In Honor of E3 – Drawing Lines

And now for something completely different…

E3 — a.k.a. the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo — was held again earlier this month in Los Angeles, where many hope that it will stay.  If you have never attended E3, it cannot be adequately described in words, it is an experience of the senses — loud, visual, politically incorrect, a descent into adolescent decadence as long as what you really want to do is see the latest in new video and computer games coming soon to a device near you, currently invented or otherwise. 

I didn’t get to the show floor this year, just to a nice dinner with former colleagues and some interesting meetings, but immediately prior to the show, I was asked by a college student studying for a degree (gasp!) in videogames for my opinion (horrors!) on issues of censorship in game land.  Here I provide my largely unedited memo to that fellow, to which he recently responded my material made the cut and he received an A on his presentation.  We’ll see if you agree…

College Student Question 1:

What is “the line” for videogame developers in regard to deciding what kind of content is not included?

KG Response:

There are two answers to this question, artistic and business. In terms of artistic, the question is no different from any other art form (literature, painting, film, etc): is it true or “felicitous” to the content? By felicitous the artist implies the necessary use of whatever element of free expression is necessary to make his or her point with the best tactic available to advance the project. Of course this is subjective, but that’s what separates an artist from an amateur, effective application of subjectivity. If as an artist you need to use violence in a certain way to make a point or advance the story, you do so in the most honest and appropriate manner for the effect you need to advance the work. The opposite of felicitous in creative endeavor is gratuitous, meaning the decision is made purely for commercial reason, shock value, impact, or audience effect, what is most often referred to as hack work. When you see a string of cool special effects and all you can say is, “wow, cool special effects” and there is no other point, that’s gratuitous and likely should be edited. An artist uses a filter of appropriateness based on vision, not implication.

On the business or practical side, it is really quite simple, just like the movie business. Someone else is financing your work, whatever rating the entity financing the work wants, you edit to achieve that rating. No question, the marketing reasons will always trump artistic expression when someone else is financing your work to get the best possible return on investment they can. If you don’t like that, finance it yourself, but you will have a very high risk of losing your money because with financing comes distribution.  Abundant marketing and promotion dollars are most often provided by those who have the most skin in the game in a double down strategy, and they are by no means free of hooks, quite the contrary, but with all the noise and competition for mindshare, a good publisher can add tremendous value when you are aligned.  With trust established, the editorial dialogue between publisher and developer can also be immensely satisfying.

College Student Question 2:

How do game developers decide on the level of sensitive, questionable, and possibly offensive content in their games?

KG Response:

To be honest, one of the reasons I took a hiatus from the business a few years ago is because the artistic sensibility was not advancing at the same level as the technology. The majority of auteurs in game development tend to push the technology and pay lip service to its meaning, if any. In most other art forms the artist’s desire to advance spiritually and intellectually tends to develop with the craft and with age. I don’t see that in games as much. It is a very young industry, most often with very short life cycles driving the creative process, which can be great for business because the craft means to sell peer-to-peer, but in terms of thoughtfulness about the greater art form and what goes in and what comes out, I don’t see enough introspection. There are a few, like Will Wright and Shigeru Miyamoto, whose scope has developed with their craft and their tools, but mostly it’s the next generation simply trying to “out cool” the competition.  Sequels and branding increasingly become overpowering forces over freeform imagination and exploration as capital requirements increase, just like movies. That’s just the way it is, not good or bad, just reality.

Zynga has changed some of that with a new paradigm for lightning fast development and iteration in social contexts that is much less demanding of production values, which makes them less dependent on eye candy.  The fast rise of relatively cheap mobile apps is also bringing back a level of independence that allows more experimentation and creative risk.  Yet it would be great to see a few gifted minds really explode the give-and-take storytelling platform (you can’t say “interactive” anymore without drawing sneers) taking a weed wacker to clichés and with subject matter beyond outer space creatures, monster machine guns, dungeon royalty, and various interpretations of the technocrat’s apocalypse.

College Student Question 3:

How seriously do game companies take the critics who claim that video games are terrible for children and the cause of societies problems?

KG response:

Game companies worry about customers and sales. When sales stop because of this or that element, they stop putting it in the game. This too de facto is neither good or bad, it just is. If PR makes a game sell, it’ good. If it makes a game stop selling, it’s bad. This is a business like any other business. If you are not fully responsive to customers you will go out of business. Do you think the people who make Oreos had a sudden revelation about trans fat? No, it made the headlines as a direct link to poor health, sales dipped, and now you have Oreos without trans fat. That is the way capitalism works, and whether it has a spiritual ground is irrelevant, it is the best way known for a business to work. Customer opinion is EVERYTHING because sales reflect customer opinion, especially in a world of social media and internet exchange of unedited public opinion. Noise will always be noise, but sales are not noise.

So what do you think, did we earn our A? Or do you think differently about the lines of censorship in gaming, how they are applied or how they should be applied? Please join the dialogue publicly or privately.  Game On!


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