Games as Artisanal

Fuck it, why not briefly take an early evening moment to think about the big stupid “are games art?” debate. You know, the whole “Roger Ebert says no – lots of people say yes” blah blah affair. Okay, maybe I’m not showing much commitment to the debate here. Oh, wait, maybe I’m really disinterested the debate. Okay, moving on.

Actually, what I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of days is the notion of an “artisanal video game”. A key distinction between video games and a lot of what tends to get called “fine art” is one of uniqueness. Video games are a mass media – lots and lots of people own Mass Effect, say, and every copy is the same thing (though every playing is not, of course). Whereas there’s only one Mona Lisa, one Les Amants, one shark in formaldehyde. This isn’t a hard rule, since you get editions, multiples and so on – but by and large there’s a scarcity of “fine art” that doesn’t exist with video games.

A lot of that is connected with their digital nature, of course – once you’ve made a video game, making a lot of copies and distributing them is a much more trivial task. Further, like other artistic media such as TV or music, getting the work out to lots of people is regarded as a good thing, the objective. But it does change our relationships with these objects – they’re not unique. If anything, video games have a leg up in uniqueness over TV and music thanks to the personal nature of an individual playing, but still, you’re playing with the “same thing” to a large extent.

While thinking about a stupid, jokey version of Tetris I’m planning on making this weekend (“Rustic Tetris” – hopefully it’s not going to be much harder than I think) I started wondering about the notion of an “artisanal game” instead of an “art game”. To some extent I suppose all games are made by (a massive team of) artisans, but I had a more specific idea. What if when you bought a game the people making it made it just for you, so that it was a unique item. Say the graphics person redrew all the graphics anew for your copy of the game. Or, more weirdly, the programmer reprogrammed the game engine to create a (less visibly) different game. Or they remake the sound effects, or the voice acting, or any other aspects. Now the game is a justifiably unique thing that only you would have.

Such a game would need to be of a small enough scale that it would be at all practical to remake these various assets, say in the vein of today’s indie games. Less ambitious in scale, but still excellent games. You could then buy a game that was uniquely your own – nobody else would have a game quite the same, though they might have another edition of the same game. You’d pay more for it, of course, because it’s artisanal in a way that that word normally denotes – hand crafted, not a straight up copy or a mass produced facsimile. You could show your edition of this game to friends, including those who had different editions, appreciating this individual video game on a different level to your personal approach to playing.

I can’t quite decide if this idea is weirdly brilliant, or just an amusing joke.

4 September 2010
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