One of the things that bothers me most about Video Games is how they all almost universally embrace conformity.
Albert Camus, a well known novelist and essayist once said, "In the face of contemporary political society, the only coherent attitude of the artist, unless he prefers to renounce his art, is unconditional rejection."
Quick disclaimer: As you can tell by that quote this is going to be one of those really pretentious, over intellectual blogs. I admit it, I'm a nerd who over analyzes things and drops quotes like a lame Doctor Evil (PhD). But please don't let that turn you away; grab a beer, put your thinking cap on and stick with me for a bit. I think what I have to say might give you some food for thought, at the very least it will inspire you to make fun of me in the comments section below.
Besides you're not alone, like most readers I totally believe every blog post should provide at least a few seconds of thrilling, mindless entertainment. So without further ado check out this clip that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the blog:
Ok, now that that is out of the way back to the serious stuff...
That Elusive Feeling:
I don't want this to be another debate about whether or not games are art (let's just say for the sake of this post that they are and move on). But personally as a person who enjoys and appreciates movies, literature, art and poetry. I find that with those art forms, the ones that touched me most deeply are the ones that challenged my perception of the world. Just about every single one that has done that has done so by challenging the cultural norms and accepted conventions of their time. They might be highly regarded as 'works of art now' but at the time many of them were seen to be the pinnacle of depravity - dangerous books or movies that were censored, banned and criticized by the establishment.
We all know that feeling of having our life changed dramatically by a work of art, of feeling like you're no longer the same person after reading that certain book or watching that amazing movie. Of recommending it to our friends by saying "It changed my life!"
Don't get me wrong I love video games. Games have made some memorable impressions on me. Every year I am sure we all encounter games that are incredibly creative, fun and engaging. Some, like Bioshock and Braid, are also very thoughtful and carefully constructed - they provoke countless debates and conversations that rival those we have about many important books and films. Heck, I would even go as far as to say they are better than some books (I'm looking at you Dan Brown.) But none has provoked the sensation I have described above.
I'm saddened by the fact that video games have never even come close to giving me a similar feeling. Especially because of the fact that their interactive nature, the ability to suck someone into a constructed world with its own simulated rules and mechanics, provides the highest potential for instilling that feeling. Then why is it that they haven't fully capitalized on this potential?
The Spirit of Rebellion:
I recently read a very insightful essay entitled "Literature is Fire" by the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. In it he echoes the above Camus quote, and states that all important works of art are fundamentally rebellious in nature.
Vargas Llosa states, "...Warn (societies) that literature is fire, that it means non-conformity and rebellion, that the raison d'etre of a writer (creator) is protest, disagreement and criticism. Explain to them that there are no halfway measures: that society must either suppress forever that human faculty which is artistic creation and eliminate once and for all that that unruly social element, the writer or else embrace literature, in which case it has no alternative but to accept a perpetual torrent of attacks, of irony and of satire aimed at both the transitory and the essential aspects of life, and all levels of the social pyramid. "
Later he discusses the benefits provided by rebellious art:
"Literature can be useful to society only if it fulfills this condition. It contributes to human improvement, preventing spiritual atrophy, self-satisfaction, stagnation, human paralysis and intellectual or moral decline. Its mission is to arouse, to disturb, to alarm, to keep men in a constant state of dissatisfaction with themselves
The American reality, of course, offers the writer a true surfeit of reasons to be rebellious and discontented. Societies where injustice is law, paradises of ignorance, exploitation, blinding inequalities, poverty, economic, cultural and moral alienation, our tumultuous lands offer us exemplary material to reveal in fictions, in a direct or indirect way, through facts, dreams, testimonies, allegories, nightmares or visions that reality is imperfectly made, that life must change."
We can safely substitute any other creative art-form (such as games) for literature and the argument stands. Most creative works need that 'FUCK YOU!' spirit to thrive. Without it there is no incentive to question our conventional assumptions and revise our routine opinions. No impetus for us to stop and say, "wait a minute I never looked at things that way before." In short, no path towards that elusive feeling mentioned above.
But have any games with that rebellious spirit Vargas Llosa exalts actually appeared? And if none have, then why not?
Interlude: Ok things are getting a bit heavy there so time for a quick interlude. If you're one of the few peeps who are empowered with a Buddha-like patience and managed to make it this far. My friends, fellow gamers and internet denizens I present to you with the YouTube clip that will make slogging through all that nonsense worth it!
Was that a life-changing experience or what? Bollywood fight scenes are deep, son. Ok, now back to that other crap about rebellion.
The Main Problem:
I believe one of the most critical obstacles holding games back from achieving this defiant attitude is the dominant business-centric approach concerning their creation. Since the earliest days when developers sold disks in sealed plastic baggies, games have been for the most part produced for profit; by their very nature they have avoided doing anything that would threaten or isolate a potentially large audience. In honor of a fellow Dtoider I'm gonna call this...
The EternalDeathSlayer (EDS) Principle:
In a recent blog EternalDeathSlayer was spot on when he said the following, "...the gaming industry exists for one reason and one reason only: To make a profit. That's it. There is literally not ONE major publisher who is trying to change people's lives, enlighten anyone, or even make somebody happy. They could a rats ass. Even Valve wants to make as much money as they can, as they proved by making an (admittedly great) sequel to Left 4 Dead only a year after it came out. Some companies like Valve do care about fans, but even the support and care they show is all part of keeping customers around so they can spend more cash on the games they sell."
(I feel I have to mention EDS seems to have a very different outlook than mine when it comes to a profit centered approach to games, but even though I don't agree with his conclusions I do believe the above statement is pretty accurate. You can check out his full blog here.)
This principle of course runs counter to the Camus quote above. It undermines what I personally feel is the most important ingredient towards creating a meaningful work of art. The spirit of 'FUCK YOU.'
Think of the many counter cultural movements: Punk in the later 70s early 80s, the surrealists and the dadaists of the early 20th century, the No Wave musicians of the early 80s, Early Rock of the 50s, The New Hollywood movement of the 70s, The French New Wave of the 60s, The Italian Neo-Realists. Most of these movements were a rejection of accepted norms both in their respective fields (music, art, cinema) and of society itself.
The creative people in those movements were not motivated by the pursuit of profit, they were motivated by a spirit of rebellion. They wanted to shock the system, to change what was acceptable and to challenge conventions.
I look forward to the day when a game appears motivated only by the need to rock the boat, to insult and provoke, to shatter taboos, to tell us truths no one wants to hear. What Vargas Llosa describes when he says,
"Saying no, rebelling, demanding recognition for our right to dissent, showing in this living and magical way...that dogma, censorship and arbitrary acts are also mortal enemies of progress and human dignity, affirming that life is not simple and does not fit neatly into patterns, that the road to truth is not always smooth and straight, but often torturous and rough, showing time and again ...the essential complexity and diversity of the world and the contradictory ambiguity of human events."
But the EDS principle is hard to shake, nowadays games are extremely expensive to produce and the whole business framework seems to be set in stone. It makes sense to produce games that appeal to Lowest Common Denominator to ensure a recoup of the huge investment. The incentive becomes to create games that are focused on entertainment made with the intention to provide mindless distraction and constant satisfaction. Not all games follow the above paradigm, but unfortunately most do.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many great and extremely creative games have come out of the business centered approach. Movies and books also follow this approach with some pretty effective and gratifying results. For every recalcitrant, culturally aware and subversive Lars Von Trier and Takashi Miike movie that's produced there are a dozen Iron Man and Transformer flicks made with the sole intention to entertain. But with games this dichotomy doesn't even exist yet. It's a one-sided deal - we are constantly bombarded with tons of games which are the equivalent of Iron Man and barely anything that aspires to be as intentionally seditious as the film 'Anti-Christ.' Maybe because of this, no game has yet arrived that was capable of giving me that intoxicating sensation of having my mind blown.
The game that "changed my life" has yet to appear, but I can feel it out there in the shadows, its subtle footsteps drawing closer. Somewhere in a suburban basement or perhaps in a Lower East Side Studio a group of maverick developers is at this very moment putting something together that will make Vargas Llosa and Camus' corpse smile proudly, as the tradition of resistance I handed down from one art-form to another. And the way we look at videogames will never be the same again.
If you made it this far, thanks for sticking with my overdone ramble. I look forward to hearing any thoughts and disagreements in the comments below. I may also follow this blog up with a few other sections if there is enough interest.
Lazaro Cruz once tried to join the Wu-Tang Clan but was kicked out because of his unpredictable nature. In his free time he enjoys overdosing on trashy B-movies, siccing his dog on Mormon proselytizers that visit him at home and founding a new religon based on the tenets espoused within Kung Fu movies. You can email him at Lazaro.firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his twitter feed at http://twitter.com/LazaroCruz.