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Talking to Women about Videogames: Art has no e-penis

9:00 AM on 05.28.2012 // Jonathan Holmes

[Talking to Women about Videogames is a series where Jonathan Holmes talks to different people who are women about the biggest videogame news of the week for some reason.]

A little while ago, brilliant game developer Jenova Chen (ThatGameCompany) said something that made me sad. I was actually more sad for him than anyone else, because it really sounded like he meant ityet didn't think it through when he said, "Sony has a more artistic and adult-focused taste. They care about how grown-ups feel toward their games. The player who owns a PlayStation 3 is more likely to be interested in artistic games compared to Wii and Xbox 360." This was right after the release of the Xbox 360-exclusive critical darling Fez and Sony's big announcement of a Smash Bros. cloneEek.

I expected Chen to come out and clarify his statements shortly afterwards, with a "Oops! What I meant to say was that I find the games on the PS3 to be more evocative of 'grown-up' and 'sophisticated' on the whole, but I would never try to speak for an console's entire install base or game library! That would be goofy!" But instead of a half-retraction, we got Sony's backing up of Chen's original comment and expanding on it, stating, "Many PlayStation and PSN games have themes that require a user to think and feel about a deep, immersive gameplay experience, and we see that exemplified in the success of titles like FlowerJourney, and Heavy Rain. Titles like these can only be found on PlayStation, and our users enjoy the emotional and thematic sophistication of their games, especially with our digital offerings."

Seeing the words "artistic" and "sophisticated" getting integrated into the verbal weaponry used in the "console wars" is equal parts ironic and depressing. Claiming that "my art is bigger than your art" is just more e-penis boasting, usually reserved for talk of how many "AAA" games a console has or how many "graphics per inch" it can push on-screen. It's childish, closed-minded, and counter to the whole concept of art in general. One of the things that defines "art" is that, unlike sports, education, or pornography, it's not a competition.

It's especially disheartening to see these claims coming from Sony, which has a pretty poor track record when it comes to creative plagiarism. Everyone has their own opinions about what constitutes artistic integrity (more on that later), but most would probably agree that ripping off other people's ideas isn't as "artistic" as expressing your own. Whereas Nintendo consistently does whatever they want and Microsoft seems dedicated to finding new ways to speak to every aspect of the Western market, Sony spends a lot of its resources on directly copying other developers, both in terms of hardware and software.

When cartoon mascots were big in the industry, Sony churned out titles like Ape Escape and Crash Bandicoot. After Metal GearResident Evil, and Tomb Raider made the "Hollywood" approach to game development popular, Sony dropped its mascots in favor of titles like UnchartedGod of War, and Heavy Rain. The fact that we have three Uncharted games on the PS3 but not one title from Team Ico on the console shows exactly where Sony's priorities are in terms of plagiarism vs. originality. And don't even get me started on the current state of the PlayStation Move and its library.

That said, Sony has published some very original games recently and further in the past: PaRappa the Rapper, Jumping FlashTwisted MetalIco, Shadow of the ColossusLoco RocoPatapon, The Last GuyFlower, and Journey, to name just a few. The company also has the tendency to improve upon whatever idea it's ripping off (Uncharted 2 and God of War 2 are arguably the best "action movie games" ever made). That's why Sony is one of my favorite publishers today. I just wouldn't say that originality is one of their strengths.

Something I do think Sony is very skilled at is making its fans feel better about themselves. It does that in a variety of ways, from providing them with powerful hardware to brag about to, in this case, leading them to believe they are more "artistically minded, sophisticated, and grown up" than fans of other developers. Sony has always payed close attention to the surface-level traits of the games on its consoles, working hard to control the "image" of the PlayStation brand. In the early days, it discouraged Capcom and other developers from putting 2D games on the PS1 and PS2, as it didn't want PlayStation to be associated with "old games." Today, the company highlights "realistic"-looking PS3 games at retail, leaving more abstract titles like those developed by ThatGameCompany out of the spotlight, constrained to the smaller scale and profit space of PSN. It's all part of a plan to make the PlayStation name and PlayStation fans feel like suave badasses of the videogame world.

The focus on "realism" is just one of the ways that Sony attempts to dress its games in grown-up clothes. Other than LittleBigPlanet, it hasn't put many "cute" games on the PS3 (presumably because it thinks "cute" means automatically "for kids"). It has also avoided putting too many "sexy" games on the console, maybe because it doesn't want to look like it panders to "horny teens."

These are all issues of style, not so much of substance. With the software from ThatGameCompany, Sony has touted how much the games "looked" like fine art, saying little about how much artistry is involved with the actually gameplay design. With Heavy Rain, Sony seemed to make an effort to tell everyone how many "un-game" activities the title featured -- stuff like shaving, using an inhaler, and yelling a child's name repeatedly in real time. Then there was the whole "realistic acne" thing.

None of these details have any relationship to how "artistic" a game is. Interpretation of art is a personal, subjective thing that can't be measured by how much a game looks like a painting, how many cutscenes it has, or how big its pimples are. For me, a game's level of artistry has a lot to do with how much integrity it has. I'm guessing that's true for a lot of people, though "integrity" is also a pretty subjective term.

That's why I get more out of the Animal Crossing series than something like Journey. Both games are about relaxation through simplicity, the appreciation of minutia, and interacting with both the environments and with other players through a minimalist, conflict-free focus. It's just that Animal Crossing does all that via a combination of low-intensity, non-sexual pornography (hunter-gatherer porn and "cute little cartoon animals that look like babies" porn to be specific). In fact, the first thing I thought after playing Journey was that "it's like Animal Crossing for hipsters." I was half joking in that assessment, but I still felt that there is some validity to it. I really felt like it was valid after I heard from Jenova Chen on Twitter that Animal Crossing was a "big inspiration" for Journey. That's not something I think you'd hear Sony talk about.

[Artwork by 8WholeBits]

Like I said in last week's post, I think that there are basically four types of human communication: art, competition, pornography, and education. I don't think that mixing any of those forms of communication dampens their integrity in any way. Art + pornography = erotica, a worthwhile sub-genre of communication all its own. Education + competition = spelling bees, and spelling bees are totally rad. Combining forms of communication can strengthen all components involved, resulting in something that is greater than the sum of it's parts. There is no loss of integrity there. Sense of integrity is only lost when you lose a feeling of sincerity and honesty.

Journey feels more pretentious to me, like its developers were just as concerned about looking like artists as they were about making art. Animal Crossing's artistic merit comes off as a byproduct of its developers' insane desire to make a game about nothing. It almost feels like art by accident. On the other hand, Journey feels like it's trying so hard to look deep that it sometimes forgets to actually say anything.

Most of that boils down to design. There are so many little life metaphors in the Animal Crossing experience, from the game's cannibalistic Thanksgiving holiday to the way it rewards the player with bags of money, grand pianos, or even NES games for shaking random trees, and they seem like direct comments from the game's designers on their perception of the world. Journey is more about unobtrusive, linear design. Its emptiness permits the player to project their own thoughts and feelings into the game, taking in very few ideas directly from the developer. It feels a little like a cop out, like the player is tricked into thinking it's "deep" because of the depth they're permitted to project from themselves into the game's world.

That's part of why Journey's priorities don't totally fall in line with my own as much as Animal Crossing's do. When something speaks to you, when it seems to reflect your own perspectives and values, it's always going to seem more sincere and legitimate. We're going to be biased towards the things we like and have a tougher time seeing the value in things that we aren't compatible with. It's very easy to call a game that you don't like "pretentious," "less artistic," "a sellout," "sexist/racist/stupid," or some other disrespectful modifier. It's also great for people's egos to apply that kind of disrespectful, sour grapes thinking to the tastes of others.

That's why it would a misstep for me to come out and say that the games I like are more "artistic" than the games that other people enjoy. The only thing I'd really be saying in a statement like that is that I think my taste in games makes me a better person than others. I don't see the point in thinking that way (though it is sometimes tempting). It's much better for us to take a close look at why certain games speak to us and why others don't, remaining focused on speaking only for ourselves. We should stay away from labeling some games as more sincere, sophisticated, or artistic on some objective level, because that will only work to close us off from looking at those games for all that they are.

When you're truly "sophisticated," "grown-up," "artistic," and "confident" with your various endowments, you won't feel the need to brag about them or belittle others for being different than you.

Jonathan Holmes, Bad Joke Uncle
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