In this opinion piece, John Teti gives his views on the latest attempt to legislate the sale of videogames in the US - and explains why he thinks it's time for the industry to start walking the "games are art" walk.
This month the US Supreme Court heard Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association. It's a case about a California state law that would ban sales of gory videogames to minors. If the law stands, the state will restrict the sale of titles it deems "violent", establishing a small exception to free-speech rights.
My biggest fear is that the EMA will lose this case. My second biggest fear is that they will win.
In their celebration, they're liable to miss the real lesson: they brought this near-disaster on themselves. It's the studios' own craven, short-sighted management of their image that makes it possible for opportunistic politicians to bring the heat.
In an astute opinion piece last month, Rob Fahey argued that the stated intent of the law - to keep kids from buying games meant for adults - did not seem so onerous, even if the actual language of the California statute was "hasty" and "ill-considered."
I don't agree with the need for a legislated age requirement, but I sympathise with Fahey's point that the immediate practical impact could be minimal. It's the long-term, symbolic effects of Schwarzenegger v. EMA that upset me.
The law disregards the industry's existing rating system, which permits stores to restrict the sale of "mature"-rated games on a voluntary basis. It implicitly calls for a government body that would deem certain games "violent" and therefore restricted.
In short, the state would regulate its vision of propriety in videogames. As someone who makes his trade in the industry, it's humiliating to see the Supreme Court even consider carving out a free-speech exception for the medium.
Freedom of expression isn't just any amendment in the US Constitution; it's the First goddamn Amendment. And here we are, this close to adding an asterisk that reads: "Amendment may not apply to videogames."
Such a verdict would be a ghettoisation of gaming, one that relegated it to a lower tier than other forms of expression - and a different set of rules. It would establish a precedent that opened games up to all manner of discrimination, as the medium would be officially "less than" the rest.
It's prudent to ask how we came this far. In his essay, Fahey argued that "ultra-conservative" movements were one of the driving forces behind the bill. But the bill's author and primary advocate is Leland Yee, a Democratic state senator from the San Francisco/San Mateo, perhaps the most liberal part of the country. The guy once tried to incorporate feng shui into San Francisco's building code - not exactly your stereotypical Bible-thumper.
Yee's bill passed the Assembly of a large, diverse state by a margin of 22 to 9. It was signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is a Republican, yes, but further left than almost anyone in his party.
There would be less cause for concern if the legislative movement against games was an extremist effort. It's not. Trashing the games industry is one of the few pastimes that attracts statesmen from across the ideological spectrum. They pile on because the political points are there for the taking. And their constituents don't protest because they don't view videogames as an art form worthy of protection.
Whose fault is that? It's not Leland Yee's, not really. Instead of fanning ourselves in shock that elected officials can be opportunistic, we should be interrogating the people who allowed games to become such easy prey for the jackals.
After all, videogames are a vibrant, wonderful art form. I am tired of watching the studios do such a miserable job of selling this basic truth to the public.
In other words: games industry, Schwarzenegger v. EMA is your own damn fault.
Executives from the mainstream game studios pay lip service to the notion of "art" - heck, one of the biggest publishers has "Arts" right there in its name. However, their follow-through is lacking to say the least.
Art is a messy enterprise. It implies interpretation, discussion and unpredictable interactions with the broader culture. At its most basic level art implies an artist, a fallible human being. All that messiness is anathema to the marketing/public-relations fiefdoms the industry has foolishly placed in charged of its message.
The communications officers who control the information flow at major studios - those companies who form the public's perception of gaming's craft, whether we like it or not - operate a machine built on short-term thinking. Their primary goal is to sell as many copies of Game X on release day before moving on, immediately, to Game Y.
This mentality leads to the cycle of information you all know well. A game is announced with a splashy trailer. The press sees the game in bite-sized preview sessions where every other sentence we hear is, "We're not talking about that yet." A big advertising push drums a bullet-point list of new "features" into everybody's skulls.
Then the game comes out. The Metascore is tabulated, the sales figures are tallied and the marketing machine marches forward, ever forward, to the next conquest.
(Sure, on occasion, you'll see an interview with the developers of a game after the initial launch frenzy has passed. When I got into games writing, I was bemused to learn that the industry term for such a piece is a "postmortem". Because, I guess, to the people controlling the information flow, a title that has been on the market for more than a week is already dead.)
The publishers' treadmill of stultified pseudo-discussion promotes games the same way that slash-and-burn cultivation promotes agriculture. You're going to get diminishing returns, while destroying something of real value. In the case of games, the price we pay for the Eternal Assembly Line of Pre-Packaged Bullshit is the erosion of games' perception as an art form.
Look at the American film studios. The signature event of their year is the Academy Awards. It's an overblown festival of self-congratulation. But it gets everyone talking about artistry in the movies as people revisit the works of the past 12 months and of decades before.
The trophy ceremony promotes the industry as a producer of meaningful, essential cultural artefacts. This perception provides political cover for those summer months when they're turning out less high-minded entertainment.
The focal point of the games industry's annual routine is E3, an event where corporations pimp games that may not be available for years - or ever - in an effort to convince players that what they're playing now is garbage by comparison.
While motion-picture studios position their art as timeless, game studios positions theirs as disposable. Why are we shocked that politicians react accordingly?
The mainstream face of other media is also consistently packed with humanity. When a new film or TV programme is released, its creators and stars fan out across morning news shows, magazines, late-night chatfests - any venue they can steal, really - to discuss their new project.
The quality of discussion and analysis you get on these glad-handing sojourns isn't exactly a resurrection of the French salons (although it tends to be far more substantial than you'll get at gaming's stage-managed preview events). That's OK. It's still marketing; it's just smart marketing. The most important thing is that those public appearances put a human face on the art in question.
In other words, they promote the sense of a fallible, humane artist that I mentioned before. By and large, gaming doesn't have that. Developers working with large studios don't have the domain over their public message that artists in other media do.
Their appearances are too often confined to trite exercises like developer diaries, where the creators talk about new features in a tightly scripted and edited fashion that fools nobody. It's personal only in the sense that the figure on camera happens to be using first-person pronouns.
Of course, there are a handful of developers who have established themselves as more fully-fledged identities, breaking through the marketing noise by way of clout and/or force of will.
Peter Molyneux comes to mind. Tim Schafer. Media Molecule's Mark Healey and Alex Evans. These are just examples, and there are others, but not many.
We need more Peter Molyneuxs to make their presence known. It's much easier for the opportunists of the political world to attack a work created by a multinational monolith than by thoughtful human beings.
While this isn't a media-criticism piece, it would be folly to ignore the press' role in this sorry state of affairs. Aggressively independent thought is essential in the media, but we need to stop practicing "gotcha" journalism that seeks to catch developers out in a gaffe; it promotes petty industry politics rather than thoughtful dialogue.
Likewise, we shouldn't pretend that platform wars and sales-figure horseraces are anything more than an idle distraction - we need to seek broader, more meaningful contexts for our coverage.
And we must stop promoting the notion that a complex game can be summed up in a numerical score. These bad habits, among others, cheapen the art and the artists that we're supposed to engage.
I also don't want to imply that the industry's problem is the PR flacks themselves - as if there is this wall of cretins who are holding us back from the shangri-la of uninhibited expression.
The fact is that most public-relations representatives who I meet are friendly, thoughtful sorts. (Yeah, there are a few genuine misanthropes - that's life.) They want gaming to thrive just like we do. After all, you don't get into the communications business with the intention of making everyone shut up.
Many of these well-meaning people work in a corporate culture where short-term success is paramount, and that's the real issue. If your worst nightmare was the failure of the next game on the assembly line, you wouldn't experiment, either. You'd stick to the same old script like your professional life depended on it, and you'd instruct those unpredictable creative types on the dev team to follow your lead.
(It's worth noting that, in my experience, PR reps at independent firms tend to think more liberally and long-term than those who work inside the studios themselves, perhaps because the former group is a bit more removed from the day-to-day pressures of bringing a game to market.)
One result of the industry's constrained discourse is that when public figures do attack games companies are caught flat-footed, as they're unaccustomed to discussions where they don't dictate the terms. Examples abound, from Rockstar's bungling of the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas sex-simulation controversy to Konami's clumsy disavowal of Six Days in Fallujah.
More recently, when a furore arose over Medal of Honor's multiplayer mode - specifically, players' ability to fight for the Taliban - EA responded by tripping over its own face.
Perhaps there were valid, intriguing artistic reasons behind the feature, but a senior PR manager for EA instead responded this way: "Most of us having been doing this since we were seven [years old] - if someone's the cop, someone's gotta be the robber, someone's gotta be the pirate and someone's gotta be the alien. In Medal of Honor multiplayer, someone's gotta be the Taliban."
I'm sure that quote made sense within the echo chamber of game marketing, where the primary frames of reference is features and framerates. That goes to show how hapless the gaming industry can be when confronted with professionals who know how to make their case in the more brutal, open forum of public debate.
Imagine you're a politician looking for an opportunity to boost your patriotic creds, and you see that quote cross your computer screen. Some poor fool has just compared the bloody, terrible, endless conflict in Afghanistan to a playground game of cops 'n' robbers.
You'd be so eager to pounce you'd have to wipe the drool off your grinning face. UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox managed to stop salivating long enough to declare the game "un-British", and soon after that, the developers renamed the game's Taliban as a generic "Opposing Force".
My point is not that a different rhetorical approach would have saved Medal of Honor from criticism (although maybe EA could have mustered a less facepalm-inducing response).
The reality is the battle was lost before it was begun. Medal of Honor entered a public sphere where it was not permissible for a game to be provocative or subversive. Those privileges are the domain of art.
The time to lay the groundwork of perception is before a crisis hits. Let the developers off the reservation. Open up the creative community to a discussion of their games that lasts longer and ranges wider - a risky but ultimately more fruitful conversation.
This isn't about me, a writer who wants more access. (Every writer, in every field, wants that.) Rather, it's about getting the broader public on our side by selling them on a medium that is volatile and human and relevant and exciting, like art ought to be.
We're lucky that in the Supreme Court case, the gaming industry had a cadre of eloquent lawyers who made their argument for them. But it should never have gotten to that last-resort scenario.
If the games industry wants to avoid another close call and ensure the long-term health of the medium, it needs to stop declaring its product is an art form and start acting like it.