Artists of Convenience • Page 3

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

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.

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Peter Molyneux - a PR executive's nightmare. But is that a good thing?

(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.

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Liam Fox is no Medal of Honor fan, as EA knows only too well.

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.

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