Recently I was in an email discussion with some friends and colleagues (who will ironically go unnamed here) about the whole ‘game designers getting their name on the box’ debate. Putting the two related (but different) issues of credit standards and the absurdity of boxes themselves aside for another time, I want to talk about what I think having one’s name on the box means. Actually, to say that better, I'd rather not talk about it, because I think the debate is kind of meaningless and backwards looking, but because my perspective on it is so different from the folks with whom I would normally agree, in guess I should clarify my position.
First, I think there are some obvious, surface level debates about designers having their name on the box. There is the debate about whether or not, given the massively collaborative nature of game development, there ever really is a singular vision holder on a game project who deserves sole top billing. There is also the debate about IP ownership and how, since creatives effectively cannot own IP in the current Platform Holder / Publisher / Developer climate, getting the 'right' to have this kind of top billing is basically impossible anyway. There is also the debate about 'how it works in other industries' (ie: Hollywood), and the questions of whether it should work similarly in games. I think these debates are all fairly well trodden. I also happen to think they are all kind of missing the point.
I think the idea of a star developer having his or her name on the box is just subscribing to the same floundering cultural models that the Platform Holders and Publishers have necessarily bought into and staked their futures on. It’s about upholding and participating in the culture of brand, personality and celebrity that is the central driver of the author-centric broadcast culture we’re ultimately in the process of tearing down whether we realize it or not. In some ways, the very idea of the ‘name on the box’, or ‘getting top billing’ is emblematic of what I am calling broadcast culture. An Artist has something to say, He creates a work of Art with a Message, He puts His Name on it and we all consume it. That’s what a painting and a poem and a novel and a play and a film and an album are.
But that’s not what a game is. A game can be that, and that’s why that movie-critic dude was wrong; games can be broadcast culture High Art handed down to the masses by Artists. But as our cultural tastes and sensibilities evolve to appreciate how games mean, we will come to recognize that the stuff in games that speaks deeply to us, that resonates, that makes us weep and rejoice does not come from what the Artist Hath Wrought but comes leaping, unforged, naked and honest from the masterfully conducted runtime, often as much a delight to its coders as to its players. So while games can be Art, even High Art, I think subscribing to a games-as-art perspective is kind of relegating games to a pitiful, sorry existence.
These days, if you attend a game conference, or read a serious essay discussing game culture, or even engage in a moderately rigorous discussion about games, you would not be surprised to hear someone utter the phrase, 'the dominant cultural form of the 21st Century'. The notion that games are the English longbow to the warhorse of television and the armoured knight of cinema is increasingly seen as a real possibility. But while we say it, discuss it's inevitability, ponder it's timeline, and desperately try to monetize it, we don't actually very often talk about what it means. Film and television are in many ways a technological enhancement and hybridization of older broadcast media, such as the novel, the play, or the album, but they are still fundamentally part of the broadcast culture paradigm. Games, I believe, are not part of the same paradigm. Games belong to a different paradigm that includes the oral tradition of storytelling, improvisational music, sport, dance, philosophical debate, improv theatre, and parlour games (among many other cultural forms).
In many ways, the divide is between creative forms that have a means of encoding an authored message, or a notation, where the 'beautiful part' is crafted by an artist and then played back or read by or for the audience from the notation, and creative forms that do not have a notation, and where the 'beautiful part' is created at runtime by those acting within the space described by the form.
I'm sure to attract a legion of pedants with that one, and I'm sure not going to defend the notation/non-notation divide as a rigorously defining point of distinction, but it is a fast litmus test. The distinction is too simple for many reasons; chess and dance and baseball all have notations, for example, and in the case of film, the notation (the images and sounds recorded on the film strip) is hard to distinguish from the work (the projection of the information encoded on the strip as an audio-visual landscape), but the distinction between forms that record their beauty for playback and those that have it dynamically synthesized at runtime can broadly and roughly be delineated there. Let's move on.
Seeing games assume their role as the 'dominant cultural form of the 21st Century' is not merely about the replacement of film and television with 'better film and television that are controlled by a joystick'. It is the wholesale replacement of the author-centric broadcast culture paradigm of 'people who disseminate their beautiful notations for other people to follow' with the totally different cultural paradigm of 'people who beautifully figure out the following step while taking the current one'.
The way I see it, the 'name on the box' is a derivative of the former, broadcast cultural paradigm and does not have an (important) place in a culture driven by the latter paradigm. The reason we cling to the name on the box is because all of our economic, social and political concepts have been inextricably intertwined with broadcast culture for at least 500, and arguably 3500 years, ever since Socrates made the case against the written word and then went and drank a cup of hemlock. Disentangling the idea of the primacy of the author from the work is at least as complicated a cultural revolution as killing God - and look how complicated that's proving to be.
It's not just the governments and the banks and the universities and the corporations and all of the beautiful rich and famous people who you should aspire to be like who have an interest in upholding the name on the box. We all have an interest in it, because even those who suffer under it, and those who are oppressed by it, and those who would fight to see it torn down are scared shitless of what it looks like to wake up in a world without it. The name on the box is comforting because it has been a part of what we are for centuries. What if changing it is a mistake? Without Steven Spielberg, without Stephen King, and without Steve Jobs, where will we find our heroes? Who will inspire us to strive to be better than we are?
I think the answer to that question though, is already well understood. His name is Steve Yzerman or Steve Smith or Steve Nash. People don't go watch the Phoenix Suns play basketball because it's a game designed by Dr. James Naismith. They don't watch it or play it to experience it's design. They go see basketball because it is beautiful to see talented people like Steve Nash play it beautifully, and they play it to perform declarations of self, such as 'I can outmanoeuvre that guy', or 'I can do a lay-up'. And just as we recognize the great authors in the broadcast culture paradigm, we also recognize the great actors in the interactive culture paradigm.
But is it fair that you can't sell a recording of the song 'Happy Birthday to You' without paying some absurd amount of money to license the song from the great great great grandchildren of the dude who wrote it decades ago, but that Steve Nash makes more money every time he bounces a basketball than Naismith made in his entire life? In a sad way, and in a way that I suspect most people will disagree with, and most importantly in a way that makes me scared as hell to try to build the future that I'm talking about when I utter the words 'dominant cultural form of the 21st Century', I think the answer has to be 'yes, that's fair'.
I think it's fair for three reasons.
First, I think it's fair because when I take stock of the most beautiful things in the games I have worked on; a cold-blooded execution of an Andre Hippolyte; an amateur guard blasted down an elevator shaft; a wounded mercenary immolated in grassy field, I have to admit that I am not the person who created those things. They are beautiful, arresting, heartfelt and profound statements about what we are and what we can be, and being witness to them has enriched my life. I am immeasurably proud to have chalked the lines on the fields where those beautiful events unfolded, but I didn't make them.
Second, I think it's fair because the argument of who should be paid for what in all this mess would (I believe) become a moot point if games were to truly become the dominant cultural form of the 21st Century in the way I am talking about. The impact of the cultural transformation that would be required for that to actually happen would reverberate through all of our institutions in such a profound way that they would become unrecognizable. The replacement of author-centric broadcast culture with actor-centric dynamic culture throws the persistence of our current concepts of finance and business and even government into question. As with any revolution, you kind of unfortunately have to accept that you need to figure out how to feed people after the King's head is in the basket, not before.
Finally, I think it's fair because out there, somewhere, there is some kid in elementary school who really wants to grow up and be a game developer like me. He doesn't know who I am, of course, because my name is not on the box, but even despite that, he sees me, or someone like me, as his hero.
My message to that kid is this: I don't want to be your hero. I want you to be your hero.