Art and Business: The Endless Struggle in Video Games

Zelda could not succeed as a business venture if it were to change too radically. But should art evolve beyond business concerns?

Recently I wrote an article for another website entitled The Problem With the Legend of Zelda. The problem, in a nutshell, is that since Ocarina every Zelda game has been essentially the same and the only time that the series is interesting anymore is when it breaks from form. Unsurprisingly the article was met with vehement disgust, but one of the recurring counterarguments in response to it was that Zelda could not succeed as a business venture if it were to change too radically.

That smacks of absurdly mixed priorities (whether it’s my priorities or the general gaming audience’s priorities, I can’t say). To me, a great game is an artistic accomplishment that ought to earn as much as it costs to make; anything more should be treated as a bonus, not an objective. But are games really works of art or are they commercial products? These aren’t mutually exclusive concepts, but it still isn’t clear which force dominates the production of games.

If games are art, then they say something; there is meaning to them. Even if the developers don’t intend there to be any meaning, the audience still derives meaning from it. They carry their interpretations with them, and they apply them throughout their lives. That’s the power of art. Just by engaging with it, an audience is soaking in whatever the work is about. That’s how human brains work: they absorb information and apply it everywhere afterward without realizing it.

So creating something as powerful as art -- information that is pleasurable to absorb and, hopefully, enlightening to discuss -- with the intention of profiting from it cheapens it. Again, this is not to say that the privatization of art is entirely bad. It’s a much better alternative to it being produced by the social elite on the whims of royalty. It’s just that when a game is released with the intention of pleasing a certain “demographic,” it often means regurgitating the same messages ad nauseam.

Somehow the audience became the new elite -- at least in games. The fans of a franchise, like Zelda, control what’s produced. Developers strive to continually please the same group of people by reproducing the same game and the medium becomes that much more insular. More people are excluded because the core group of loyal customers refuse to be treated poorly. Ultimately games suffer because only a small group of people are further entitled to reaffirm what they’ve already been told.

Games have developed a nasty habit of pushing people away. A part of that is probably because the industry that once thought it was indestructible is now at as much at risk of collapse as anyone, and under the circumstances, nobody wants to risk anything. But in the long run, games have to evolve, and while there’s little indication that games won’t, it can be disheartening when every major announcement for the year has been a sequel or a spinoff to an existing franchise (not coincidentally the word chosen for every longstanding series).

The artistic qualities of games should not be ignored by developers, publishers, or players. And the quality of art can’t be measured; it can only be discussed (in many places, not least of which is through this website) and the meanings of such works argued and evaluated critically. Whether it means to be or not, any work of art is laced with meaning. Moreover, whether they mean to be or not, audiences are changed by interacting with a work of art. They’re intellectually affected by it. But if the artistic quality of games is a side effect, then the primary commercial purpose, the ones that fans seem to be most interested in protecting, is basic stimulation.

If games are purely about pleasant experiences flickering on a screen, then in time they can easily be replaced by electrodes strategically shocking the brain. I believe games are deeper than that, and I doubt I’m alone. Producing and distributing them comes at a cost, and everyone needs to make a living. But games aren’t just about the bottom line, they can be important to people. If I’m wrong and games aren’t art, then maybe they aren’t any of my business after all.


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