Last week, I presented some of the key problems that the blockbuster games industry suffers in terms of attaining the esteem afforded to art works as a consequence of engine inertia. This week, I want to offer a postscript to that discussion and consider some of the reasons that those artistically motivated videogames in the diversions market are also blocked from cultural esteem outside of the narrow confines of that community of individuals interested in the artistic potential of the medium of games.
I call the space of smaller, lighter videogames the diversions market to distinguish it both from the blockbuster market discussed last week, and the specialist market of genres with a strong gamer following. It is true that some of these diversions games are great money spinners – just ask Zynga – but inevitably those with artistic intent make less (often no) money. These artgames struggle because as much as anything they are invisible in the sea of content now on offer.
At the IGDA Summit last week, which was a really great event that I was proud to present at during its inaugural year, the point came up that it is terribly difficult for people to find games online. The problem is that the volume is now inconceivable in scale – the size of the metaphorical shopping mall that is the internet is so vast that games are positioned on an infinite shelf and it is challenging for anyone to find them. The tendency therefore is for a small handful of games to bubble to the top and the rest remain in the dark corners, gathering virtual dust.
The players who are picking titles of the infinite shelf can be crudely subdivided into two boxes. Firstly, the mass market players – Zynga’s target audience – who are only just discovering for the first time that they actually do like games,after years of being slightly disturbed by nerd gaming with all its quirks, or of total ignorance of contemporary games. Secondly, the gamer hobbyists who are also the players of the blockbuster games. As Emily Greer of Kongregate testified at the IGDA Summit, the demographics of her players are 85% male with a median age of 18. Her company offers some 45,000 different Flash games – but she’s catering to the same audience as Sony and Microsoft, players with such an appetite for games they are always looking for new ways to push their buttons outside the highly expensive world of console gaming.
Because these players – the same male dominated geek culture that Sony and Microsoft compete so viciously to control – are effectively the gatekeepers to the infinite shelf, the content that gets singled out tends to be conditioned by the nature of the market for blockbuster games. There is a kind of a market shadow which radically limits what can be of interest on the infinite shelf.
There is one kind of game that can get attention online that cannot on the consoles, and that is games that are focussed on puzzle solving – not puzzle games like Bejewelled or Tetris, which are not really about puzzles, but games like Braid and classic adventure games which focus on tough problems to solve. There is a parallel with blockbuster games in that both deliver the emotional reward of fiero or triumph – but whereas Call of Duty offers it in an accessible gun-oriented way that can appeal to a wide swathe of (predominantly male) players, something like Braid is only playable by ubernerds. That’s why the adventure game market, which I used to work in, died: the audience was too small. But on the infinite shelf, those smart geeks who can get their kicks solving tough puzzles can be satisfied.
Trouble is, artgames can’t be based on puzzles of this kind if they are to attain to cultural esteem. The art works that are respected are those which talk to the human condition, that are accessible to a wide range of people, that stand ‘the test of time’ (i.e. that have transcultural appeal). Problem-solving games are a private club where only clever introverts get to come in the door. Braid is not a game that shows off the artistic potential of games – it’s a game that offers an exceedingly narrow geek audience an artistic vision of the gaming culture they are already embedded in.
What about the mass market players – might they serve as gatekeepers to artgames? Never. The players that Zynga and so forth court are only now discovering games, and they are not interested in being curators in the way that the geeks of the internet (bless their obsessive-compulsive socks!) can’t help being. The mass market players must be reached by marketing spend, by money invested in acquiring their interest. And artgames, by definition, cannot do this. They must be discovered and talked about by a culture of players interested in the aesthetics and critical discourse of games as art.
However, whereas I see engine inertia as a currently insurmountable issue, the problem created by market shadow and the infinite space are very much soluble. All that is needed is a strong critical discourse surrounding artgames to develop, and for artgame aggregators to become discerning. Such aggregators cannot afford to be bogged down with Braid and Portal – this road cannot lead to cultural esteem. They must instead find and discuss those games like Passage, The Graveyard, The Marriage, The Killer and so forth that might speak beyond the subculture of the gaming nerd and thus encourage new artgames that push this envelope even further. This has not happened yet, and in part because game criticism is (as both Dan Cook and Bob Chipman attested in different ways at the IGDA Summit) suffering from both youth and ignorance.
If this account is accurate, it means that the future hope of artgames as a potential source of cultural esteem lies with the development of a viable critical discourse on games. The seeds of this are, I believe, being planted – meeting Ben Abraham at Videogame Cultures the other week gave me some hope. But we’re still have a vast mountain to climb to overcome the shadow of the market and the enormity of the infinite shelf.