Neither a screen nor a technology culture be…

Ken Levine from Irrational Games, and creator of Bioshock and the upcoming Bioshock Infinite was recently interviewed by Develop magazine and in it he talks about his life in games, and some of the key differences in film. It culminates with him being offered a chance to work on a hollywood film – an offer he flatly refused.

“I was offered the chance to make a game with a film director. A very talented film director,” he said.

“[The Hollywood execs said] they really liked what I was doing and wanted to share it – that this project with creative leads from both game and film – was going to be amazing.

“My feeling is, why? Why would any game designer want to do that?

“What’s the point of having two creative leads together, and why would I want a film director to help me make a game, any more than they would want me to help out with their films?”

“I think there’ a sense in the entertainment fields that videogames are seen as the junior varsity,” he said.

“There’s this feeling of ‘oh one day you can come up to our league’.

“And of course film directors can jump through the game industry’s open doors. Guillermo del Toro – who by the way is an amazing film director – recently signed a deal with THQ to make videogames.

“And I’m thinking… he’s never made a videogame.

“Maybe he’s got a genius for it. But games are really, really hard to make well. In our industry there’s too many people star-struck of the movie world, jumping into deals with some big movie director just because they’re big film directors.”

From Develop online

I’ve written already about how the language we use defines our ability to discuss games and development – and what this interview did for me was extend that to considering our relationship to first ‘screen’ industries & agencies and then to ‘technology’ industries and agencies because I think that in engaging with the wider culture, our emphasis on these two words – ‘screen’ and ‘technology’ – influences the discussion in similar ways to ‘original IP’ and ‘industry’.

In the first instance, the majority of government funding for creative digitial projects, including games, flows through the established screen bodies, locally that’s Film Victoria and Screen Australia.  In the second, the majority of mainstream media coverage of games sits in their technology coverage alongside items about the internet, cybercrime, how business uses technology, and emerging legal issues.

Sadly, the central metaphors for these both fail to capture the unique aspects of games, which is not in how they deal with character or plot or empathy, nor is it in solving problems or enabling an amplification of effort, it is in the way they, through a systemic engagement of rules and variables and goals, create a feedback system with their audience – it’s in how they’re interactive; it’s in how they’re games.

Historically, it isn’t that surprising that our language has become intertwined with these two models of thinking. Technology has been one of the driving forces of video games since their inception, and screen describes both our central presentation mechanism and also belongs to the most recent dominant cultural form – one in which many of our practitioners have been immersed in growing up, and one which is culturally and economically powerful.

But as long as someone else defines the language of the conversation, we’ll be told that we are culturally problematic because we can’t tell Australian stories (anyway, rather than telling Australian stories, wouldn’t we be better empowering Australians to tell their stories –  a point I intend to come back to), or that games can’t be art because they are defined by a narrow band of interaction that ignores years of development, or that what we do can be done by anyone with a modicum of intelligence or training, all by people who don’t participate in the medium – and who certainly don’t create in it.

These are the subtle and not so subtle ramifications of the dialog and language used and which need to be offset by us emphasising that while games can be used to tell stories, they are not necessarily a storytelling medium, that while they might share production processes and presentation elements, they have their own expressive and emotive grammar that relies on interaction with systems and rules, and while the mainstream coverage might focus on a small but violent subsection of games, there is more, much more, to them than that.

Which might all seem obvious to people embedded in games and game culture, but for those outside of it, those in media or government or those looking at shifting from one screen medium to another, the fundamentals of this conversation are something new.  Still entrenched in the storytelling language and metaphors of the moving image, or in the possibilities of an emergent technology, their ability to converse about interactivity and its expressive possibilities is constrained by those frameworks.

It’ll be a long, slow process of education, but I think that by reframing the conversation in our terms, moving from the industrial to the cultural, from the mechanical to the emotive, we can get there sooner rather than later.

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