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Video games are a legitimate form of cultural expression... right?

Video games are a legitimate form of cultural expression... right?
April 22, 2013 | By Brandon Sheffield

April 22, 2013 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design

Are video games culture?

Speaking at the Digital Dragons game conference in Krakow, Poland last week, Guillaume de Fondaumiere, co-CEO at Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls developer Quantic Dream addressed that perennial question.

While the discussion may seem overdone, it's one he has to have constantly, as he petitions the European Commission to register games, officially, as a form of cultural expression.

"I think there's a big confusion about what video games are," he says, "and usually when we talk about video games and do research on the internet, this is what usually comes up. Video games are violent, they're addictive, but most of the time they're not branded as being cultural, or being a form of cultural expression.

"I think that has to do with the infancy of this industry," he adds. "Games really started as toys. They were very much targeting children and teenagers. And I think there is still this perception in society that video games are still for children, that they're not necessarily for adults."

In the early days of games, they could only trigger simple emotions. They weren't sophisticated enough, he says, to provoke more than primitive responses, like fear, adrenaline, or the simple release of dopamine. "It's much harder to provoke anything more complex than that," he says.

But there's been an evolution in games in the last few years, says de Fondaumiere. "Not only did game developers themselves age, but we're also targeting different demographics now. People who grew up playing games, became adults, and wanted to play something else."

Games have started to inspire new forms of interaction, and new gameplay paradigms. Examples he gave include Final Fantasy VII, Ico, Heavy Rain, Okami, The Unfinished Swan, and Journey. These are "new types of experiences that offered a totally new approach to what games could be, and the types of audiences it could attract," he says.

"All games are a form of cultural expression"

The current institutionalized art forms are architecture, sculpture, visual arts, music, literature, stage, cinema, media arts (tv, radio, photography), and comics. Do games fit as the 10th officially recognized art form? This is the question de Fondaumiere has had to address officially.

"To me, all games are a form of cultural expression," he says. "I see no reason why games should be treated differently than any type of literature or any type of movie. I think that more and more video games are becoming artful, and are becoming a form of art that should be recognized next to the others."

And his proof is the increased proliferation of authors in games. People who express themselves creatively, and individually, such as Goichi Suda, Fumito Ueda, Michel Ancel, and Jenova Chen. What is that if not art?

"But does it really matter," he asks? "Do we really care? Do we need to be formally recognized as art? I think it matters. I think this recognition also brings to a certain degree new business opportunities, and when I started in video games 20 years ago I didn't shout it in the street. 'Oh, what do you do?' 'Uhhhh it's new media, it's *cough cough* video games.'

"Today I can say I'm a game producer," asserts de Fondaumiere. "This sense of pride is important because we need to lure new people to this industry. I've been trying to work with Hollywood talent for years now, probably about 15 years. Up until recently, each time I was talking to agents or talents, they would say, 'We don't do games, sorry. You have to understand - violence, addiction - it's bad for our image.'"

Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, was interested in working with Quantic Dream on games, but someone years ago told him that from an image perspective it wasn't possible.

"We need to dare to be creative"

While de Fondaumiere feels that getting games categorized as art will help inspire business through tax incentives and such, making more adult games comes with additional responsibility.

"I don't think of course that video games are the reason for violent behaviors, or are responsible for addictive behavior," he says," but we need to be careful of what we're doing. We need to be aware that our creations are being played by more and more people. Especially children. Of course we have our nice rating systems, but we know that our games are played by a younger audience than we intend. So we have to be a little more responsible with what we're doing.

"On the other hand, we shouldn't accept everything," he cautioned. "Because games have been viewed as toys, not cultural expression, there has been a lot of restriction in terms of what level of violence, sex, eroticism we can have in our games. We are much more restricted than film, for example."

Ultimately, it's up to game developers to change this perspective from the inside, he says. "We need to dare to be creative," concluded de Fondaumiere. "Seeing ourselves as a cultural form of expression, or even an art form, means we need as an industry to be more creative. We need to stop creating every year the same games over again. Create new IPs, which means publishers have to take a risk, but also players have to take a risk. The audience votes with their wallet in terms of what kinds of games they want to play."

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