Videogame Design as Art

I was going through some old files this weekend, and I found a journal I kept while designing videogames for Atari in 1982. My journal ends on December 22, 1982. I’ll never read the whole thing, but I scanned the first and last pages, and here’s the final paragraph on the last page:

Though I can’t speak for all of the designers here, I myself approach game design as a very special, almost sacred art. I treat it, in many ways, as any artist would treat his work. The immediacy, plasticity, and interactiveness of the videogame design medium heightens all of these traditional artist feelings beyond what static art can provide.

It’s a little self-important, I have to admit, but I’m blogging this anyway–because even though it all seems so obvious now, back in 1982 no one took interactivity or videogames seriously–they were just toys. (And note that “interactivity” wasn’t even a thing; I called it “interactiveness” because in 1982, there wasn’t a word for it.)

The Creative Industries Around the World

This last week, I visited the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a United Nations agency based in Geneva. I was the lead-off speaker of a two-day conference called “Intellectual property and the creative industries.” By “creative industries” they mean money-making ventures based in the creative process: the primary topics of discussion were movies, music, and videogames. There were speakers on the program who represented each of those industries, and the ministers of culture from Lebanon, Jamaica, and Nigeria.

The creative industries make a big impact on the bottom line: in the average OECD country, between 5 and 6 percent of GDP comes from the creative industries. The United States is far ahead of the pack: over 11 percent of U.S. GDP comes from the creative industries. (And we’re just about the only country without a ministry of culture!)

Our stereotype of creative activity is the starving artist, painting in the basement; or the depressed poet, writing somewhere out in the woods. But the forms of creativity that make a big economic impact are complex, organized, and collaborative–think Hollywood movies or major new videogame releases: a single new movie or videogame involves hundreds of people and costs $20 million dollars plus. In spite of the high cost, these investments can pay off big: Halo 3, the new videogame for Microsoft’s XBox, made over $300 million in its first few weeks. The studio music recording industry is also complex and collaborative; it starts with a song, but then enters a multi-staged collaborative process (brilliantly demonstrated at this conference through a documentary video displayed by Ms. Laura Tesoriero, President, EPSA Music, Buenos Aires).

A few things were missing from the conference. Most of the speakers were advocates for rightsholders, and for mechanisms to protect against copying and piracy, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM). But there are strong voices out there arguing for “free culture” and “creative commons”; developing countries who argue that protected pharmaceuticals cost too much and that they are morally justified in producing copies, because they save lives; such voices were not present at this conference, and the result was that it felt like we were all preaching to the choir. When I presented my argument for mandatory licensing and for a cap on licensing fees (you can find it at the end of my book Group Genius), I felt like I was upsetting the consensus–even though I’m a big supporter of intellectual property rights.

A second thing missing was those industries based on patents rather than copyrights; most of the talks clearly assumed the copyright as the model for IP. But many people would argue that software, for example, is a creative industry, and patents are more relevant than copyrights in that industry.

And, finally, those traditionally high status creative activities like painting, poetry, and novel writing were not represented. It’s perhaps to be expected that national governments would focus on the highest-revenue industries. But publishing is not an insignificant business; many books generate millions, and a large number of successful movies are based in novels. And the art world is often the source for new trends in graphic design and packaging. While focusing on the big-money industries, we shouldn’t lose sight of the full range of creative activities–all of them are critical components of culture.