I believe that games are an art form that defines the twenty first century. However, compared to some other art forms, they are somewhat conservative. They may be loud and violent, or quiet and serene, yet the kinds of worlds and roles that they offer are often recognisable and safe. Rarely do we see games that confront society as well as being fun to play.
Instead they tend to play it straight, focusing on the authenticity of escapism, the rewards and the gameplay. Their role, it seems, is to escape existing culture rather than define it.
Can games define new culture? Are they able to be edgy? Can we foresee a day when the ideas within a game cause discussion and debate much as a controversial play might? Are games capable of radicalism?
Talent shows like The X-Factor use cover versions of songs because the audience will connect with them. Established Marvel characters are prime fodder for superhero movies because they hold significance for an audience that used to read those comics. Literary novelists often use allusions to long dead authors because those allusions mean something for critics and scholars of the form.
This kind of connection is called a signifier and it invokes emotion by association. Signifiers are characters, symbols, quotes, names or other aspects of previous works from which an audience can recognise and infer meaning.
Some works become signifiers when many do not. Why is Star Wars relevant, but not Battle Beyond the Stars? Why do orcs and elves endure and not a thousand other fantasy races? When you describe someone as ‘chaotic neutral’, why does that trigger instant recognition when many other roleplaying games have their own alignment systems? Why are vampires perpetually cool, but ghosts are often lame?
Sometimes it’s because a work manages to break new ground and define a genre for all the rest to follow. Tolkien, for example, set the template for high fantasy and his orcs, elves and dwarves have reappeared in countless other books ever since. More commonly it’s because a work taps into self identification and affirmation. We see some part of ourselves reflected in it, and that gets past our usual filters. It holds resonance, which makes it a powerful potential tool for artists to use.
Yet while some arts have a rich tradition of using signifiers for irony or radicalism, games are usually straight-laced. Mario doesn’t really do irony, and many a story-driven game is a po-faced and belaboured affair. Perhaps they need to be that way.
Does Skyrim attract such interest because its audience has seen many swords and sorcery movies and wants to take part in that fantasy? Absolutely. Do they want that fantasy to be a radical departure from those roots? Probably not. They want to be warriors and wizards, go on quests and kill dragons.
FIFA 12 attempts to be a faithful recreation of the experience of football with as much authentic detail as possible. Gran Turismo is as realistic a reproduction of car racing as can be managed. Wii Sports is exactly what it sounds like. The Total War games aim to capture the actual historical spirit of the eras in which they are set, not some spin on them. Rock Band is all about you getting to let your inner Trent Reznor loose.
This desire for authenticity places many games at the back of the cultural queue. They use their source signifiers to recreate an experience that players have already seen, whether in a movie or on TV. The appeal of the game is all to do with enabling a fantasy, not defining a new one. These players don’t want an re-imagined Star Wars MMO that deals with societal issues. They want the one with lightsabers and TIE Fighters, just like they saw at the movies.
Sales of failed experiments like Brutal Legend, Beyond Good and Evil or Psychonauts seems to back that authenticity assertion, and it even explains the success of Mario, Zelda and a number of other heritage franchises. Like the players’ relationship to Star Wars or football, they are early games that players encountered in their youth when they had no expectations. They have just as much value as signifiers today as those from any other medium.
But I think the authenticity argument is only true at a particular scale. While the majority of players relate to games with an authenticity-first mind-set there is an undeniably strong streak of players who are interested in games as an art form in their own right. It doesn’t make sense to spend $50m on a game for this audience, but at a smaller scale ($0.5-$5m perhaps) they are very viable.
It’s a little bit like the soft division between blockbuster and fringe audiences seen in many arts. The people who read airport novels versus those who avidly read specific genres. The people who watch Les Miserables versus those who go to the Edinburgh festival. The people who love pop music versus those who dig Ani DiFranco. Each works at an appropriate scale.
My rough guess is that 10% of console and PC gamers, but probably less than 5% of mobile and 1% of casual or social gamers are fringe gamers. That translates to a market size of maybe 20 million worldwide across all formats. They are fewer in number than the overall market but also much more likely to be interested in and try new games.
A common trait of fringe gamers is that they appreciate irony, playfulness and knowing subversion of the norm. They are the sort of players who love Castle Crashers, for example, or the works of Jeff Minter. They get a kick out of the comedy elements of Fable and hold designers like Tim Schaeffer close to their hearts. In Britain they fondly remember many retro games like Jet Set Willy or Hover Bovver. Around the world they are the types of player who dig Minecraft.
Games like Limbo, Bastion, Ico, Amnesia, SPAZ, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Rez and many more are more than just authenticity-led. They are experimental, humorous and exploratory, but often quite knowing. A game like One Chance, Alien Hominid or Portal is built for an audience with a past rather than a blank slate audience who never cared.
The fringe carries its own associations with it, which makes the games that work within it a sub-culture quite different in tone to the blockbuster. Developers like Tale of Tales exist wholly within the fringe and make games that most players would find oblique. So the downside of the fringe is that while it is more experimental and certainly influences bigger games, it is often inward-looking and self-referential.
‘Fringe’ is a large but loose label. It includes various sub-groupings that label themselves ‘indie’ (though not all, as indie itself means many things). They are simply those players who are interested in games beyond face value authenticity, regardless of form or format. The fringe is therefore the most likely breeding ground from which radical games could emerge.
Where Is Gaming’s Radicalism?
At various times through history novels, plays, songs and other forms of art have caused riots. Stand up comedians have incited crowds, statues have created controversies and poems have been the seeds of revolutions. While the western world is arguably jaded, we still see this effect played out in the media. Controversial dramas, breakthrough albums and more form an important part of the discourse of ideas and generate hot debate in various quarters.
That, in essence, is what I mean by radicalism. Radical works are distinguishable from other works in that they don’t just make you laugh or think. They incite something. They chime with their audience emotionally, often divisively, and take many forms. They can be creative, social or political. They shock with a purpose, and subvert signifiers to do so.
Unlike the flat recreation of authenticity or the ironic interpretation that is a common feature of the fringe, radical works deliberately turn signifiers on their head. Like the Sex Pistols album cover for God Save the Queen, the whole point is to catch the audience off guard.
Some game developers attempting to be controversial make immature and tasteless nonsense like Postal or Rapelay. These kinds of game are not radical, just cynical, and the only kind of rage that they induce in public is a generalised fear of games poisoning young minds. Age rating arguments, videogame addiction, Hot Coffee and so on are common staples of a reactive sector of the media which fears games in much the same way as parents in the 1950s feared comic books.
That’s about as far as it goes though. We never see a public reaction to anything else about games. Nobody riots because of what a game had to say about them as a person, and no game has ever incited a revolution. Games tend to fall into the same trap that most geek culture does, which is to be ignored most of the time.
However, unlike geek TV, games don’t often use this opportunity to explore radical ideas. Buffy the Vampire Slayer deals with issues of death, loss and sexuality in a way quite unexpected for a genre show. Torchwood has a gay leading protagonist. Fringe (the TV show) has a lot of quietly positive (or at least non-negative) things to say about drugs. Star Trek showed the first inter-racial kiss on television and broke new ground doing so.
Games tend to be self-conscious about being confrontational. Games like Amnesia are so melothaumatic that it’s hard to take them seriously, while others like the visually stunning Journey or Shadow of the Colossus are certainly beautiful, but escapist. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se).
While there is no Comics Code Authority of the games industry, different platforms often exercise some level of censorship which, in turn, affects the kinds of games that get made and the kinds of ideas that developers feel comfortable with.
Issues that the rest of geek culture happily explores, like politics, race, sexual orientation and other themes are often held at one remove in the games industry for fear of backlash. You are welcome to create a gristly shooter, but not to use the n-word. You can show gory corpses, but any suggestion of sex must be off screen. You can permit players to construct their own gay relationships within games, but avoid creating deliberately gay protagonists.
Even soft satire is often not permitted. When Molleindustria released Phone Story for the iPhone (which caricatured mobile phone manufacturing) Apple banned it. Had they banned a film or album from iTunes simply because it was critical of Apple, it would have been a big deal. However games are considered a second class citizen of the arts when it comes to this sort of thing.
It’s hard to see how a radical videogame might make it to market because the industry is prone to weeding radicalism out, and there is little hue and cry from players. Developers, publishers and platform holders often dislike the idea that their game will cause a fuss and so they tone down, ban or anaesthetise content that might cause offence. Some might say this is good because games are supposed to fun rather than serious, but I think this misses the point.
Radical comedy like Brass Eye is funny, while God Save the Queen is both a radical statement and a great tune. While short-sighted gatekeepers stand in the way, games will probably remain stuck as authentic simulators or fringe experiments. However that may, and should, change.
While I don’t expect Apple to change its stance any time soon, Molleindustria were able to create an Android version of their game. While I faulted LA Noire for many game design reasons, the inclusion of chilling crime scenes (including hunting a serial sexual predator, complete with victims) showed that it’s possible to push the boundaries of acceptability.
Neither are what I would class 'radical’ yet, but it feels like we’re getting closer. If the reins are relaxing, and platforms like the HTML5-fuelled open web can be allowed to monetize (through Google Checkout perhaps) without interference then maybe this will be the time when radical games really come into their own. Wouldn’t that be something?