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Game Authorship: Who Takes The Credit For A Game?
Posted on Thursday, May 24 2007 @ 04:46:02 PST

The age-old question of whether games are art arrived once again at the 2007 Game Developers Conference, and the answer of yes was met with little resistance. The game industry is reasonably confident in this assertion and continues to develop methods that analyze them as such. Now this message needs to be rearticulated in terms in which other art forms can relate without underplaying any of the many facets which make video games unique. To this end, the question of who receives the credit for creating a game must be resolved. The concept of game authorship needs further examination if the interactive medium is to be respected beyond the margins of the industry.

Unfortunately, the specific matter of game authorship is not at the forefront of discussion about games, though it is an abstract space that needs to be anchored down before the industry can proceed with its "games are art" theory. What is at stake when we claim that certain games are authored or, for a more appropriate word, designed? Is a game foremost a creative expression of the lead designer, the individual who has the most control over the production, or the singular yet indiscrete company name of either the developer or the publisher, or both? The inherent complexity of game-making - which can involve teams of designers, modelers, programmers, composers, quality assurance personnel, and subteams thereof - confronts us with theoretical dilemmas in which various definitions of the author clash.

As opposed to the film industry, corporations are traditionally held as the dominant authorial agency for a game rather than any individual. Gamers mainly want to know what the next Bungie, Rockstar, Square-Enix game will be. Interestingly enough, despite the surge in name recognition - Will Wright, Ken Kutaragi, Peter Molyneaux, and Shigeru Miyamoto (recently named as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Time Magazine) - many of the industry's luminaries are hidden behind company names, brand names, and fictional characters. When will the next Mario game come out? How effeminate will the next Final Fantasy main character be? The lack of exposure to flesh-and-blood game celebrities in a social context has significant influence on where the authorship is placed in a game. Collaborative mediums, unlike novels or paintings, are already not readily filtered down to definite points of authorship, though there is a visible lack of recognition attributed to individual figures in the industry. This reveals points of intellectual friction between the individual, the collaborative production, and the socio-economic contexts that frame the trade that tangle into layers of unsettling theoretical abstractions.

However, marketing a product through the brand name instead of the designer or creator is not a novel idea, and can be pinned to the early days of the computer industry and to what harkens back to the studio system that existed in the film industry during the 1930s. During that time film studios, akin to first-party game developers, controlled nearly every facet of the film - the production, the distribution, the marketing, and the employees. To be sure, the analogy does not fit completely: actors and actresses, writers and directors, would also receive credit; however, this was only after producers, who wanted them to remain anonymous for the sake of low salaries, realized that most movie-goers spent their nickels on films with star power. Not surprisingly, computer software companies - not just game companies - have continued the denial of individual authorship, with weighted emphasis upon economic insurance. If any of their talented employees ever resigned, the name brand with which they worked under would remain untarnished. Unlike the film industry, however, any rise in individual authorship in the sphere of games cannot cement itself on actors and actresses as the stars in games are fictional.

This has sparked numerous critics to stand up for these voiceless artists, decrying the inhumanities of commercialism and calling for a movement not far from the emergence of the auteur in film. Even if game stardom rests almost solely on lead designers, the evidence of their impact cannot be refuted. It is particularly odd that developers - who occasionally give commentary and interviews before and after the game release as well as during gameplay in the form of bonus features - are not given credit when their visibility as an author is clear. On the quality of design, how they express their vision, by the very fact that they face limitations of economic pressure, genre conventions, and technology, shows the extent to which their artistic value has merit. Those designers that are able to go beyond satisfying the bare technical minimums of game-making and leave a tangible imprint on their games should be heralded as grand as the studio and fictional characters they help bring to success. On a broader scale, intentionally or unintentionally, critics insist on a realignment of game authorship centered about the lead designer which satisfies the author-as-artist condition prevalent in other established disciplines for valid authorship. If lead game designers are given as much attention as film directors, then a structure for establishing games as art becomes available and obvious. The quests for art and authorship are two intertwined paths leading to the same place.

In other words, individual authorship can be the key for games to be recognized as an art to the mass media. In general terms, there are two ways for a medium to be recognized as an art form: (1) by analyzing how other mediums justify themselves as an art and cultivating a parallel train of thought within the context of the given medium, or (2) by highlighting what makes the given medium different than the rest and place those differences on a pedestal in a declaration of independence. Within the context of the game industry, the first method draws comparisons to film, traditional storytelling, music, and painting - and attempts to declare games as an art form in the same way as they do. Counter to that, the second method circumvents this need for a connection to other art forms and concentrates on the distinguishing points of interactive media - ludology (to mean game mechanics) and non-linear storytelling, to name a few - thereby proving the place of games as a craft outside of the ostensibly narrow definitions of what other art forms constitute as art. Nonetheless, with politicians Hilary Clinton and Jack Thompson pronouncing video games as a promoter of violence, film pundits such as Roger Ebert vividly portraying them as "not art," and even industry luminaries like Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid) viewing games more as an economic product than art itself, the industry's game designers, researchers, and critics certainly have an uphill battle. Thus, it is understandable to find game advocates following the second method insofar as a naturally rebellious response to the general oppression by popular media.

In fact, this approach is not surprising given the early histories of other art forms, most notably and most surprisingly, the film industry. Former GameSpot editor, Carrie Gouskos, mentioned in her blog that she was alarmed by the number of film critics who referred to the gore-drenched Spartan action movie 300 in terms of video game violence. The irony is that cinema's status as an art form received similar subjugation nearly half a century ago. At that time, as commented by Paul Watson in Introduction to Film Studies: "film was thoroughly ignored by scholars as beneath serious critical attention and was often vilified as a blemish on art and even a dehumanizing agent of cultural oppression," not far from how video games are accused of destroying the youth of today. Watson goes further to describe the quest for cinematic authorship, unintentionally revealing uncanny parallels to the trials that the game industry now faces:

"Despite attempts to designate film as 'the seventh art' ... cinema's search for artistic legitimation was more of a hope than a prospect. Cinema, and Hollywood cinema in particular, was seen first and foremost as a business governed by economic logic and the conventions of product marketability. And, as Gallagher notes, 'conventions have nothing to do with art. Art is original, individual. Conventions are collective - what everyone knows'.

"As such, the origins of cinematic authorship may be understood as a response to three simultaneous lines of argument which conspired to exile film from artistic and intellectual respectability. First, cinema's technological means of production preclude individual creativity. Second, the collaborative nature of industrial filmmaking and the specialized division of labour it entails forestalls self-expression. Third, the need to entertain a large audience necessitates a high degree of standardization and conventionality which are incompatible with original artistic expression. In all of these propositions, the blanket rejection of cinema as artistically illegitimate depends on the idea that art is necessarily the result of the creative activities of an individual, and can be appreciated and understood as such."

No wonder why individual authorship has been given so much attention in the game industry. Rooted beneath the resistance against the current monetary model of corporate authorship is a ready-made strategy for vindicating games as an art form precisely by installing in games the figure of the individual artist. By doing so, games can be shown as being just as profound, beautiful, and important as any other kind of art, and can be separated from each other by analyzing the quality of that art. Moreover, game criticism that acknowledges and evaluates the artistic merit of the lead designer, which is often not explicitly highlighted in game reviews, can be shown to have value. It is important, however, not to completely adhere to traditional models of art and remain firmly connected to criticism derived from the practices of game design. Sidelining the craft for stardom would be damaging; both the dynamics of the gameplay and the vision of the lead designer matter.

Similarly, it would not be prudent, as fair as it may seem, to dismiss corporation authorship in our fervor for an individualistic, essentialist viewpoint of game criticism. Indeed, recent studies have restated a central question: "What model of authorship is able to account for both artistic and commercial concerns while simultaneously acknowledging the political dynamics which frame all authorial claims?" Perhaps auteurism need not be relegated to a singular unit but rather be rejuvenated by an acceptance that a whole range of criteria could be considered "an artist." This era of digital visual culture, in which game innovation is realized by technology, has seen some company names, such as animation studios Disney and Pixar, become an indicator of artistic merit in front of individual creative agency. Some might recognize the name John Lasseter, but for most, all that people need to establish an expectation of an animated film is to mention the studio.

So why cannot Nintendo, Sega, Midway, Clover Studios, or any other developer or publisher create and maintain that same effect? Some companies have already become synonymous with an entire genre as Square-Enix is to console role-playing games. Furthermore on a finer point, each developer can be said to form its own genre within already-established genre conventions through the games it creates, making an artistic imprint that varies in vision and in potency but which exists nonetheless. The company name becomes a symbol of a highly specialized and distinctive form of industrial aesthetic practice. Thus, it might even be desirable to locate authorship at not just the creative personnel on a collectively level, but at a corporate level; that is, in parallel to the search for individual authorship. Indeed, the emergence of real-life celebrities in the industry, though generally wanted, would cause game designers to become more of an object of commerce than before, a name to be dropped to excite fans and increase prospects for game consumption. In the same vein as auteurs in other mediums, an undeniable portion of a game designer's worth would stem from their ability to promote, market, and publicize their game to an extent that gamers access lead designers through websites, award ceremonies, and guest appearances rather than the game itself. In an effort to escape economic restraints, individual authorship opens more avenues for economic value.

What legacy will the designers that have shaped the game industry leave when they are gone? Without a developed system for individual authorship, what will we neglect when we begin to search for the humanity in the game? Despite whatever social, economic, or personal consequences auteurism might bring, respect for the designer has equal, if not more, importance to profit margins. If the industry can neither distinguish between game-makers and game designers, nor actively and publicly promote this concept, alongside corporate authorship, then no one else will. What is accepted as "art" is based on social perception, and authorship is the realization of that perception. Ironically, the hallmark of an exceptional designer is being able to engross players to the point at which they can no longer perceive the design - in recognition that the player counts. It is about time we returned the thought.

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