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In his latest 'Designer's Notebook' question, veteran columnist Ernest Adams asks a very simple question: are video games' lack of cultural credibility partly due to the fact that "we don’t have any highbrow games"?

Ernest Adams, Blogger

August 7, 2006

9 Min Read

The struggle for public respect goes on. As soon as the Entertainment Software Association knocks down one clown-made unconstitutional ordinance designed to censor video games, another one pops up somewhere else. It’s Whack-A-Mole with lawsuits.

Video games are an easy target because, unlike the movies, games have no powerful friends and no beautiful film stars to argue for them. But there are many other reasons for our lack of cultural credibility as well. Some of them aren’t our fault, but a surprising number are, and recently I’ve thought of another one: We don’t have any highbrow games.

Almost every other entertainment medium has an élite form. Books have serious literature, the kind that wins Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Music has classical music—not just popular favorites like Beethoven and Mozart, but other forms that are less familiar and less easy to love: twelve-tone music and grand opera. Dance? Ballet, obviously. TV, the most relentlessly proletarian medium of them all, still manages to devote a handful of channels to science, history, and the arts. (Science, history, and the arts aren’t really highbrow, but programming executives certainly think they are.)

And movies? Movies have Merchant Ivory, a small and very unusual production company. For over 40 years, Ismail Merchant (now deceased, alas), James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala made a string of incredibly beautiful and well-acted movies on subjects that would never be big hits at the shopping mall cineplex. These weren’t “art films,” short low-budget titles filled with impenetrable weirdness; they were rich, thoughtful works that addressed serious issues.

Big Hollywood stars lined up to appear in Merchant Ivory films even though the stars didn’t stand a hope in hell of making the kind of money they were used to, because it was worth it just for the prestige value alone. The same is true of Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare films. Take a look at the his Hamlet; the credits read like a Who’s Who of Tinseltown. Half the cast could easily get a leading role in a moneymaker, yet they signed up for bit parts in Hamlet just for the chance to say they did it.

Even if relatively few people go to operas, read serious literature, or watch Merchant Ivory films, even if art and ballet have to be supported by tax money and donations from wealthy companies and individuals, the very fact that they exist lends credibility to the entire medium of which they are a part.

Suppose the only music in all the world were rap or heavy metal. Do you think music would have anything like the level of respect that it does now? Would there be Kennedy Center Honors, with the President in the audience, for 50 Cent or Nuclear Assault? I doubt it.

Like comic books, games have no élite form or widely-venerated body of work yet. We produce light popular entertainment, and light popular entertainment is trivial, disposable, and therefore culturally insignificant, at least so far as podunk city councilors and ill-advised state legislators are concerned. They feel no reason not to censor games, because games have no constituency that matters and no history as important forms of expression.

Maurine Stapleton, Michael Moriarty and Elizabeth Ashley Performing at the Kennedy Center Honors (1979)

Now I know from long experience that a certain percentage of you are making derisive snorts of contempt because you personally care nothing for high culture and see no reason why anyone else would either. But even if you don’t like it, you still need it. And before yet another idiot pipes up with Standard Asinine Comment #1 (“but FUN is the only thing that matters!”), let me just say: No, it's not. Shut up and grow up. Our overemphasis on fun—kiddie-style, wheeee-type fun—is part of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. To merely be fun is to be unimportant, irrelevant, and therefore vulnerable.

The serious games movement will help a little with this problem because serious games aren’t just for fun, but by itself that’s not enough. People write comic books to help teach kids about fire prevention and healthcare, but that doesn’t change the perception that comics are for kids. Serious games that seem unrelated to games for entertainment won’t do much for entertainment itself.

Elite forms of a medium help to legitimize that medium. They provide status symbols that people who want to be thought of as important and respectable can support. That’s why big corporations and wealthy families give money to ballet companies and symphony orchestras: Publicly sponsoring the elite forms of these arts reflects well on the givers. The élite forms also create shelter in which the less “worthy” forms of the medium can operate more safely. Once an élite form of video games exists, nobody can ever again say, “video games are just a silly waste of time.” Nobody would dream of saying that about music, even if they thought it was true of bubble-gum pop.

Elite forms of media discourage censorship and encourage respect, not only for the works themselves but for their creators. In this regard we might be a little ahead of comics already.

At a guess, I’d say that more Americans know who Sid Meier and Will Wright are (who make the games closest to being highbrow of any designers I can name) than who Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman are. But far more still will have at least heard the names of Mozart and Verdi, Rossini and Wagner, the best-known composers of opera.

What would a Merchant Ivory video game look like? To begin with, its execution would be flawless. Its music would be great music. Its acting would be world-class acting. Its animation would rank with the best of Disney or Miyazaki. Its user interface would be impeccably smooth but never in your face—like the ride of a Rolls-Royce.

A Merchant Ivory video game would be visually opulent, without being about explosions or “bullet time.” Its polygons would be spent on small details rather than large effects. As with a masterwork of painting, you could take a magnifying glass to each frame and see artistry even in the corners and shadows. It would reward close attention and playing more than once.

Alan Moore's Watchmen

In common with literature or poetry, a highbrow video game would include connections to the wider world; it would tell us something about our society and ourselves. Not the cutesy winking references of postmodernism, but real cultural roots. Like many of the Merchant Ivory films, a Merchant Ivory game might offer us a glimpse of another time and another way of life; but, being interactive, it would allow us to enter and act in that world, not merely observe it. And it would leave us wanting to know more.

So what would it be about? The same things that highbrow books and movies and other entertainment forms are about: history, science, technology, politics, music, art, religion, diplomacy, family, manners, love, death, duty, sorrow, revenge, depression, and joy. For starters, anyway. Oh, yes, and probably sex, too, but sex handled with grace and sensitivity.

Above all, a Merchant Ivory video game would be about people and ideas. It would appeal to thinkers and creators, which is why the works of Meier and Wright spring to mind as potential examples. It would challenge the player to understand and appreciate new things rather than to jump on platforms or to shoot aliens. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with jumping on platforms and shooting aliens, but they belong to a different class of products that entertain in a different way.

And would it, at the end of the day, be fun? Well, of course it would! The question is, fun for whom? Not for people who enjoy frenzied activity, certainly; more for people who enjoy mysteries, puzzles, and the complex interactions of human beings. It would be fun, or rather, entertainment of a different sort.

A Merchant Ivory video game would give the sense of deep satisfaction we feel when we reach the end of a great play or movie or novel, a long-lasting pleasure that the mere memory of the experience evokes years later.

Who would build a highbrow video game? Like Merchant Ivory itself, probably a small studio that knows its audience extremely well and is content with moderate rather than massive success. To people who create such works, the most important measure of achievement is not the number of dollars earned but the praise of those whom they respect. The dollars are a means to an end, but not an end in themselves.

Some folks will probably accuse me of snobbery for suggesting that we need highbrow video games, but I won’t cop to it. Snobbery is deliberately exclusive; the snob seeks to distance himself from ordinary people. High culture is available to anyone who wants it (though it can be expensive). The difference between high culture and popular culture is that high culture refuses to compromise its standards for the sake of a larger audience. That’s a risky tactic, and many producers of high culture—artists, classical musicians, small movie studios, and public television—have to struggle continuously just to stay afloat. But that should be a familiar feeling to a game studio…

So who’s the Merchant Ivory of the video game industry? I mentioned Sid Meier and Will Wright, because some of their games are on interesting and unusual themes. Whoever thought that city planning could be fun? Or knowing the progression of social, technological and political developments that lead to different forms of civilization? Yet all over the world, people are telling each other, “Dude—you can’t have industrialism until you get the assembly line, that’s totally obvious. You are such a n00b.” That may not sound like high culture as we’re used to thinking of it, but an idea is an idea, and Civilization IV is a long, long way from Mario or Black.

Civilization IV - a long, long way from Mario or Black.

We need more games like that to help us win the culture wars and to serve a market that we currently ignore for the most part: people who read the Beat poets, people who enjoy comparing different productions of Das Rheingold, people who would rather visit an art museum than attend a Kylie Minogue concert. And people who watch Merchant Ivory films. If you know of anyone who you think is developing a highbrow game, I’d like to hear about them.

Maybe I’ll design one myself, just for the fun of it.

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About the Author(s)

Ernest Adams


Ernest Adams is a freelance game designer, writer, and lecturer, and a member of the International Hobo game design consortium. He is the author of two books, Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, with Andrew Rollings; and Break Into the Game Industry: How to Get a Job Making Video Games. Ernest was most recently employed as a lead designer at Bullfrog Productions, and for several years before that he was the audio/video producer on the Madden NFL Football product line. He has developed on-line, computer, and console games for everything from the IBM 360 mainframe to the Playstation 2. He was a founder of the International Game Developers' Association, and a frequent lecturer at the Game Developers' Conference. Ernest would be happy to receive E-mail about his columns at [email protected], and you may visit his professional web site at http://www.designersnotebook.com. The views in this column are strictly his own.

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