decades video games have had something of an image problem. It’s not merely their relentless focus on guns, warfare, scrapping and gore, although undoubtedly all that pixel-wrath is something of a turn off. No: games are inherently playful and, in Western society at least, play is seen as frivolous and childish. If play is where living beings learn about the world in a safe context (from lion cubs learning to hunt by play-biting one another to children learning about how to build a shelter from Lego bricks) then it follows that there comes a time when we should grow out of all that pretend stuff. In the realm of sports, at least, people progress from football and rugby’s mud-splattered trenches at some point to golf, a game as much about socialising as it is showboating one’s ability to launch a tiny ball into a tiny hole.

Perhaps for this reason the video game industry has chosen to peacock its financial earnings in public in an effort to prove its maturity. These are the endlessly parroted figures about how video games are worth more than Hollywood, or how Call of Duty is the “highest grossing entertainment release of all time”. It’s as if, through sales figures, profits and other assorted fiscal headlines video games will be able to buy their way to legitimacy. How fitting that a medium which typically encourages its players to exert dominance over the competition would frame its worth as a battle, usually with cinema, as if this were a fight to be won, as if the winner would somehow usurp the loser, as if each venue for human expression didn’t have unique capacity for joy, wonder and meaning.

The video game industry was quick to industrialise. Where literature, music and cinema had chance to explore their artistic potential away from monetary preoccupations, video games were born into the arcade where, Cinderella-like they had to earn their keep on the bar floor, minute by minute, credit by credit. Atari, one of the earliest video game companies, would playtest its games in select American bars for a fortnight. If the game failed to earn enough money, it would be figuratively thrown out onto the street. In this way video games and money were yoked from an early age. Thereafter, the cultural conversation has always been secondary to the industrial question: how do we monetise this?

The rise of the independent video game through the mid-2000s offered a new way to frame the conversation. Here were games being created by passionate creators outside of the studio system, individuals driven by passion, for whom wealth was only necessary to the extent that it fed, clothed and housed them in order to further explore their art. But in a capitalist society, the dominant stories inevitably become the ones that follow a rags-to-riches arc. 2012’s Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary Indie Game: The Movie formalised the narrative, presenting the stories of three indie developer who, through their passion projects, found fame and unimaginable financial success. “I’m glad the film inspired people, but I don’t like the feeling that I’ve perpetuated a myth that people can get rich making games,” Edmund McMillen, one of the developers featured in the film said recently.

Two years on and indie game development has, from some angles at least, come to resemble the mainstream games industry in tone and ambition. Many have entered the field hoping to replicate Markus “Notch” Persson’s un-replicable success with Minecraft, a game that has made him impossibly wealthy. The dominant story of this video game-making generation is the one about the struggling artist who made a breakout hit and never needed to work again. As a result, the industry’s conferences obsess over how to make effective moneymaking games or, at very least how to make a sustainable business.

But this is only one kind of success story. Video games, like photography, music, cinema and literature, have tremendous value aside from any consideration of financial gain. If the incentive that we present to young people for making games is predominantly a financial one, then we are all the poorer. Video games allow people to express themselves and present the ways in which they experience and interact with the world and its systems in a unique way to others. Games are, predominantly, a way for self-expression and enrichment and yet the conversation is primarily focused on the “how” of making a living than the “what” of what might be possible within the medium’s bounds.

This focus on financial gain rather than artistic gain is, arguably, at risk of turning video games into a cultural backwater. The big business side of the industry is characterised by creative conservatism, sure-fire bets based on bankable precedents. Destiny, the $500m blockbuster collaboration between Call of Duty’s publisher Activision may appear to be novel, but it is, in truth, an amalgam of developer Bungie’s Halo and Activision’s World of Warcraft, two of the most profitable video games yet made. In this way the mainstream and indie game scientists concoct their new recipes: a little bit of popular game A mixed with a little bit of popular game B to create profitable, endlessly similar hybrids.

Shift the focus from the industrial to the cultural and the need to build games based on profitability or sustainability disappears, freeing up the heart and mind to make games that we judge as successful by other, more interesting questions. Did this game challenge my perception of my world? Did this game change the way I am going to relate to my children? Did this game gift me insight into another human’s perspective? Did this game make me smile or surprised or feel a sense of aesthetic wonder?

The two are not, of course, mutually exclusive: in all mediums powerful art is sometimes also profitable. But in games, seemingly more than elsewhere, profit is the motivator and the games that are most widely written about, from Flappy Bird to Grand Theft Auto to Minecraft, are the financial juggernauts. But these are not the only success stories. Until we begin to tell more kinds of stories, video games will likely remain image conscious and culturally impoverished.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear