Artists of Convenience • Page 2

Why the industry only has itself to blame for political potshots.

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.)

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Rockstar's handling of the Hot Coffee controversy - they ignored it, denied it, lied about it and finally admitted defeat - turned a scandal into a debacle.

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.

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There probably was a reasoned artistic choice to justify the inclusion of Taliban play in MOH, but EA didn't have the wherewithal to make such a careful argument.

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.

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