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I had heard Blow talk in the past about the fact that his game, Braid, was not intended to be "fun" in the strict sense of the term. Given that we have seen a number of games emerge from the indie scene which are not afraid to leave out elements one would normally expect from a video game and which stretch the boundaries of what we define as a "game" (Dear Esther and Proteus come to mind), I ask Blow whether we find ourselves in a position where we are forced rely on indie developers to innovate and whether mainstream developers focus too heavily on entertainment.
"Yes, I think mainstream developers focus too heavily on entertainment, but this is actually true of our whole society outside of games as well," Blow replies. "We have too much pursuit of shallow entertainment, which is why we have a society with so many depressed and sick people when in fact we are living in a time of unparalleled advantage and abundance."
"With regard to indie developers specifically, I wouldn't look at them as paragons of innovation," Blow continues. "Some indie developers innovate, but strictly speaking by quantity, most indie developers are just copying other peoples' games with minor changes, just like mainstream developers do. Look at all those iPhone games! The difference is just that you notice the indie games that are innovative because they make bigger splashes than the copies."
Video games have done a lot of growing up over the last two or three decades. But, in a virtual landscape dominated by gunshots, explosions and violence, it seems to me that there remains a lot of potential for video games to broaden their scope. I ask Blow if he feels video games need to continue to mature and deal with a broader variety of themes.
"Most games are extremely immature and in fact kind of embarrassing. That is obvious to anyone who is not immersed in game culture. But if you are immersed in game culture, it might be hard to see," Blow says. "As for whether games 'need' to mature, I don't know if they need to do anything, but definitely I think it would be nice if they were to mature on average. For sure there are some of us out there trying to make games for an audience with mature sensibilities. We'll see if that catches on."
Dr. Tavinor argues that "there is already evidence that this is happening and it is understandable why. As the gaming demographic ages, so the concerns and sophistication of the medium might grow with them," Dr. Tavinor explains. "Of course, not everyone is pleased with this development. When GTA IV was released there was a certain amount of criticism about its serious, gritty artistic tone in comparison to the more cartoonish aspects of its predecessors. Some gamers, naturally, are worried about the artistic ambitions of games designers. But there is probably space for us all in the medium."
As we discuss what it is that is unique about video games as art, I wonder if academia can make an important contribution to such discussions. Like it or not, academia has played an influential role in the way we understand whole mediums, a variety of genres and individual works of art themselves. So can academia help to foster critical discussions which can not only help us to understand the way video games function as art, but also to push the artistic growth of the medium.
"Academia has certainly added a dimension to interpretation of film, literature, music and photography, although I'm not necessarily entirely sure that academia is useful for creators except as inspiration or a way of challenging their own deeply held beliefs," Grefsrud tells me. "Academics like Ian Bogost, Aki Järvinen, and Espen Aarseth have made valuable contributions to establishing ways games can communicate and have meaning apart from as commodities, and they have certainly inspired debate."
Dr. Tavinor tells me that while there is "still a certain amount of academic sniggering over the idea that someone would spend their time studying video games in a serious way," there is an increasing amount of attention being given to video games within academia. "There is increasing institutional support for the study of video games, with a number of research groups; often under the aegis of a media studies department," Dr. Tavinor explains.
"Interestingly, Northern Europe and Scandinavia is strong in games studies. As a philosopher, though, I am still fairly institutionally isolated. I can see a time when there are games studies departments, but this depends on how both the art and its study develops in the future. At the moment there is still a lot of contesting of this topic, and where its study belongs."
Dr. Tavinor thinks it is inevitable that interest in video games within academia, and indeed, culture at large, will continue to grow. "One important force of cultural change is that humankind has, shall we say, a certain 'refresh rate,'" Dr. Tavinor says. "It is natural that as people of my generation who grew up with games come to dominate academia and other aspects of society, games will become just another part of our accepted cultural furniture. Of course we are not there yet, and games are still regarded as something of a deviance in some circles. But this will change."