Title: Game Authorship: Who Takes The Credit For A Game?
Posted: May 24, 2007 (02:21 AM)
The age-old question of whether games are art arrived once again at the 2007 Game Developers Conference, and the answer of yes was met with little resistance. The game industry is reasonably confident in this assertion and continues to develop methods that analyze them as such. Now this message needs to be rearticulated in terms in which other art forms can relate without underplaying any of the many facets which make video games unique. To this end, the question of who receives the credit for creating a game must be resolved. The concept of game authorship needs further examination if the interactive medium is to be respected beyond the margins of the industry.
Unfortunately, the specific matter of game authorship is not at the forefront of discussion about games, though it is an abstract space that needs to be anchored down before the industry can proceed with its "games are art" theory. What is at stake when we claim that certain games are authored or, for a more appropriate word, designed? Is a game foremost a creative expression of the lead designer, the individual who has the most control over the production, or the singular yet indiscrete company name of either the developer or the publisher, or both? The inherent complexity of game-making - which can involve teams of designers, modelers, programmers, composers, quality assurance personnel, and subteams thereof - confronts us with theoretical dilemmas in which various definitions of the author clash.
As opposed to the film industry, corporations are traditionally held as the dominant authorial agency for a game rather than any individual. Gamers mainly want to know what the next Bungie, Rockstar, Square-Enix game will be. Interestingly enough, despite the surge in name recognition - Will Wright, Ken Kutaragi, Peter Molyneaux, and Shigeru Miyamoto (recently named as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Time Magazine) - many of the industry's luminaries are hidden behind company names, brand names, and fictional characters. When will the next Mario game come out? How effeminate will the next Final Fantasy main character be? The lack of exposure to flesh-and-blood game celebrities in a social context has significant influence on where the authorship is placed in a game. Collaborative mediums, unlike novels or paintings, are already not readily filtered down to definite points of authorship, though there is a visible lack of recognition attributed to individual figures in the industry. This reveals points of intellectual friction between the individual, the collaborative production, and the socio-economic contexts that frame the trade that tangle into layers of unsettling theoretical abstractions.
However, marketing a product through the brand name instead of the designer or creator is not a novel idea, and can be pinned to the early days of the computer industry and to what harkens back to the studio system that existed in the film industry during the 1930s. During that time film studios, akin to first-party game developers, controlled nearly every facet of the film - the production, the distribution, the marketing, and the employees. To be sure, the analogy does not fit completely: actors and actresses, writers and directors, would also receive credit; however, this was only after producers, who wanted them to remain anonymous for the sake of low salaries, realized that most movie-goers spent their nickels on films with star power. Not surprisingly, computer software companies - not just game companies - have continued the denial of individual authorship, with weighted emphasis upon economic insurance. If any of their talented employees ever resigned, the name brand with which they worked under would remain untarnished. Unlike the film industry, however, any rise in individual authorship in the sphere of games cannot cement itself on actors and actresses as the stars in games are fictional.
This has sparked numerous critics to stand up for these voiceless artists, decrying the inhumanities of commercialism and calling for a movement not far from the emergence of the auteur in film. Even if game stardom rests almost solely on lead designers, the evidence of their impact cannot be refuted. It is particularly odd that developers - who occasionally give commentary and interviews before and after the game release as well as during gameplay in the form of bonus features - are not given credit when their visibility as an author is clear. On the quality of design, how they express their vision, by the very fact that they face limitations of economic pressure, genre conventions, and technology, shows the extent to which their artistic value has merit. Those designers that are able to go beyond satisfying the bare technical minimums of game-making and leave a tangible imprint on their games should be heralded as grand as the studio and fictional characters they help bring to success. On a broader scale, intentionally or unintentionally, critics insist on a realignment of game authorship centered about the lead designer which satisfies the author-as-artist condition prevalent in other established disciplines for valid authorship. If lead game designers are given as much attention as film directors, then a structure for establishing games as art becomes available and obvious. The quests for art and authorship are two intertwined paths leading to the same place.
In other words, individual authorship can be the key for games to be recognized as an art to the mass media. In general terms, there are two ways for a medium to be recognized as an art form: (1) by analyzing how other mediums justify themselves as an art and cultivating a parallel train of thought within the context of the given medium, or (2) by highlighting what makes the given medium different than the rest and place those differences on a pedestal in a declaration of independence. Within the context of the game industry, the first method draws comparisons to film, traditional storytelling, music, and painting - and attempts to declare games as an art form in the same way as they do. Counter to that, the second method circumvents this need for a connection to other art forms and concentrates on the distinguishing points of interactive media - ludology (to mean game mechanics) and non-linear storytelling, to name a few - thereby proving the place of games as a craft outside of the ostensibly narrow definitions of what other art forms constitute as art. Nonetheless, with politicians Hilary Clinton and Jack Thompson pronouncing video games as a promoter of violence, film pundits such as Roger Ebert vividly portraying them as "not art," and even industry luminaries like Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid) viewing games more as an economic product than art itself, the industry's game designers, researchers, and critics certainly have an uphill battle. Thus, it is understandable to find game advocates following the second method insofar as a naturally rebellious response to the general oppression by popular media.
In fact, this approach is not surprising given the early histories of other art forms, most notably and most surprisingly, the film industry. Former GameSpot editor, Carrie Gouskos, mentioned in her blog that she was alarmed by the number of film critics who referred to the gore-drenched Spartan action movie 300 in terms of video game violence. The irony is that cinema's status as an art form received similar subjugation nearly half a century ago. At that time, as commented by Paul Watson in Introduction to Film Studies: "film was thoroughly ignored by scholars as beneath serious critical attention and was often vilified as a blemish on art and even a dehumanizing agent of cultural oppression," not far from how video games are accused of destroying the youth of today. Watson goes further to describe the quest for cinematic authorship, unintentionally revealing uncanny parallels to the trials that the game industry now faces (italics placed for emphasis):
"Despite attempts to designate film as 'the seventh art' ... cinema's search for artistic legitimation was more of a hope than a prospect. Cinema, and Hollywood cinema in particular, was seen first and foremost as a business governed by economic logic and the conventions of product marketability. And, as Gallagher notes, 'conventions have nothing to do with art. Art is original, individual. Conventions are collective - what everyone knows'.
"As such, the origins of cinematic authorship may be understood as a response to three simultaneous lines of argument which conspired to exile film from artistic and intellectual respectability. First, cinema's technological means of production preclude individual creativity. Second, the collaborative nature of industrial filmmaking and the specialized division of labour it entails forestalls self-expression. Third, the need to entertain a large audience necessitates a high degree of standardization and conventionality which are incompatible with original artistic expression. In all of these propositions, the blanket rejection of cinema as artistically illegitimate depends on the idea that art is necessarily the result of the creative activities of an individual, and can be appreciated and understood as such."
No wonder why individual authorship has been given so much attention in the game industry. Rooted beneath the resistance against the current monetary model of corporate authorship is a ready-made strategy for vindicating games as an art form precisely by installing in games the figure of the individual artist. By doing so, games can be shown as being just as profound, beautiful, and important as any other kind of art, and can be separated from each other by analyzing the quality of that art. Moreover, game criticism that acknowledges and evaluates the artistic merit of the lead designer, which is often not explicitly highlighted in game reviews, can be shown to have value. It is important, however, not to completely adhere to traditional models of art and remain firmly connected to criticism derived from the practices of game design. Sidelining the craft for stardom would be damaging; both the dynamics of the gameplay and the vision of the lead designer matter.
Similarly, it would not be prudent, as fair as it may seem, to dismiss corporation authorship in our fervor for an individualistic, essentialist viewpoint of game criticism. Indeed, recent studies have restated a central question: "What model of authorship is able to account for both artistic and commercial concerns while simultaneously acknowledging the political dynamics which frame all authorial claims?" Perhaps auteurism need not be relegated to a singular unit but rather be rejuvenated by an acceptance that a whole range of criteria could be considered "an artist." This era of digital visual culture, in which game innovation is realized by technology, has seen some company names, such as animation studios Disney and Pixar, become an indicator of artistic merit in front of individual creative agency. Some might recognize the name John Lasseter, but for most, all that people need to establish an expectation of an animated film is to mention the studio.
So why cannot Nintendo, Sega, Midway, Clover Studios, or any other developer or publisher create and maintain that same effect? Some companies have already become synonymous with an entire genre as Square-Enix is to console role-playing games. Furthermore on a finer point, each developer can be said to form its own genre within already-established genre conventions through the games it creates, making an artistic imprint that varies in vision and in potency but which exists nonetheless. The company name becomes a symbol of a highly specialized and distinctive form of industrial aesthetic practice. Thus, it might even be desirable to locate authorship at not just the creative personnel on a collectively level, but at a corporate level; that is, in parallel to the search for individual authorship. Indeed, the emergence of real-life celebrities in the industry, though generally wanted, would cause game designers to become more of an object of commerce than before, a name to be dropped to excite fans and increase prospects for game consumption. In the same vein as auteurs in other mediums, an undeniable portion of a game designer's worth would stem from their ability to promote, market, and publicize their game to an extent that gamers access lead designers through websites, award ceremonies, and guest appearances rather than the game itself. In an effort to escape economic restraints, individual authorship opens more avenues for economic value.
What legacy will the designers that have shaped the game industry leave when they are gone? Without a developed system for individual authorship, what will we neglect when we begin to search for the humanity in the game? Despite whatever social, economic, or personal consequences auteurism might bring, respect for the designer has equal, if not more, importance to profit margins. If the industry can neither distinguish between game-makers and game designers, nor actively and publicly promote this concept, alongside corporate authorship, then no one else will. What is accepted as "art" is based on social perception, and authorship is the realization of that perception. Ironically, the hallmark of an exceptional designer is being able to engross players to the point at which they can no longer perceive the design. This the designer does in recognition that the player counts. It is about time we returned the thought.
Posted: May 24, 2007 (11:42 AM)
Even in film, the role of the author has been under serious scrutiny over the past two decades. "Author" implies one person, one voice, and one direct vision for a piece. The general public is still drawn to the next James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, or Oliver Stone film, but this emphasis on directorial prominence is more often a tool of convenience, and for marketing companies, a tool of effectiveness. Film is an incredibly collaborative medium, but it is far easier to utilize one recognizable name than it is to credit each member of a team.
Returning to Oliver Stone, Natural Born Killers provides an excellent example of this point. The psychadelic, mental landscapes were the ideas of the cinematographer. The use of multiple angles and film stocks were the result of the assistant directors. The actual script came from Quentin Tarantino. These three elements, none of which came from Stone, shaped Natural Born Killers more than any other factors, and yet the film is still credited to Stone. Had Natural Born Killers arrived a few years later, with a lesser known director, the credit would surely have gone to the increasingly popular Tarantino.
Humanity appears to have an innate need to attribute credit. It's an alpha-dog mentality in which being the bearer of certain information equals power. When our ideas or efforts are credited to someone else, we speak up to correct the mistake, regardless of whether or not anything is actually at stake. Likewise, we extend this same privilege to those people, or even groups, whom we consider leaders. Not only is it convenient to attribute credit to a well know director such as Stone, but doing so imbues Stone with certain qualities that determine whether or not a person will see his films in the future. It's the phenomenon of the celebrity.
You said that, "...the sphere of games cannot cement itself on actors and actresses as the stars in games are fictional." This is only partially true. The notion of the celebrity can easily extend to ficticious stars, and Anime is the best proof of that. Naruto and Yugi (of Yu-Gi-Oh) are currently some of the most popular animated characters, with an extremely dedicated fanbase. Dozens of people are responsible for bringing these characters to life, but ultimately, it is the characters that garner attention. The celebrity status is then shifted to the individual creators, or even the animation house as a whole. Thus, the creator or the animation house is normally considered to be the "author" behind the animated peice, regardless of how accurate the assumption is.
In the world of video games, the celebrity status of particular characters and games has placed numerous creators in the authorship role. There is the lead designer behind God of War, David Jaffe, Hideo Kojima from Metal Gear, Sid Meier from Civilization, or Peter Molyneux from Fable. Even developers can be given this status as in the case of Capcom from Mega Man or Namco from Tekken. Video game development is a collaborative process and, as in the case of film, the audience still singles out one name, one alpha-dog, to be the author.
Since a single author, however inaccurate the title may be, can be located in both mediums, it seems that video games should be able to obtain the same artistic status of film. This is not the case though. We need to look elsewhere to find the reason. The one major difference between the mediums is that of the audience. Video games are unique in that the player generally establishes the pace, and with some games, the narrative route from beginning to end.
The problem here is with the control of meaning in the game. Players can often skip cut-scenes, dialogue, and other content that provides purpose for the game. Of course this is assuming that the game has a meaning in the first place. Games are a fickle medium where popularity rules. Characters are designed to look "bad-ass", levels are designed to be physically challenging, and destruction comes without a price. What all these elements lack is a unifying purpose for existing, other than looking cool and selling more copies.
There are games out there that provide significant opinions that pertain to the world around us, such as Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, and Fallout. Just as film, gaming also has a hefty share of pieces made specifically for entertainmnet value, and not personal enlightenment. I can't imagine how to take Guitar Hero, Hitman, or even New Super Mario Bros., and define it as art in the same narrative or visual terms that film utilizes.
Then again, perhaps the problem in the first place is that we are using film as the measuring stick for video games. The two share many similarities, and while we are busy examining them, it is the element of the player that truly sets them apart. Video games can not be everything that film is because the player has to have the control. This factor completely changes the methods of presenting storylines, visual effects, world design, and pacing. Theoretically, artistic expression could even be extended to the ways in which the player has to interact with the game.
The video game industry needs to stop chasing after the success of film, and take the time to analyze what it is that it can do differently. Recent games like the Elder Scrolls series, Okami, Super Paper Mario, and Phoenix Wright are good explorations into the capabilities of games. Until those capabilities are truly uncovered though, video games will be considered entertainment products, or at best, interactive copycats of film.
Posted: May 24, 2007 (01:16 PM)
In the quote: "Unlike the film industry, however, any rise in individual authorship in the sphere of games cannot cement itself on actors and actresses as the stars in games are fictional" - I actually refer to individual authorship. Fictional characters can become celebrities and many are quite iconic, but individual authorship is based on real-life people to which those characters can be attributed.
The two different methods of establashing games as an art form was highlighted in the editorial, and both methods need to be brought to fruition. As you said, games cannot be fully understood through film (or even half or a quarter understood). A game is meaningful through the experiences it affords, not particularly through story. A "game" auteur should be defined by how that person chooses and organizes game mechanics to create a unique experience. If a game is trying to inject a great linear story (or close to linear), then film is a great resource for how to do so. Linear storytelling does help dissect non-linear storytelling into workable units, but only minimally so. Just ask a screenwriter for film to write a screenplay for games, and they will pass out by the number of paths (along with a laundry list of issues that stem from the fact that the player is control). No support is needed to argue that games need to explore what they can do to publicly redefine what "meaningful" means. But some abstract issues such as individual authorship can take some examples from the film industry. It's just being careful about what you pick and choose. Extremely careful.
I agree that individual authorship is still too easy and doesn't really reflect real life. Giving all the credit to the director is a bit silly, a paradox that is so evident that individual authorship might seem ridiculous. In fact, it would be better if each person on the team (or the head figures for each subteam) to receive partial credit as auteurs. I think this condensation of credit on one person is due to efficiency of the mind. If we had to give credit to five or more people for every great game, our minds would give out. It would be better if we simply asked who the best cinematographers, screenwriters, composers, etc. are in the business rather than try to remember everyone on a game by game basis.
Posted: May 24, 2007 (06:44 PM)
I should have mentioned earlier that I am not convinced that video games are art. Do they have the potential to be? Absolutely. I do consider some games to be works of art, but just like in the realm of music and film, there are many that I do not. Too many games are rooted in the mechanics of duplication for me to consider them any more than the product of a craft.
Take the painting, The Starry Night as an example - a painting commonly known and held up as a work of art. Van Gogh chose the colors and the brush style for reasons all of his own. The Starry Night will forever be uniquely attached to Van Gogh. Now, outline the painting as you would in a paint-by-numbers kit and have someone fill it in. I think that we can agree that the result is not a piece of art due to the lack of personal expression. Ask that same person to repaint The Starry Night using any combination of brush strokes and colors, and again, it is not art because even the composition of the image is unique to Van Gogh.
Most games suffer from this exact problem of duplication. Over the past few years we have heard the phrase "Halo Killer" again and again. This is problematic to the idea of art, in that any game pursuing this title will essentially have to be "Halo, only better." It is this blatant duplication that bothers me. I have no problem with genre conventions in general though, as they can be a powerful tool. Going back to film (again...), extracting meaning from a genre piece can entail looking at conventions, and examining how they were utilized, excluded, or reworked. Video games suffer a unique problem in that excluding or reworking a convention can mean financial disaster. Just look at Black. Although it succeeded in the end, Black came close to failure in the beginning because it lacked multiplayer capabilities.
Unfortunately, I'm out of time for now. I eventually wanted to discuss "story" with you. Notice that most video games held up as examples of art are done so because of the stories they tell. How should we perceive the relationship between games and art without the benefit of a narrative - Guitar Hero, DDR, Nintendogs, etc.
I find this topic incredibly fascinating, but also incredibly frustrating. I have particular ideas as to what constitutes art in different mediums, but video games require an entirely new set of ideas and theories.
Posted: May 24, 2007 (11:19 PM)
I would say that video games certainly have different levels of artistic merit, and that as you say, there are lot of duplicates. For auteurism to have meaning, there needs to be a critical strategy for sorting the artistic wheat from the general chaff of games. In film, the method by which this was achieved was to separate directors between genuine auteurs and 'metteurs-en-scene', who were deemed technically competent but had little or no stylisitc coheerence or thematic consistency. And in fashion, the distinction between a 'dressmaker' and a designer was made to declare a range for artistic vision. Game auteurism can reasonably borrow this idea to distinguish designers from each other, though this process doesn't need that much filtering. The designers that most gamers recognize already, such as Tomonobu Itagaki and Peter Molyneaux, should be on the top tier.
To revisit the question on whether video games are art is to question whether video games can serve as personal expression. If an artist or designer can leave an imprint, which can be found by analyzing their work, then this can be done. For me, I can see that Peter Molyneaux's artistic imprint is creating a god-like, omnipresent-esque gameplay experience. Shigeru Miyamoto's artistic imprint is creating a whimsical, light-hearted, casual mood. Games are meaningful in the same way that play is meaningful: through the crafting of the experience.
I agree with you in that I don't think the tools for actually crafting the experience has been richly developed or fully realized. Video games are still in the process of finding how to completely separate themselves from the art in beautiful pictures and beautiful soundtracks and beautiful cut-scenes. The dynamics that occur due to the game mechanics are what uniquely defines a game - and to that end, the main gamut of games are just tweaks on already established mechanics.