Video games managed to reach a point where people talk about them as “art”. This phenomenon continues to affect the two different sides of the industry – the so-called “indie” scene versus the AAA big business market. The in-between and difference dissipated over the years, and now only two real opposition forces stand. Both see gaming as a vehicle for different ends, and neither will concede their stance…or, at least, one will remain fast while the other will ignore its supposed opponent while making buckets and buckets of cash.
If you look at the history of this medium, the “artistic” side looks like a relatively recent development. Video games arose first as academic exercises in computer science, and then as consumer products meant for the purposes of enjoyment. In that sense, we could call it completely unlike any medium ever in existence. For painting, we see that human beings painted long before organized society; scientists would date such works as that of the Cave of El Castillo at 40,000 years old, and whether or not you believe in the validity of that date it does mark painting as older than human organization at a mass level. Sculpture, too, existed long before any notions of “business” in the modern sense of the term. At the same time, we could also say games in general survived the ages, emerging purely out of a desire for fun and games.
Still, only video games arose purely out of monetary concerns, and continues to be driven by such monetary concerns even to this day. It explains the growth of the “industry” versus that of the “artist”; the latter simply does not have the clout to mold the industry to his/her wishes. That isn’t to say that indie developers and innovative ideas won’t define the industry. We know from experience they do, but do they influence it enough for everyone’s liking? Probably not so much. Proteus will not become mainstream anytime soon, nor will some of the more experimental game modes. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Should we be fine with the idea of a business controlling the future trends of the whole game space except for a small minority? Those are the big questions.
I would say, from my personal view, that video games ARE a business – like it or not, video games mostly define themselves by the technology that runs them, whether the most advanced graphics on the planet or Internet marketing/fandom. Either engines led to the incredible growth of the entire space as a money-making enterprise, and companies were quick to take advantage of it. You wouldn’t find yourself with such a diversity of games if not for technology, and business ends often follow those developments by default. Can you imagine the level of graphic fidelity or intensely real experiences without it? I think not. Nor would many indie developers retain ideas from the first fruits of video game development, also technological advances in their own right!
The problem is seeing business as an enemy rather than as a common partner in the whole shebang. I can understand why people see it that way, but video games literally would not exist without the engine of free enterprise backing it. It is such a common thing to miss, but money drives progress in many ways, and that goes for art as much as anything else. Artists need money to survive to create art, after all! Let us deal with what exists, rather than the ideal. Art has a long history of being a commercial enterprise itself, and that history cannot be ignored; let’s take a look!
A Short History of Patronage
I referred to cave paintings earlier, but things changed over time. Ancient society allowed for the collaboration and common pooling of various talents for the whole community. As a result, civilization grew and organized themselves into various despotisms, monarchies, and aristocracies based on a variety of different religious traditions. Each of these believed in the value of aesthetics to some degree, and that belief in making something for the deities prompted a desire to craft plastic works in dedicated to them, much as in the cave paintings (animal spirits would be my best guess there, but feel free to add your own!).
So it was that patronage began its long history in the arts. Ruling powers would take people with artistic gifts, fund them, provide for their finances, and generally aid their living situation as long as they continually produced commissioned artwork. At the very least, it allowed some members of the peasantry to move beyond subsistence farming, and we could also see it as a form of upward mobility in a time where few opportunities existed to “move up”. Most of the greatest works of the Renaissance were not done purely out of pleasure; rather, they were comissioned works by people in places of power (religious or otherwise) or just solely with the funds to make such a subject or work a physical, tangible realtiy. You wouldn’t have a Sistine Chapel without it.
You might see this as a blatant sell-out, but times were different. Then, as now, artists and the like do not always thrive on the kindness of strangers, especially if there’s a government mandate to work. Sometimes, artistic people bite the bullet and get what they call a “real job” to sustain their passion. Later psychological ideals tell us that “doing what you love” leads to the Overjustification Effect, and that seems as true as anything. When treated as a craft or job, and not just “expression”, people created works that we still respect and observe today. Much of it was lost through the sands of time, but what remains strikes you with how advanced it actually looks.
Interestingly, patronage existed in nearly every society with a primary ruler rather than a tribal council. From Egypt to Southeast Asia to Japan, the kings, queens, and emperors of various nations sought the benefit of the arts and paid currency or lifestyle wages for it. Of course, at the same time those patrons benefited from the production of said works as an example of their own prowess, but why should the relationship go one way only? Both parties benefit immensely, one more than the other, but that’s life in antiquity for you: imbalances were not thought a problem back then! The entire community, in some sense, benefited from it. People had their place in the “chain of being”, so to speak, and found that place in society perfectly comfortable. That isn’t to say hardship and the like didn’t occur, but a predominantly cynical view of the past just isn’t accurate at all.