Corporatization and the Life of an Art Form

May 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Literature’s been around for centuries and in that time it’s accrued an unshakable foundation of revered works, a reputation for seriousness, and an automatic respect.

Now compare that to the history of video games. Pong came out in 1972.

And yet, already the size of the video game industry is comparable to that of the publishing industry. Some googling tells me they’re both on the order of $20-30 billion in annual revenues in the USA, though clear numbers were hard for me to find.

I’m fascinated by the different effects corporatization/industrialization has had respectively on books and video games in the last 20-30 years. Their major trends are the same:

  1. Both book publishing and video game publishing have consolidated into a small number of companies.
  2. Blockbusters have dominated sales figures and industry concerns.
  3. Indie markets have started springing up that both sidestep and complement big companies’ portfolios.

And yet it’s the differences in the respective effects of all this on the book and video game cultures that I find so interesting.

In the oh-so-professional literary world, the industry’s pretensions have become pervasive, and so deeply infused that they’re taken for granted. Everyone, from industry leaders to small-time agents even to individual readers, talks about looking for books that toe the line between the literary and the commercial (which is some repugnant bullshit), or about finding books that can capture the largest audiences possible — though they’ll use some more genteel word like “dazzling” or “enrapturing” or “spellbinding” audiences — or about knowing your market. Broad appeal is the overarching imperative, and even when people talk about pre-industrial classics, they’ll talk about their universal humanity and how familiar and recognizable the characters are.

My point is, the notion that a good book is the most broadly appealing and entertaining one — an idea extending from corporate financial squeamishness — has suffused the discussion of literature in almost all its various places and forms.

How sad. Now look at how video game culture has responded to its industry’s growth. For example, if you scan through one of Reddit’s serious gaming discussion boards, r/truegaming, You’ll see a prevailing nervousness and insecurity about how the art form, and its potential for exploring new frontiers and achieving greater artistic things, is getting paved over by the growing money machine. Here are a few sample posts from there:

  • Are there any games that actually “feel” alien?
  • Describe in Detail that Perfect Game You’ve Created in Your Head, that You Wish You could Make in Real Life.
  • Computer Gaming World Magazine: Will we see the same level of quality and depth in game journalism again?
  • Do developers of “over-the-top” games like Saints Row 3 miss the point of said “over-the-top”?
  • Lack of futuristic open world games

Two very admirable qualities are repeatedly borne out in the posts there: 1) The discussion isn’t nostalgic or limited to the pristine past. And 2) The discussion is aspirational. A common theme is, what can this medium do, and how would you like your mind blown by the next game you play?

I don’t strongly get that sense from discussions about books wherever I’ve had them — online, in person, in class… They seem more predetermined, like the canon of the past is already set and its value has already been determined, and the writing of the present has an inexorable mandate to appeal to busier readers in less interesting and less vital ways.

In short, I think that although corporate and industrial growth has narrowed both the book and video game industries, the reaction of the former has been far more complacent, and the progress of the money machine far more insidious. On the other hand, the video game community has been upended by money so rapidly, and so early in its infancy, that its readers sense how something that was supposed to fun and innovative and exploratory — finding out what video games can do — has been usurped by conventional interests.

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