FreePlay: The Art of Game

There’s been a question nagging at me for some time now, and I think it’s time it was addressed. First though, some background. I, like many of us, believe that games are one of the most interesting and engaging forms of creative art available, I believe that they have the potential to be art just as much as the Sistine Chapel or The Catcher In The Rye. Games have the power to affect us as much as any book or film and the power to engage us as much as the greatest teacher or public speaker. They can move us, teach us, motivate us, scare us and inspire us.

Video games, especially in recent years, have moved on almost immeasurably in terms of their artistic merit. Granted, we still have our robo-nazis and killing sprees but we also have better emotional connection with our characters, and more ideas and themes are being represented by our games. In this way, games are becoming closer to movies. The Expendables is still being published, but this doesn’t invalidate the artistic credentials of the rest of the film industry.

Spec Ops: the Line was lauded as a shooter that forced gamers to consider the humanity of their actions.

Spec Ops: the Line was lauded as a shooter that forced gamers to consider the humanity of their actions.

I was at the Eurogamer Expo (a UK based gaming convention) this weekend, and I played a game from small developer Introversion called Prison Architect, doubtless some of you have heard of it. It’s a free form sandbox prison simulator where you play the prison warden and have free reign over the lives of the inmates. It’s still in alpha phase and in active development. I was lucky enough to be able to play an introduction mission of the single player campaign (something which is currently unavailable in the public release alpha). And it really hit me in the feels. The game explores some genuinely interesting ideas like capital punishment and human rights and the rights of prisoners as well as more obvious issues of justice, forgiveness and what constitutes a crime.

But what about free-to-play games? By their very nature they deal with monetization in a very different way. Because players haven’t shelled out their dollars to acquire the game, parts of the game are commoditized, whether that’s skins in League of Legends, extra lives and powerups in Candy Crush Saga, extra card packs in Hearthstone or premium tanks for World of Tanks.

I question whether this commercialisation of disqualifies from ever qualifying it as art. This, after all, is what the Hollywood director-studio relationship is meant to avoid and something which isn’t present in the developer-publisher relationship for a lot of free-to-play games (in a lot of cases, free-to-play games are self-published). The separation between the ‘artist’ executing their vision in whichever medium, and wherever the money is coming from is meant to maintain the artistic integrity of the product.

Can Hearthstone be "less" of a piece of art because of its marriage to commerce as a game mechanic?

Can Hearthstone be “less” of a piece of art because of its marriage to commerce as a game mechanic?

However, in games in which content is directly commercialized in order to make the content profitable in the first place there seems to be little to no chance of the content remaining uncompromised.

Does this mean that any game which contains micro-transactions is inevitably not art?

Well, I’m not so sure. Granted it’s not something which you see in other art forms: your movie never stops halfway through asking if you want to upgrade to the directors cut or buy a deleted scene for a little extra context.

But games are different than films. They’re different than any other art form which we have in that the experience is an innately interactive one and the player is an intrinsic part of the experience.

Maybe this is behind the trend that free-to-play games tend to focus more on the competitive or multiplayer scenes than a dedicated singleplayer campaign. Maybe developers are acknowledging that the intrusion of monetization into games reduces its innate artistic value, and focusing on the competitive edge over the artistic one?

I think that as the industry develops we’ll see an evolution of free-to-play as a sales (or rather, non-sales) model and that maybe things will change. Either way, it’s an issue which the industry needs to consider, and is something which developers need to consider on a game by game basis.

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