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Games Shouldn't Be Anything

A small rant about how words should be followed with actions when debating how games "should be."

Chris Pasley, Blogger

April 7, 2009

4 Min Read

I am getting exasperated by all the game developers out there who every day make a new rant about what games should be. Games should be art, games should be mindless fun, games should be power fantasy, games should be emotional. It's almost as common as people saying what games shouldn't be. Games shouldn't be movies, shouldn't be novels, shouldn't be polarizing, shouldn't use these sort of controls or these mechanics or these types of characters or be made solely for that particular gender. Enough!

Games shouldn't be anything.

Much of my reaction to this constant preaching probably originates from my college days when I was constantly bombarded by the bigotry of standardized academia about what was and wasn't “literature.” Somehow I was supposed to believe that Ethan Frome was world class art, but Dhalgren was just escapist fantasy (as if literature didn't have its own grand and well-documented escapist history.) Angry at what I saw as arbitrary line-drawing, I developed a firm distrust of any theoretic attempts to categorize and guide the creation of new works based on these flimsy designations as forced stagnation, tied to rules and conventions that are only set because someone first did them a hundred years ago.

The game industry is suffering from the same thing science-fiction has suffered from for years: genre envy. Like SF among its fiction peers, we want our works to be respected at the same level as film classics or timeless works of literature. That's understandable; we're artists (or craftsmen, depending on your point of view) and we want our efforts not to go unrecognized. I personally feel that games can be every bit as great as any of these recognized art forms, but for all the squabbling about what games should or shouldn't be to either accomplish that goal or dismiss it, we miss what makes those classic works worthy of worldwide respect. No one decided that Citizen Kane should be a great movie. They just made what they wanted to, and it turned out great. I can't imagine that Shakespeare spent too much time debating how he could make Twelfth Night respectable; he just sat down and wrote masterpieces. This is what I feel we're beginning to lack; we have lots of meaningful and enthusiastic debate, but in the end it's pointless for a gaggle of game developers to say what games should be. If you think a game should be a certain way, then just make it that way.

If your game truly is great because of your contributions and your point of view, then the rest of the industry will see that and follow suit. If you think the elegant and sophisticated story of BioShock didn't cause a stir among developers, then you weren't paying attention. The course of popular media is shaped not by the debate of onlookers, but by the works themselves. Greatness builds upon greatness; without Chaucer there would have been no Shakespeare.

Now to bring the rhetoric back to earth: I'm not saying we shouldn't discuss our art. I'm not saying we shouldn't debate. Debate can be where the seeds of great ideas originate, and a good argument is healthy and useful for unseating old and established ideas. But first we have to do away with the idea that games should be one thing or another. Have your thoughtful introspection. Have your power fantasy. Have your games shaped for only one gender. No matter what you call any of those things, there isn't a single one that can't be fantastic, and we're censoring ourselves to think that a game should be any one way or accomplish any one thing. Our computer screens are to us what blank canvases are to painters; we may be in the era of realism, but that doesn't mean someone else can't make an impressionist masterpiece.

So, my final point at the end of this rambling: quit talking about it. Do it. And others will follow.

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