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.