At the inaugural Project Horseshoe conference, I proposed a topic for discussion: how can games achieve legitimacy? I had noticed that many other creative fields were respected for their work, but computer games were still seen as a cultural blight to be blamed for society's ills and legislated.
Many people still considered computer games as something only intended for kids, despite the large adult audiences that play games. How could we, as game developers, be seen as legitimate creative workers?
Computer games are in the awkward position of being a relatively new medium that already has considerable influence. We don't have the millennia of history that writing has, yet games have entered the mainstream and are rarely considered solely the domain of social outcasts.
Many people have grown up only knowing a life where computer games have been available. We are close to being accepted as legitimate, but not quite.
What is Legitimacy?
What does it mean for games to be a legitimate medium and what does it mean for game developers? Obviously games are accepted in some ways, but not in others. Why?
I believe there are different areas of legitimacy, and they are all part of what makes a medium legitimate. The primary three types of legitimacy are:
Financial Legitimacy means making money and being a viable medium for business. Older media often do not have to worry about this type of legitimacy; for example, people rarely publish poetry with the hope of making a large profit -- it is often done as an act of prestige. Many new media, such as computer games, prove themselves in this area first and that helps gain other forms of legitimacy.
Artistic Legitimacy is how the people working in the medium see it. For example, how do you see your job as a game developer? Do you think you are making art? Do you think you're making mere entertainment?
Do you do games until you can break into a "real" creative medium like movies? Do just collect a paycheck? Do you work in games because of the creative opportunities? The answer to those questions influence how legitimate games are as a medium.
Cultural Legitimacy indicates how much society respects the medium. Is the medium worthwhile to spend time on, like reading books, or is it considered a waste of time? In many western societies, we respect the concept of "freedom of speech", where we allow people the right to express themselves freely.
Many attacks on creative media have been halted because of the protections afforded by this freedom. Book burnings are often seen as something abhorrent, an attack on the legitimate medium of writing. Yet, some people don't see the same problem with limiting the sale of video games to the point of harm to the medium. This is usually influenced by the other two forms of legitimacy.
Legitimacy in Other Media
To illustrate these areas, let us take a look at how legitimacy affects other media, particularly movies and comic books.
Many people study the history of cinema. Originally, movies weren't respected as a creative media, but merely seen as a simple novelty. Movies with stories were often seen as trying to capture the theater experience, but very poorly; to be fair, a lot of movies initially did try to copy theater, at the time a more legitimate medium for telling stories.
However, movies started to be accepted as they developed their independence from other media. As movie makers started to focus on the strengths of the medium and working on a language to support the making of movies, the medium started to come into its own.
In the United States, movies gained tremendous acceptance during the Great Depression and World War II as a source of cheap entertainment, news, and shared social experience. As movies became a meaningful part of people's lives, they started accepting them more. Today, movies are one of the most respected ways of telling stories to a wide audience.
There is a sharp contrast when considering comics books. Comic books combined the strengths of the written word with a more visual approach of having artwork accompany the story. This proved to be very popular, especially with children.
However, in the United States there was a "moral panic" about the corrupting influences of comic books on children, as there often is with many "new" media. The government threatened to enact laws to censor comic books, for the good of the children. (Does that sound familiar to game developers?) The industry reacted by enacting their own regulations, the Comics Code Authority (CCA).
The Comics Code Authority heavily restricted the content that comics could contain. For example, the words "horror" and "terror" were not allowed in the titles of comics. Werewolves, vampires, zombies, and similar creatures of the night were forbidden.
The de facto result was that mostly superhero comics were allowed to continue, since they usually showed perfect heroes vanquishing lowly criminal scum and always winning, as required by the CCA.
Unfortunately, this caused tremendous long-term harm to the comics industry. For most of the history of the medium, comics with simplistic stories dominated and the work approved by the CCA and prevented the development of most other types of comics. In one notorious example, the CCA objected to the depiction of a black man as an astronaut in a comic; the removal of this character would have undermined the message of the racial intolerance presented in the story.
Storytelling was stunted in this medium, and today Japan and Europe have a much more vibrant comic book industry and culture than the United States does. The popularity of a wide variety of translated manga books in the face of home-grown U.S. comic books shows what could have been without the censorship.
These two examples show the importance of legitimacy to our medium of computer games. Without legitimacy, particularly cultural legitimacy, we can fall prey to the problems that plagued comics instead of growing to a respected medium like cinema.
Legitimacy in Games
How do games measure up to the three types of legitimacy mentioned previously?
Financially we are accepted as being legitimate. This is one reason why every story in the mainstream news about computer games refers to the sales figures for the industry and compares it to movies. These figures are not entirely accurate, but it demonstrates to the news readers that the industry is worthy of mention in the news.
Artistically we need to focus on improving our opinions of ourselves. We need to understand that we are working in a creative medium that affects people. By gaining artistic legitimacy, we help achieve cultural legitimacy as well.
Culturally we are approaching legitimacy. There are adults now that have grown up with games. They do not see it as a scary new medium that threatens to corrupt children, because they know they were not corrupted by being exposed to games.
Some, though, may turn away from games for fear of being considered "childish" in the eyes of their peers. However, as long as lawmakers see restricting games as a way to gain political points, we are not culturally legitimate.
What is the Point?
Why is legitimacy important to game developers? In a word: respect.
We should be respected for the work that goes into making a game. We should be respected for the artistic elements of a game. We should be respected for the intrinsic value of a good game. We should also be respected as something more than creators of silly diversions for children.
Legitimacy also expands what topics we can cover with games. Often people see a game about a tragedy as simply belittling the topic because games are not seen as a legitimate medium.
How can we address adult issues such as the horror of war, the meaning of romantic relationships, or deep topics such as guilt and penance if we are stuck making works that can only be appropriate for children? Being seen as a legitimate medium means we can tackle more issues, tell more stories, and work on the "innovation" that the market and critics keep demanding from us.
Finally, in the United States, legitimacy means we would enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment. Although most judges rule that laws restricting games are unconstitutional, it would be nice to get to the point where lawmakers would consider a law restricting computer games to be as harmful to their career as a law restricting books.
Less cheap shots by politicians means that we can focus on building a viable medium for creating artistic expression as well as opening the themes available for making just fun games.
The next question is, what can developers do to achieve legitimacy?
We could sit around and hope for the best. Assuming that we don't fall victim to the fate comic books had to endure, we will eventually become an accepted part of life as the medium matures and old opponents retire from their crusades.
A more proactive developer may choose to help preserve game history. By preserving game history we give context to our games and can demonstrate the long history of development.
It also gives people, such as academics, an opportunity to understand computer games beyond just what is the current ephemeral state-of-the-art as presented by contemporary marketing. Preserving game history also shows that we care enough about the medium that it should be preserved.
The best solution is to become politically active and focus on protecting game from political influences as well as advocating the legitimacy of games as a medium. This tends to be time-consuming, however, and most of us don't have a lot of time to dedicate directly to such a cause.
Personal Steps Towards Legitimacy
What can you do on a regular basis to support legitimacy?
The most important thing is to understand and preserve the history of game development. As mentioned before, preserving history is important. Much of our history has already been lost.
Even if your game isn't poised to be the breakthrough game that gives our profession newfound respect, the development history is still important and should be preserved. Understanding the history of game development will also make you a better developer and better able to discuss games in a thoughtful way.
You should also focus on the positive aspects of games and include them in development as often as possible. Games excel at teaching others, telling stories, and encouraging social interaction, for example. Focus on these positive aspects in your project.
Understanding how other people perceive games is also important so that you can avoid negative stereotypes. Juvenile sexual titillation and hyperviolence enforce the preconceived notions that many people hold. Controversy for controversy's sake can emphasize the childish nature of our games as well. You also should not be afraid to challenge people. Some of the most meaningful works of our time have challenged us.
Finally, take your games seriously. Artistic legitimacy means that we must understand the work we're doing. Just creating simple entertainment or showing up to a company to collect a paycheck doesn't help us achieve legitimacy. Consider how can we emphasize and improve on the positive aspects of gaming.
If you don't take your work seriously, how can anyone else?
Brian Moriarty, Noah Falstein, Richard Dansky, and Victor Jimenez were members of the original Project Horseshoe group along with myself, and helped investigate this issue.
Title photo courtesy of Project Horseshoe.