Article Tags / censorship (3)

Curating Steam: Moral Complexity versus Automatic Norms

Steam, owned by Valve, is the world’s biggest digital distributor of computer games. For years, it’s had frustratingly inconsistent and unpredictable rules on what games could be sold on its platform. After the most recent kerfuffle, Valve’s Erik Johnson published a post to the Steam blog titled “Who Gets To Be On The Steam Store?

It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here’s my summary: Deciding which games can be sold on Steam is a hard problem that Steam has struggled with for years. There’s a long list of controversial topics and kinds of content - and for each one, many people in Valve’s huge multinational audience feel strongly that it should be allowed on the store and many people feel strongly that it shouldn’t. Many of these topics are also controversial among Valve’s own employees. So rather than continue to struggle with the increasingly impossible goal of consistent curation, Valve is scaling back to block only games that are illegal or “straight up trolling” (later clarified somewhat to mean “designed to do nothing but generate outrage and cause conflict”). Valve’s efforts will instead go toward creating tools to allow people to control what content they see - customers will be able to block specific kinds of games from their own slice of Steam and creators will be able to avoid harassment if they release something controversial.

We’ll have to wait and see the filtering and anti-harassment tools to know whether this plan will succeed, but the reasoning and intent seem solid and likely to lead to a vast improvement over the current unpredictable mess. So I was shocked to see that the reaction from the game journalism community featured widespread rage and contempt.

"Are Video Games Art?" was Always the Wrong Question

The debate has been over for a while now. Video games are art.

I knew it was over not when the National Endowment for the Arts added grants for games, or even when the US Supreme Court ruled that video games are protected speech. I knew it was over because of a newspaper clipping my grandmother sent me.

It was from a column called “The Arty Semite,” and it discussed the then-upcoming Biblically-inspired game El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. (Full post here.) It didn’t make the argument that talking about heavy stuff like the Bible sure is artistic. It didn’t claim that this represented a step forward in the expressive significance of video games. It just said hey, here’s an interesting upcoming game. In a column about the arts.

In other words, my grandmother sent me a newspaper clipping that took it for granted that games are art. That’s how I knew.

Why was this debate so long-lived and vitriolic? “Are video games art?” seems like such a straightforward question. The problem is that it’s really two very different questions. The first is, “Is the medium of video games capable of artistic expression?”

This is the more useful question, and also the simpler one. It’s a matter of definition - if your definition of art precludes interaction (as did Roger Ebert’s) then video games can’t be art. Period. It’s not a judgment on video games, or an insult, or anything remotely offensive - it’s just the logical implication of the terms involved. It’s just what the words mean.

My answer to this first question is: “Yes, duh, of course the medium of video games is capable of artistic expression. Games can be beautiful, they can impart emotion, they can convey messages. What more do you want?”

The second question is, “Have any video games yet been made that can be considered profound works of great art?“

I'm Not Evil, I Just Play That Way: Player Motivations and Character Goals

Recently we took a look at the technique of option restriction, which is when a game presents the player with only one path forward, thus eliminating choice while maintaining agency. If it’s handled well, it allows for close management of narrative progression while still letting the player feel that they are in control. So what is it that determines whether it’s handled well? What allows the player’s sense of control to be maintained even with a lack of choice?

“Players like to feel in control, but this sensation doesn’t necessarily come from having the ability to choose. Having control is as simple as doing what you want to do. It’s possible for players to feel in control even if they don’t actually have the ability to choose, as long as the what the game asks and what the player wants aligns. A good narrative should foster this.”
—Andrew Vanden Bossche, Would You Kindly? BioShock And Free Will