On the Authorship of Games

I am sure that everyone has read the article in The Atlantic about Jonathan Blow. If you haven’t, here it is.

Here is a quick list of what I learned from the article:

1. Jonathan Blow is kind of a dick.
2. Traditional media is very invested in embroiling video games in the high vs. low art debate.
3. Some people in the video game world really believe that the industry needs auteurs to become a site for art to flourish.

The third point is the most important one. I struggled for a minute with how best to say this, but maybe being direct is best: the video game industry does not need idols to hold up and say “See! See! This person makes the good stuff!” While there is certainly space in video games for creation by individuals and small groups, the industry is currently, and will be the for foreseeable future, dominated by the studio/production system.

Big productions require large teams of people to create them, and the studio system is a way of making those big productions possible, especially by funding new intellectual property that gets developed. (Aside: Someone reading this definitely just thought of Kickstarter, but remember this: all of these sweet games getting millions of kicked dollars are sequels). Like it or not, the big sellers in the game industry, just like in the movie business, are the big budget graphic-intensive bulletfests. People like to be amazed and they don’t like to think very hard (remember Avatar?). You might argue that the studio system is all messed up and that we need to escape that mode of production. I totally agree with that, but the creation and entrenchment of the auteur doesn’t fix that.

I think it is is Bissell’s Extra Lives where he recounts his meeting with a person who says something along the lines of “Yeah, I made the rain for GTA IV.” The person that makes rain is merely a cog in a big machine; that is a sad truth. But right now, if you asked me who made GTA IV, I would tell you that Rockstar did it. I don’t know the name of the head developer. I don’t know the name of the artist(s?) who designed Niko Bellic. I  just know that an entity called Rockstar made the game, and that Rockstar has made, and continues to make, lots of games that I enjoy.

Film sort of skipped right through that period. The studio system of the 1930s had a lot to do with that, and replication rather than innovation was the name of the game. Studios, for the most part, were not differentiated based on content. However, film studios did undergo the transition from studio-based production to director-focused production.

Let me be clear: the actual political economy of film did not change. Films were still vetted by execs, funded by studios, and ran by unions. What really occurred during the shift toward the auteur was that the public had a name and face to attach to a movie. Directors were names attached to bodies. That was just an illusion, though. No matter how much I liked Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the lesson that I got from the book was that power will never rest in the hands of a creator who will not play the studio game–every famous director is a puppet. That’s the reason Coppola decided to open up a vineyard.

So when that article spews on about how Blow is outside the studio system and doing his own thing and is owned by no one, what you should really be thinking is that Jonathan Blow is only as free as the games industry allows him to be. The fact that Braid made massive bank and allowed Blow to have his total freedom is awesome, but that money came from XBox Live. The means of distribution, without which Jonathan Blow would still be no one, are 100% owned by the publisher system. Independence is impossible without a platform to distribute through, and if he were really a threat to the way that the games industry operates, he wouldn’t be able to publish games.

Jonathan Blow is a marketing technique.

So auteurs and studios. While this might be a terrible blow to the ego for basically everyone, I think that we should stay away from the figure of the game creator as an idol. The blinding light that is Stephen Spielberg absolutely eliminates Janusz Kaminski. The idol displaces the collective. How can Kaminski take pride in Schindler’s List if no one knows he exists? Better to exist in an egalitarian obscurity than have your work attributed to an overriding force.

It is Boris Groys writing on multiple authorship that got me thinking about the whole thing. Talking about curating art shows, he writes:

When confronted with an art exhibition, we are dealing with multiple authorship. And in fact every art exhibition exhibits something that was selected by one or more artists–from their own production and/or from the mass of readymades. These objects selected by the artists are then selected in turn by one or more curators, who thus also share authorial responsibility for the definitive selection. In addition, these curators are selected and financed by a commission, a foundation, or an institution; thus these commissions, foundations, and institutions also bear authorial and artistic responsibility for the end result. The selected objects are presented in a space selected for the purpose; the choice of such a space, which can lie inside or outside the spaces of an institution, often plays a critical role in the result. (“Multiple Authorship” p. 96)

So all of these layers are true in any kind of art production, but particularly video games. Designers, artists, producers, marketers, programmers, and lots of other kinds of people produce the final product called a “game.” The figure of the auteur masks this production process; it implies that one mind, one singular genius, birthed this massive project. Studios are collectives. We should put our faith in collectives, not individuals that mask the accomplishments of hundreds. Creators are a part of an assemblage, and the more we recognize that, the better.

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29 Responses to On the Authorship of Games

  1. Mark N. says:

    Not sure entirely what I think of it, but Notch is possibly a stronger example than Jonathan Blow of an outside-the-studio-system producer. As far as I can tell, he really programmed Minecraft as one person (up until it got big and he handed it off), and distributed it outside of studio-controlled channels. There were corporate channels involved at various points, but somewhat more generic, non-studio ones—internet service providers, web hosting, PayPal payment processing.

    • kunzelman says:

      This is absolutely true, and it also says something about the games marketplace. No one is writing thousands of words about Notch and making sure he gets a sweet writeup in The Atlantic. The games industry has no investment in Notch because he doesn’t make for a good mascot. He also doesn’t play well to the Horatio Alger mythmaking mode–Notch is generally a nice person who made a game for fun that became really popular. The auteur is a tortured genius figure who really “makes the system work for them.” The publishing system has an investment in making sure that figures who appear to overthrow them do not actually overthrow them. Notch actually gives us an out from the publishing bit, so he doesn’t get an article.

      Anyway, your point is well taken.

      • Exactly, he made a game for fun. The article is asking about intellectual ambitious and challenging games, not ones that are fun, of which there are already plenty.

        Not to mention the Atlantic takes pitches like any other outlet, and commissioned Clark to do the article he wanted to do because it would fit with that issue’s theme. Not sure anything nefarious could be read into that. the Atlantic has no connection to the game’s industry.

        • kunzelman says:

          Yeah, I said that Notch made a game for fun, but Minecraft is a thousand times more interesting as a game than anything that Jonathan Blow has ever produced. Braid is a smart game, but it is heavy-handed and really concerned with being unforgivingly hard. Minecraft is about doing whatever you want to do in a safe space, and with the addition of multiplayer, about achieving massive cooperative acts that make the mind reel. There are genuine open and emergent experiences of play in Minecraft; Braid is basically on rails with the stringent methods that are required to solve the puzzles.

          Every inclusion and exclusion is political. I’m not saying that The Atlantic has any explicit connection to the games industry, but rather that the overriding ideological position of capitalism is one of rendering genuine threats invisible and creating focus on false threats. The Atlantic article is just an extension of that.

      • Ethan Gach says:

        “…genuine open and emergent experiences of play in Minecraft” but why are those worthwile beyond the pleasure they give the user?

        Notch is making interesting and complex playgrounds, but as far as I know (and I’d be very interested to read if you have a link) there doesn’t seem to be any equally compelling elucidation of what Minecraft can teach us, or why it’s important.

        • kunzelman says:

          There isn’t a dichotomy between pleasure and knowledge. It is funny that you use the word “playground” as a pejorative–spaces of play are spaces for social learning and cooperation. I think that learning not to be a shithead Randian in a digital world is just as important, or maybe more important, than learning what Jonathan Blow has to teach me about obsession.

          Why do we need to be didactically taught to?

      • Ethan Gach says:

        “There isn’t a dichotomy between pleasure and knowledge.” Could you unravel that one? I understand that knowledge can be pleasurable, and the fact of experiencing pleasure can be knowledge, but I don’t really see their relation beyond that.

        Also, playgrounds are great, but if we haven’t learned those lessons once we’ve grown up, what makes you think more time on the playground will?

        • kunzelman says:

          You seem to be drawing some kind of distinction between play and knowledge-generating events. There is no divide between the two things. So when you say something is a “complex playground,” what I understand is that Notch is making spaces for communication and education in a digital realm. We just fundamentally disagree about the way that knowledge is constructed. “Growing up” isn’t a state that you enter when you turn 18. We are all caught up in a longterm phenomenological process where we are constantly constructing ourselves. Talking with another person over Mumble about the minutiae of their life while building a castle together in Minecraft is as much of a valuable experience as playing Braid for two hours.

          I understand the point that you are making in all of this, but the fact is that the burden of proof is always going to rest on you to prove why an experience with Braid is any better, smarter, or more important than an experience with Minecraft. They are literally two kinds of art attempting to provide two different experiences and both happen to be under the broad umbrella of video games as a form. Think of it this way: Wyeth and Kandinsky are painters. They both paint paintings. They both do painting “differently.” Both are equally valuable; they both have had people dedicate entire careers as to why they are important painters. There is no meta-painting metric that can ever be applied to determine which is better.

          It is an impossible project. You and I have to agree to disagree.

      • jack says:

        Minecraft. Really. A cube-stacking simulator, with a half-complete ‘survival’ mode stuck on the side with poor game mechanics and lazy programming. Did you know that the game should have included a more expansive survival mode? A game that tried to be more than multiplayer 3D block arrangement?

        A mode that doesn’t just include a bunch of always-hostile critters hellbent on killing the player, implausibly appearing at night for no reason other than Notch being too lazy to program proper dungeons, plant monsters that exist for no reason other than hissing and exploding when the player is close enough, farm animals appearing and getting stuck in airborne foliage cubes, the tiny biomes, the ridiculous lack of dynamic lighting forcing the player to stick torches like an insane acupuncturist, underground areas filled with the same monsters found everywhere, NPC villages with NPCs that just stand there being uninteractable, the list goes on.

        Notch made his riches and left, leaving us a lousy, half-baked game that would be better classified as a “toy” rather than a “game”, for it lacks any goal. He strived to make a clone of Dwarf Fortress in 3D and it’s not even nearly there. At least he left the code to be completed to a bunch of people at Mojang Games, but judging by their release schedule, I’ll be happy if game is feature-complete after 5 years.

        I don’t know about Braid, but Minecraft has terrible mechanics. Unless you like building things in multiplayer, which it does just fine.

  2. bonmotsandblood says:

    I read the Blow article in the Atlantic last week and it’s been leaving an awful taste in my mouth since. I agree with all your statements above, but what I find just as subversively problematic is the audience that this is being fed to. The divide between the gaming and non-gaming public is a little more porous, but still absurdly large. To paint the industry in such similarly black and white Auteur vs. Pulp, etc. terms isn’t going to hurt anyone who knows better (or anyone who just wants their adrenaline ticket punched by Modern Warfare), but there’s a large contingent of Atlantic readers who are going to see that divide and widen it.
    I want my non-gaming family members (and most everyone) to play Anna Anthropy’s “Dys4ia” or even “Braid,” but I also desperately want them to understand why that silly opera scene in Final Fantasy 6 is so moving to me, or why Horde mode is so gratuitously satisfying.
    Taylor Clark isn’t helping the case; he’s speaking in overly black and white terms about a topic he clearly knows is very grey. His title’s also shitty.

    • kunzelman says:

      Agreed with everything you’re saying. That title is just so, so fucking stupid. It doesn’t even mean anything! Blow is a designer!

    • Ethan Gach says:

      Writers don’t pick heir headlines, editors assign those.

      And you said it yourself, the opera scene is endearing, but silly. And Horde mode is fun, but gratuitous. If you want to justify your recreation to others, do it on your own time. The point of the article is to point out that nothing more is going on in the space.

      Games still have nothing of note to say on the most important and timeless issues when compared with literature and theater. That’s the problem, and the one the article is (rightly or wrongly) positioning Blow to try to solve. But let’s not kid ourselves and settle for getting non-gamers to respect our juvenile hobbies.

      • kunzelman says:

        The idea that any kind of art speaks to some kind of universal experience is ridiculous. Games should just keep doing what they’re doing–you have to remember that every great jazz musician was reviled for most of their life by the “serious” music theorists and tastemakers because they were making something that was out of sync with conservative positions. The same with early film. It isn’t that jazz or movies got better or proved themselves somehow. It is that the critics and art tastemakers got over themselves. There are plenty of things going on in games. The problem is one of analytics. we need critics that spend time explaining why the things that matter to gamers should matter to other people, not abandoning a rich field of production with grand proclamations about how dumb games are.

        Also, I’m not sure what “the most important and timeless issues” are.

      • Ethan Gach says:

        Jazz didn’t start as a commercial product predicated on popular appeal.

        Films did, and not many of them started out as art (rather than technological demonstrations or novel spectacles).

        Timeless issues like the ones art and philosophy have dealt with since they started: essence, agency, oppression, morality, death, and so on.

        It’s not about carving out a space to enjoy videogames, it’s about justifying why they are a worthwhile piece of our culture, and why they might be important even beyond that. Why should I play Mass Effect 3 rather than read Descartes or something by Philip K. Dick?

        • kunzelman says:

          Games didn’t “start” that way either. There is a long history of games, period. The origins of video games that Anna Anthropy recounts in Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is more explanatory than I am willing to be on that point.

          I don’t know what to say. If you don’t think there are amazing examples of the things you list out (essence, agency, etc.) in video games, you aren’t playing enough video games. Hell, even the newest Call of Duty game has a reflective moment of the significance of death.

          It seems like you want to be beaten over the head with ART and that something has to do that work in order for you to appreciate it as an art object. Art is interpretive, and lots of contemporary games give us jumping-off points for thinking about the way that we exist and interact with the world. I think that is just as important as anything that Descartes wrote.

      • jack says:

        Ethan Gach: “Games still have nothing of note to say on the most important and timeless issues when compared with literature and theater.”

        Taylor Clark (Atlantic Magazine): “In a medium still awaiting its quantum intellectual leap, Blow aims to make The Witness a groundbreaking piece of interactive art—a sort of Citizen Kane of video games.”

        Well, looks like somebody needs to look deeper than Call of Duty.

        Planescape: Torment. Released in 1999 by Black Isle Studios.

        Just… don’t think too hard when you near the end of the game, it’s obvious they went out of budget (and time).

  3. Ethan Gach says:

    Art as the explicit goal of your project need not mean hitting someone over the head with it.

    Call of Duty is bad art, but if you think there’s enough in it to interpret good art out of it, then there are more fundamental differences at work here.

    • kunzelman says:

      The art you are describing has to hit all the high notes of the human condition and it is obvious that you don’t want to work very hard or have to think very critically in order to get to the “art” part. That seems like you need to be beaten over the head with a message.

      Can you give some examples of the kind of art that you think is good?

  4. Lysander Cramer says:

    So the argument is basically that attributing a game (or film?) to a single creator/auteur rob the hundreds of other people who worked on the project of their due credit?

    I don’t know how much of a difference this makes, but I’d say that Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings films are a pretty good counter example. I don’t think anyone thinks of those movies as purely the genius of P. Jackson. The folks at Weta, Jon Howe, Philippa Boyens, Howard Shore, etc. I think are all just as strongly associated with the work and their respective artistic genius is recognized. Not to mention all the actors involved! A lot of this also has to do the behind the scenes footage, too, I’d imagine.
    So perhaps something like this is a better example of how games might benefit from an “auteur” model? My concern is not so much that just one person might be called the “artist,” but that no one will be call an artist. I studio is a corporation, not an artist. So it’s hard to call “BioWare” an artist. So maybe it should more like graphic novels, where you can say that the story was writen by X and the art was done by Y, and the studio responsible doesn’t really matter as much. Or opera were the original score might be Mozart, by the director is someone else, the conductor, etc. are all recognized for their art?

    Anyway, just wanted to offer some further reflection. Thanks for the piece. I thought is was quite nice. 🙂

    • kunzelman says:

      I think that is a smart counterexample, but that it might be wrong. I think that Peter Jackson, in the general public eye, is definitely given all the credit for the LoTR films. For example, District 9 succeeded purely based on the fact that Peter Jackson’s name was plastered all over it; there was shock that the Jackson-produced Halo movie wasn’t made. When you get deep enough into the film, obviously there are lots of moving parts and people, but the face of those movies is Peter Jackson. I can remember interviews when those films came out talking about the fantasy visions of Jackson, and while there is obvious mention of the “method of production” (effects studio), it all comes back to being attributed to Jackson’s mind.

      I realize that it is hard to call Bioware an artist, but what I am saying is that I think we should. Comics are a perfect example of the erasing effect that the artist-focus has; people know writers like Alan Moore or artists like Jim Lee, but no one can list off inkers, colorists, letterers, editors, etc. All of those people are just as responsible for the work of art, and in the case of the inker and colorist, maybe they are MORE responsible than the named and credited artist.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Nathan Frost says:

        I like the egalitarianism of publicly stamping every work associating every creator associated with a work *to* that work, but it seems to be an immutable law of marketing* that people more readily identify with an individual than a group.

        Hence, films are identified by a director, bands by a “frontman”, comic by a writer, and so on.

        I suspect the more the games industry embraces releasing CliffyB or Miyamoto’s new game, the more culturally and economically relevant the industry will get, and the converse is also true.

        Using auteurs as branding seems more effective than using “faceless groups”. This isn’t fair or accurate, but it fits the data I’ve seen.

        Am I missing something?

        * (My guess is there’s evolutionary reasons to why people tend to prefer identifying with individuals like CliffyB rather than large groups like Epic)

  5. I know you touched on this in the piece, but it really comes down to identification. The Hollywood system is set up the way it is because they want to have a lot of people for the audience to identify with and care about: directors, actors, even producers to a certain extent. Gaming doesn’t have that beyond a few Big Faces. Blow is one of them, but so is (say) Warren Spector, who makes great games and isn’t terribly obnoxious about it.

    The problem is that the replacement isn’t collective identification, it’s corporate identification. People prevented from identifying with real people end up identify with corporate “persons”: Sony, or Nintendo, or Microsoft, or EA, or Activision, or Blizzard, or whoever. The PEOPLE who actually made the game are complete unknowns. For all that the players know or care about them, they’re merely cogs in the machine. Is that really better?

    Sure, celebrate-Blow response does mean that you’ll get the occasional auteur who might not live up to the hype, but isn’t that better than them being cogs? We see discussions and reports about the poor treatment of developers, artists, designers and producers on a daily basis. People are leaving the industry in droves, complaining about shoddy treatment. Even if they don’t leave voluntarily, the people who really made a game are often dismissed as soon as it ships, without any real public knowledge that they had anything to do with it at all.

    Me, I’ll take a few bad interviews if it means that developers, artists, and designers get the recognition they deserve.

    Oh, and one other thing. It’s a bit disingenuous to claim that Blow’s success was only due to XBLA. Yes, XBLA had a lot to do with it. But so did Steam, just as Steam (and the various indie “bundles”) made the careers and fortunes of other indie developers. There’s been an exodus from XBLA to more open platforms lately—that’s something that Blow’s talked about at length—and the ease of that exodus implies that Microsoft doesn’t really control distribution at all.

    The means of distribution are not owned by the publisher system. That’s what makes all this so fascinating.

    • kunzelman says:

      This is a great response to my argument. The only thing that I can say is that I agree that a corporate identification is a bad thing. But that doesn’t mean that collective identification is bad; Valve seems to do it quite well. Pixar does, too. There are possibilities for structure outside of the ones that we have currently, and frankly, we need to focus on changing those and improving those before holding up Blow as the Moses of videogame production.

      Your point about Steam vs XBox live is taken, but I think it is wrong. Braid had an eight month exclusive release for the 360 and was promoted heavily the entire time. That distribution channel is owned by Microsoft, who have their own horses in the console and software races. The Playstation Store, Origin, and Steam are all owned by companies with a significant financial investment in promotion to sell product and make profit. The only distribution channel I can think of outside of those two are Amazon and Desura, and I don’t think that either of them make nearly as much as any of the larger ones.

      Thanks for the brilliant comment!

  6. waxbanks says:

    Leaving aside the interesting conversation about the world of games, I gotta ask:

    Jonathan Blow is kind of a dick.

    Did you not actually play Braid? Because if you made it all the way through that game and didn’t realize its designer was a pretentious buffoon, high as a kite on his own odors, then you must not’ve been paying attention. 🙂

    (The interviews he did at that time, in which he referred to fiction writing as a solved problem, are just icing on the turd-cake!)

  7. colinnorthway452 says:

    Uh wut? Jon and David made Braid two-handedly. They -are- Auteurs. As is Notch and 2d Boy and Zach Gage and Jason Rohrer and me, and my wife, and many others.

    All these games existed -before- they had a distribution deal. I’ll tell you right now that as game authors we make the games we want to. The games that will touch players. We don’t worry if the “system” will allow it.

    I agree that there are a growing number of authors (and some game makers) who are eager to slot games into the old mold of high vs. low art. I agree that’s stupid. But it’s not stupid because the game makers aren’t passionate individuals with the power to single-handedly craft powerful experiences. We are. We can actually do that.

    It’s stupid because the old mold is stupid and lazy journalism perpetuates it.

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