Who Is the Author of a Game?
Mike wrote an article last week about gamer entitlement. Now, those of you who know me, know that I’m a very entitled gamer. But the nagging question which this article rises and does not answer is this; who should be the “author” of video games? “But Ali, Mike does answer that! It’s the gaming companies!” That’s true, what I meant was, his answer does not convince me. To my opinion, this notions of authorship, which is a one way road, and mystifies the creator, belongs to the 19th century, and evidence and new theories have shown it wrong. But of course, I personally don’t have an answer to that question either. So if you’re looking for me to provide my own answer, I’m sorry. But what I can do- and I’m going to do- is this, I’m going to try to ask the question in a more complicated way.
We usually take things for granted, while a historical perspective can often show how things we blindly take for granted are actually debatable hypotheses and products of ideology. Mike complains that gamers want to change the works which “belong to companies”, David “BGH” agrees with him in his comment: ” we don’t have the right to subvert company policies or assume editorial control over someone else’s artistic project” and Ethan, some time ago, on the issue of Mas Effect ending, voiced the same opinion. But can we really take things for granted like that? Lets take a look at the issue of authorship.
Authorship is a very recent concept in the history of literature. It was an invention of romanticists. Before that, for centuries, the dominant factor in producing art was merely the tradition, and the genres, and their rules. The genre took precedent over individual writers and individual works. Plagiarism was not an issue, and neither was authorship. People freely edited and added passages to works, without any regards to the work of the original author. Romanticists came up with the idea that we still believe in today, that a work of literature is the creative product of one individual, and that individual has a semi-divine role. S/he is inspired, a genius, someone who has absolute power over what is created and how it should be interpreted. Later the Victorian period set the relationship between the writer and his/her readers. The situation has remained the same, as the market relationship between the creator and the reader is shaped the same way. Again, we take it for granted, but we must remember that this view of art is merely 200 years old, which makes it pretty young in comparison to the art itself. Two people who were most influential in this concept were Williams Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. Wordsworth’s famous quote in his masterpiece of criticism; “For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, and that poet “is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness”, gave rise to what we completely accept today.
What can be more relevant to our discussion, (and we will come back to this), is how cinema went under the same transformation in its relatively young history. At first, the movies were considered to completely belong to the filming companies (hence the prize of the best picture going to the producer in Oscars). Then some people claimed that the actual creator of the film is the writer. But in the 40s the writers of the French magazine Cahiers du cinéma (who included great names such as André Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jacques Rozier, and Jacques Demy; people who later became great filmmakers and created the French New Wave movement) came up with the auteur theory. According to this theory, a director’s film reflects the director’s personal creative vision, as if they were the primary “auteur” (the French word for “author”). The late Andrew Sarris, who passed away a few weeks ago, named and popularized this idea in America. Right now, with the exception of extremely worthless films, we all consider the director the “author” of the movie, and that is why the more respectable films festivals (including Cannes, Berlin, and Venice) give their main prize (the best picture) to the director and not to the producer.
The late Andrew Sarris
Of course, like everything else human, this notion has not gone about without being challenged. Many have challenged the role of the author. One can say that although the popular criticism goes on to give a divine role to the authors, the whole body of modern criticism shares the fact that it tries to dethrone the author, no matter what else their differences are. The New Critics pointed out that the author loses his/her control while the text is finished, and emphasized the role of the text. Reader-response critics stressed the importance of the reader in comparison to the author. Structuralists believed in certain structures in which any author operates, and therefore these structures were more important than the authors, and Post-structuralists and post-moderns believe that an author will always fail to communicate what s/he wants to communicate. Among these numerous challenges to the status of the author, two are more important, Michel Foucault and his notion of “Author Function” and Roland Barthes and his notion of “the Death of the Author”. I will leave the second one for you to read on if you’re interested, but since Foucault is very related to what we want to say I will try to summarize his views.
The gist of what Foucault says is that author was an invention of capitalist societies because they needed such a “function” in the society for the sake of the market and economy. The capitalism “invented” the notion of the author as an individual who is the creative mind behind the work solely to serve its needs. Author is a complete abstract and arbitrary notion, and a transcendental one at that, and his function is discursive. The author enforces the protestant notions of individualism and responsibility, and he serves to define the literature, gives it a discursive meaning, helps us categorize literature, and then also serves as the victim of censorship. In an easy language, Foucault believes that the ideology behind the notion of authorship is capitalism, and the ideology behind that is the protestant religion. Therefore, author is not really an individual, but a role in the society, a “function”.
This is very important to us gamers as well. We need to, like Foucault, sit back and ask ourselves what ideological system is at work behind seemingly obvious statements like “the gamers should not assume editorship over someone else’s work”. We will come to that shortly.
What do I think? I don’t think authorship is false, but I do think that the majority of people have a simplistic view of the matter. The notion of authorship must undergo these challenges and be amended and improved by them, even explained better by them. The reason that I summarized this much unrelated stuff was one thing; you must know that the notion of authorship is (a) historical and (b) frequently challenged. What I’m saying is, keep an open mind.
Now that we established that, let us ask ourselves, at what stage we are? I believe we can fairly well that the status of our industry today greatly matches the status of Hollywood and film industry before the emergence of Cahiers du cinéma, before the late 50s and early 60s. To us, the “author” of a game is the gaming company. The brand. Nintendo, Bethesda, Blizzard, etc. Of course, I believe that they enjoy a power and an influence that film companies never did.
First of all, most people out-right attribute authorship to the companies. It was Bioware who wrote that ending to Mass Effect, it was Bioware who was pressured to change it, and it was Bioware who gave in to the pressures and released a DLC to change the ending. It was Bethesda who created Skyrim, and it was Blizzard who created Diablo III. Video game companies own their games completely, financially and artistically. We regard them as the authors of the game. That is the main difference between out industry and the other ones. In film, literature, and music, the publishers and studios hold immense power and make the most profit but at least they don’t share the artistic credit.
If I want to bring an example of how such thinking works, I want to bring it from our own staff. David (the BGH one, not the DDJ one) criticized my article attacking Nintendo by pointing out that he doesn’t like someone generalizing the whole gaming library of a company. If you go back and read my article, you will see that I never mention any games made by Nintendo. But I think David’s reaction is natural, and a sign of what I’m driving at. He didn’t see my attack on Nintendo as an attack on a company with some policies, he saw it as an inevitable attack on its games. That’s because he considers those games Nintendo‘s games. But a film lover would never see and attack on- say- Warner Bros. as an attack on Batman Begins- because that is Nolan‘s film. But if I attack Nolan or Dickens, it’s implied that I’m also attacking their corpus. [Explanation: It turns out that I had misunderstood David's meaning, he was not defending Nintendo, he was defending Wii, which is a console and not a company. My point still stands, just imagine someone else saying that to me].
Also, we usually give out prizes to the companies. Spike has an award for the Studio of the Year, which would never make sense in any other industry. More than that, we even talk about the style of each company, we talk about Bioware games and compare them to Bethesda games as if we’re comparing two authors. One is good with romances, the other with combat!
Could we explain this the same way Foucault explained authorship in discourses (as in literature and beyond)? I think we can. If market capitalism was at work behind authorship in an implicit way, it is at work in video game industry nakedly. And that is because we still fail to look at video games as art, but rather as commodity. I know that my headset is made by Philips, my monitor by Samsung, and my modem by D-Link. I don’t know who designed them and I don’t care because I don’t look at them as objects of art. The designer was someone who had a contract with a company, and as the consumer I’m dealing with the company. This commodity based view is so strong that even those who support the idea of gamer authorship usually reason with “we have paid for this game and we want it to be the way we want it to be!”
Is that false? I think it is. Basically, the companies are merely the investors. Nintendo did not create Princess Toadstool, it funded it. Nintendo has not created even one game. They have funded the game. People have created the games. Nintendo is not a person, it’s a corporation, and a corporation is unable to be creative and create beautiful works of art. Mitt Romney is wrong, corporations are not people, my friend! People create games, people with dreams and ideas, people who piss and have periods. Nintendo has invested some money in the creative work of other people and it has benefited. It would be the same if it invested the same money in phones or dildos.
Of course, there are many things which can be said against my line of reasoning. Some companies really do have a vision. A Bethesda game really does feel different from a Bioware game. In many other companies the CEOs are also the creative force and the investors and artists are the same. But these don’t matter because although investment and art are very intermingled in our industry, at the very end what deserves authorship is the creative force, even if it overlaps with the investing force.
The video game companies have an evil hold on all aspect of creation. Once upon a time, the studios owned the actors and could decide what movie they should work on. The game industry, again, is the same.
Will this change? I believe it will, and it will change soon. When video games are finally recognized primarily as a work of art, and not mere cold commodity, the same capitalism will encourage us to look for its author.
And there are many game creators already who could be called “auteurs”. But the most prominent one is certainly Hideo Kojima. His status as the game creator is the same as writers and directors like Cronenberg, people look at his game as the manifestation of his influences, his philosophy and and he gets all the credit (or blame) for the artistic aspect of the game. He is the manager of the team, the person who listens to suggestions but has the authority to accept or reject them and has the final say in the matter (like the director), and is the creative mind behind it. He is the author of Metal Gear series and he is acknowledged for it.
And of course, he is not the only one. I had a list a long time ago on GameFAQs which listed the game creators who enjoy the auteur status. Ultimately, as you can see, there are quite few of them, and since then many people can added to the list, for example “Notch” or Todd Howard. The change has already began, albeit slowly.
But still many questions remain. Who will be the auteur? The lead designer? (As in Tod Howard?) The writer? (As in Sam Lake?) The director? (As in Kojima?) Will it be a shifting role? What will the role of the gamers be here? Will the video games reach their logical extreme and become the web 2 of art, the ultimate form of interactivity? Who knows?
These are very interesting questions, and the issue of authorship in the video games is not discussed fully. The case is not close. We are the consumers of a very, very young art. It has not yet defined an authorship. The most interesting question are left unanswered, and that’s why I will look forward to the evolution of this discussion in great excitement. We are at a very interesting point in history. We are witnessing the birth of an art, and soon we will be discussing the birth of its first theories.