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When is a Table not a Table: Videogames, IP and Authorship

This short essay is inspired by and a response to John Walker's editorial on why games should enter the public domain which you can read over at Rock Paper Shotgun.

Andreas Walther, Blogger

February 7, 2014

7 Min Read

(This short essay is inspired by and a response to John Walker's editorial on why games should enter the public domain, which you can read over here and Steve Gaynor's response to it which you can read over there. So, I guess the following is an elaboration on a response to an editorial. This is writing Inception-style.)

In his editorial, John Walker makes the decisive if not radical claim that 

there is a material difference (literally) between a game and a table, a song and a car. One physically exists. The other doesn’t. One is a thing, the other is an idea.

So in John's mind, Steve Gaynor's Gone Home is a mere idea, ethereal and independent of its "creator". More than that, it sprang from a larger culture, and thus destined to return to it one day. Videogames, following this thinking, are really just temporary contractions within pop culture that are then to be consumed back into pop culture. In the wake of half a century of postmodernist thought, John has now essentially denied the notion of authorship (and as a consequence, ownership). He is wrong in doing so, in my opinion. While Steve has at length argued the ramifications for the economic side of game development, I want to focus here on the meaning of authorship and ideas. And it all begins with a simple question: When is a table not a table?

Let's proceed from John's assumption that (I'm paraphrasing) 'a table is a thing, whereas a game is an idea'.

He bases that claim on the fact that a table seems to exist in the physical world, is a physical object, is a thing you can move, touch, put a mug on. A game, on the surface, is intangible, ones and zeroes, ethereal. That's an understandable misconception, and one that I myself have been under for years.

The truth is:

The table is just as ethereal as the game. 

Why? (And what the fuck does this even mean?!)

Because we have always, since man could make things with his grubby, clumsy hands, been living in a world of ideas. Ideas about cars, spoons, art, love, hate, food and everything else. What defines the table? Its essential tableness, its tableosity, its toblerone. Whatever. When we say "table", we are talking about an idea.

Think of a table right now. 

Four legs, wooden top, it's abstract, an idea. This table is nothing really, froth at the beaches of our collective conscious ocean. 

Let's assume then the following syllogism: 

  • A table is not a table as long it is table-as-idea.

  • A game is not a game as long it is game-as-idea. 

There is no table until a carpenter (let's call him Mitch) decides to push this abstract thingy into reality. To breathe life into its platonic nothingness, and make it a thing.

With that decision he reaches for his tools and starts hammering away. And there's the rub. Even now it's not a table, it's as far from that abstract thing, that generalization, as can get. It's now his thing, a table that only Mitch could have made, unique, and possibly beautiful. It has transformed from table-as-idea into Mitch's table, standing in the corner of his workship, the varnish still wet. It's formed by his skill, by the things he loves, the way he carves and cuts, the wood he chooses and the varnish he applies. It's his invention, an eternity removed from the abstraction. 

The same goes for videogames. Game is an idea. It's nothing, a collection of notions about traversal in space, interactive narrative, mechanics and graphics. Game-as-idea is not Gone Home. Gone Home is a game, yes, but it's not an idea. It's a concretized vision whose concretization has been facilitated by many abstract ideas related to game-as-idea. It's a thing whose thing-ness is inexorably and specifically tied to Steve Gaynor*. To his vision: his artistic predilections, ethics, and rigor all have bled into Gone Home and make it not an idea, not an abstraction, but a very very specific thing. 

Now, echoing a discomfort already voiced by Walter Benjamin, we could wonder about how modern modes of (re)production may decimate a game's (Gone Home's in this case) thing-ness. It cannot. Because it's as real as Mitch's table, it's just less intuitive to realize this.

One, its existence in the physical space may be somewhat dissimulated due to the fact that it's "invisibly" existing in folders and subfolders, strange patterns on a hard drive. But it's there. You could point to it in the physical world. It's not a thought, it's not an idea, it's a concrete thing that happens to be bound to a still novel and para-magical medium. 

The only real difference between Mitch's table and Steve's Gone Home is time. A videogame, as it is bound to a digital medium, can near instantaneously be reproduced to any number one might imagine. It's almost independent of time, Steve is almost independent of it in the distribution of his work. Poor Mitch has to actually sit down again, cut the wood again, apply the varnish again, etc. to produce another copy of that first table. Steve has the advantage there. But's that all that differentiates them. 

Steve's (or anyone's) game is just as much a "thing" as Mitch's (or anyone's) table. Its point of origin which is its author and creator makes it unique and specific, and thus distinct from the mass of ideas (original or other) that served as instruments in its creation.

A videogame is never an idea, it's never an abstraction - it's specificity and reality, and it forever belongs to its specific author because it could have only come from him (or her). That's the definition of intellectual property.


* I am aware of the fact that Steve did not create Gone Home on his own, I'm using him as a stand-in for the team. Sorry, team.

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