The black sheep of art and entertainment

Throughout the history of the video games industry, there have been many instances where the industry has been unfairly vilified or looked upon with suspicion or disapproval, and where its consumers are also unfairly vilified or looked upon with suspicion or disapproval. The video game industry has been around for well over 40 years, but only relatively recently have video games become more widely accepted.

In the 1980’s, video games were seen as market that only appealed to children. This is just one reason why Nintendo in 1985 had to market their Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES) and its peripherals (like R.O.B.) as toys rather than as games systems. The other reason was the notorious games market crash that happened in 1983, which caused games to be viewed as commercially non-viable and most stores were unwilling to carry games systems until the NES became as successful as it did. The perception that games were played only by children continued to be perpetuated until at least the mid-to-late 1990 when it was clear that the industry was catering to a more mature audience, or an audience that has grown out of the games produced by, say, Nintendo when they were younger. Even before the 1980’s though, when games as a general medium tended to be associated with controversy over violence, there was an arcade game released by Exidy in 1976 called Death Race, which became controversial because the object of the game is to run over “monsters” that flee the vehicle and scream when hit. Then in the 1990’s, games like Night Trap and Mortal Kombat became the centre of hysteria over violent video game content. As the decade drew to a close people began to blame video games for the Columbine Massacre because the media reported that the perpetrators of the massacre played Doom and created death match maps that supposedly resembled Columbine High School, and people have been trying to video games for violent crime ever since – of course, their attempts are in spite of the significant reduction in violent crime that coincided with the rise of people playing video games, along with the general lack of evidence that video games cause violent crime in the first place. Not to mention, the media never got bored of a chance to paint gamers as psychopaths, such as in the controversy that surrounded Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 over the airport level. There was plenty of whipped up hysteria over violence in video games and usually it came from social conservatives.

When video games weren’t accused of making you violent, they were accused of being bad for your health. Back in 2009, the British government released a poster which insinuated that video games were the main cause of obesity and that children who play video games may die early by playing video games. This poster was released as part of the government’s Change4Life campaign which was, surprise surprise, their attempt to tackle obesity. Not only that, but the poster referred to playing video games as basically doing nothing. Apart from the premise just being inaccurate and misleading, what was really egregious this campaign was that this poster was released at a time when the video game industry was responsible for boosting the economy during a time of recession. And in general, this and similar accusations are generally based on the stereotype of gamers as fat nerds who don’t have a life.

And more recently, when games weren’t accused of causing violent crime or being bad for your health, they were accused of being misogynist, and their consumers were accused of being savage, racist, sexist and generally backwards. It’s significant that around this time we started to see the gaming press being infiltrated by feminist ideologues. This combined with the revelation in 2014 that Zoe Quinn, the creator of a text-based choose your own adventure book style game called Depression Quest, had sex with gaming journalists, apparently in order to get her game promoted, led to the online revolt known as Gamergate, and the controversy that ensued. Those who supported Gamergate did so because they were tired of what they saw as corruption, cronyism and a lack of journalistic ethics within the gaming press, along with its collusion with feminists like Anita Sarkeesian who were basically out to convince the press that gamers were sexist and misogynistic in order to advance their own agenda. But the mainstream media – even the gaming press – dismissed Gamergate as a hate mob concerned primarily with harassing women, even though only a few Gamergate supporters were actually guilty of doing so. As a result, there were now those who shunned gamers collectively and denouncing them as backwards individuals, thus effectively siding with the feminists and the mainstream media narrative.

A visual illustration showing exactly how things have changed for gamers.

There’s a certain aspect of this mistrust and ignorance that extends to game designers. Not many people understand game design as a discipline, people still tend to ask “what do you actually do?”. This is illustrated by Scott Rogers in his book Level Up!: The Guide to Great Video Game Design:

Let’s talk about making video games. To most people, making a video game is a mystery. The average party conversation goes like this:

“So you program video games? Is it hard to write all that code?”

No. I said I design video games.

“Oh, so you draw the characters? That must be fun.”

No, I don’t draw them. That’s what an artist does.

“I don’t get it. If you don’t code the games or draw the games what do you do?”

Apparently nothing.

At this point in the conversation, I tell the person that games are made by elves. (Sometimes it’s just easier to tell someone a fantasy than explain what I do for a living.)

–  Level Up!: The Guide to Great Video Game Design(page 28) by Scott Rogers

Also, when we were having our talk about what to expect of the third year, we were introduced to the third year space and the lecturers had to explain a few things about the space. We were encouraged to put content on the walls such as concept artwork and research, but we were warned about putting up anything that was too violent on the walls because of the possibility that such imagery would be noticed by passersby (some of whom are apparently women in their 50’s) and by the lecturers’ boss, which would mean that the lecturers have to fight for the right to keep that space for us third year game design students. You have no idea how lucky the third year students are to basically have their own space where they can just work on their projects, and apparently there are people who would do anything to take that from the game design course, and any thing that convinces them that games students don’t deserve that space is enough to make them feel that they can take it.

To be honest, regarding my university, I feel like there’s envy coming into play. The game design course I study under is a course where you can potentially learn a wide pool of skills. You need to know not just how to make a nice 3D model, but how to do it efficiently, up to standard and in a way that you can get your computer-generated asset to actually work in the game engine. You need to know how to rig the characters you make for your games. You need to know how to animate them. You need to know how the game engine works so that you can import your assets into the game, or if you’re going to actually manage the content in engine in order to make it work as a cohesive whole. You need to be able to communicate effectively with the rest of a given team, and even how to operate as a team – which also means you’re going to have to balance working with others with your own individuality. You have to figure out how to tell a good story, design good characters, and design levels. You to learn how to organize and plan effectively, because good game design really needs good planning. You might even have to learn skills involving leadership and even entrepreneurship. You learn and grow as a designer and as a person.

This is a course that offers several skills, some of which can be transferable in that you might find a way to use them outside of game design, and our course is apparently home to some of the hardest working students in my university. So if you’re a game designer or game design student and someone asks you “what do you do?”, you may actually have to respond with “what don’t we do?”. Some art and design courses are, by contrast, geared towards more specific areas of work, which may offer less skills.. The animation students, from what I understand, are just learning 3D animation, possibly geared towards the film industry. Then you have photography students who do, well, photography in an artistic context. Fine art students make visual art under a nebulous category that includes painting, sculpture, and everything else. Illustration and graphic design students, to be fair, actually might have a number of profitable jobs going for them, with graphic design students finding work in advertising for major companies and illustration students designing covers and illustrations for books (sometimes children’s books) and magazines. Then you have the glass art people who seem to me like they spend their days making stained glass windows and other stuff that exists mainly for show. I could go on. The way I understand it, other art and design students may have less options open to them because there are quite the few art courses where you’re basically just an art student without much transferable skills. And from what I hear from my course’s program director, there are students from other courses who complain that they don’t have what we game design students have.

In our course, we’re the black sheep of arts courses probably because what we are working on is not purely artistic and passive media, we are very much learning how to make entertainment. Video games are not a purely artistic medium, like a painting, a sculpture or generally anything passive. Video games are a medium of entertainment fundamentally defined by interactivity and whose primary goal is not artistic consumption but simple enjoyment by a player. There is certainly artistic and intellectual merit that can be found in video games, but it’s important realize that fun and entertainment – and functionality I might add –  come first when designing the game. In other words, we’re an art and design course that isn’t purely about making “art”, so we’re looked upon a little differently by people of other art and design courses. Again, at least that’s going from the program director. And I’ll tell you what, I am glad and also pretty lucky to be studying under the tutelage of lecturers at my university who understand video games as they are and clearly appreciate the medium accordingly. Going back to Gamergate, it seems that other academics did not understand this, and wanted video games to serve a role that it might not need to serve by turning it into a more “artistic” or even social medium. It should come as no surprise that these academics were rejected by actual gamers. But for this, they have been vilified by those same academics and their allies in the mainstream media.

To me, it’s telling that games and game design students have had this reputation of being the black sheep in culture, even as video games are already accepted in the mainstream and have been for years now. It’s also telling that video games give people what they might want in a very powerful way, and in turn provide happiness and entertainment to people in a powerful and direct way. It just feels like there are individuals and interests who are very much against such a thing.

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