24 March 2017
On the surface level, video games can seem very familiar to other popular forms of entertainment. For years, game developers have consistently tried to market their latest projects as “mature” and “cinematic”, in order to perhaps further press the point that games have evolved into more respectable entertainment properties (and rightfully so). And although games do draw inspiration from other mediums such as film, they are, at their most fundamental level, quite different from any other form of entertainment. Interactivity and player agency aside, video games are unique due to the subculture that they’ve fostered, wherein games can be tinkered, re-programmed or copied for the sake of creating further commodified content or, more interestingly, resources that further make up the digital commons. Video game culture and its link to commodification vs. commons is a topic discussed in Sarah Coleman and Nick Dyer-Witherford’s article “Playing on the digital commons: collectivities, capital and contestation in video games.” Linked to this topic is also the question of authorship in the production of commodities (or commons) which is commented on in the game The Writer Will Do Something by Tom Bissell and Matthew S. Burns.
For the sake of comparison, let us split the gaming community into two specific audience types: those who play games for entertainment value and those who not only play games, but who also take part in building upon established games with their own content. Slightly inspired by the Free Software Movement of the 1980s, many within the gaming community treat games as a vehicle for further creativity, where projects can grow into collaborative efforts or can simply be spun off into products that can be distributed freely or for profit. As Coleman and Dyer-Witherford put it, these enthusiast gamers regard “games not as fixed properties, but rather as the raw material for continuous collective authorship…” (943). And although some of these efforts are not directly supported by the developers and publishers of these re-tinkered properties, some still do offer encouragement to the community and even provide the necessary toolsets and means through which these products can be crafted and distributed back to the gaming community. A perfect example of this publisher-player dynamic is Valve Software, a game developer whose in-house game engine, Source, has been utilized for countless free-to-play or fully-priced products (some of which, such as Counter-Strike, have become highly profitable properties).
Turning the topic of production and communal collaboration on its head, the game The Writer Will Do Something provides commentary on the idea of authorship in games and, more specifically, the trials and tribulations of designing a game that can appease both the developer and the player. The game takes us, in real-time, through a design meeting for a fictional game called Shatter-Gate: Future Perfect, which is six months from launching. The player assumes the role of the lead writer of the project and is given the freedom to choose different pre-written talking points to bring up to the rest of the team in the meeting. Given the anticipation that the project has within its fanbase, the team is hard-pressed on how to approach the prologue of the game, which tested poorly with paid outside consultants. Throughout the 20 minutes or so it takes to complete this game, not only do we get a clear commentary about the ordeal that it is to create a video game, but also the fear and anxieties that developers and publishers internalize about fan reception to their shipped products. Given that the game being discussed is the third in an already popular franchise, it could be argued that developers can’t simply rest on the fact that the property is theirs and that they can do with it as they please. From a non-literal standpoint, a fan who’s committed themselves to a franchise and the lore that encompasses it feels a certain sense of ownership to said franchise. In reality, many developers can (and will repeatedly) attest to the enormous amount of pressure that they face in not only pleasing themselves, but also their audience.
To conclude, video games, as software, are a more malleable entertainment product than any film or music album. Although they are, for the most part, legal properties of developers and/or publishers (in essence, copyrighted material), they can still be used as the foundations to other projects and can provide an environment wherein players can even expand and modify the state of the property beyond its release.
Coleman, Sarah and Dyer-Witherford, Nick. “Playing on the digital commons: collectivities, capital and contestation in video game culture.” Media Culture & Society 26.6 (2007): 934-953. Web. 18 March 2017.
The Writer Will Do Something. Tom Bissell and Matthew S. Burns. 2015. Video game.