Capitalism and the Profit Motive isn’t Destroying Creativity: The Current Model is Setting it Free
July 15, 2014 § 1 Comment
“Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the ﬁnished products is removed.”
– Horkheimer and Adorno, The Culture Industry, 1947
Complaints about the relationship between the quality of art and the profit-motive are nothing new. In 1947 the sociologists Max Horkheimer and Theo Adorno published ‘the Culture Industry’, an essay which attacked the commercialisation of art as a destruction of its true value. As they saw it, the moment profit becomes the motivating factor behind art it ceases to have value for its own merits, and instead all its value boils down to exchange value.
When this happens artists cease to ask any other questions beyond “What are people prepared to pay for my work?” and what they produce seeks not to challenge people’s opinions (as art should do), but rather to pander to their beliefs. It’s the Michael Bay approach to art, you give the people what they want, nothing more and nothing less, and everyone leaves the cinema happy. In a similar vein The Daily Mail tells people exactly what they want to hear, no matter how ill-informed or disgusting that might be, and so long as they get their profit then they’re happy.
Writing for the New Statesman, Simon Parkin has applied this same neo-Marxist critique to indie video games (at least this is what his title suggests, though later on the examples he cites are categorically not ‘indie’ games in the slightest), deriding the indie gaming community’s ‘obsession’ with moneymaking. It’s a well-written piece, and I think Parkin has a point, but I just can’t see the evidence for it within the indie gaming scene.
Certainly the big-budget releases he uses as examples suffer from the worst plagues of capitalism. He rightly suggests that ‘Destiny’ has only managed to be green-lit by virtue of it adhering closely to the formula’s of the two blockbusters ‘World of Warcraft’ and ‘Halo’, and anyone who’s even glanced at a ‘Call of Duty’ game recently can see another prime example of extreme risk-aversion. Games with million dollar budgets are increasingly unwilling to stray from the so-called ‘winning formulas’ of their genres. First-person shooters must be fast paced and perk-focused à la ‘Call of Duty’. Third-person action games need to find a balance of platforming and combat that is as close to ‘Uncharted’s’ as possible. If you’re making an MMO then for god’s sake get to work reverse-engineering ‘World of Warcraft’ because perversely the bigger a budget gets, the less resources are available to spend creatively.
There is logic behind his argument. With the need for a product to generate profit comes a need to give the consumer what they want, especially when you’re dealing with a £50 game that represents a significant cost to consumers. Your audience knows what it likes, and it’s a lot less risky to focus on giving them this then convincing them to try something new (let alone investing the time to make that something good in the first place).
However, when you look at the indie scene these sorts of criticisms no longer apply. Not only are the typical budgets behind indie games a great deal less than their mainstream counterparts (especially now that engines such as Unreal are embracing far more indie friendly pricing models), but the pricing of such games themselves is also more flexible. Instead of being forced to either charge full price or be given away for free, stores such as the Playstation Network and Steam allow indie developers to put their games out at whatever price they choose.
‘Risky’, more artistic, and less commercially minded games can thus be produced more cheaply, and monetised in ways that would never have been possible before. As much as I love Kerbal Space Program, it is not a £40 game, so my ability to buy it for £20 represents £20 the developers would not have gotten under the old ways of game development. These increased opportunities to monetise mean that developers can quit their day jobs and focus solely on such labours of love, and these pet projects are getting bigger and better as a result.
Simon Parkin’s hypothesis simply doesn’t seem to be borne out by the evidence. Over the last five years indie developers have become increasingly able to earn money from their creations, and the result has been an unprecedented splurge in creativity. We’ve had bestsellers focussing on the work of a security guard at a border crossing, complex physics-based spaceship-building simulators and the rise of the rogue-like. We’ve had Minecraft, a game so without goals that ten years ago it would simply have never been made, and a game so meta that its release launched a thousand pretentious blog posts.
Of course in an ideal world we’d have an arts council that wasn’t having its budget slashed repeatedly that could afford to fund interesting experimental games independently of the market that could exist purely to push the boundaries of the medium. Of course I’d love that future – who wouldn’t? – but the fact remains that we’re currently going through an indie games revolution which has been entirely based upon the ability of indie developers to monetise their creations and thus give them the time and attention they deserve.
Simon Parkin’s Culture Industry-esque critique of the video games industry ultimately relies upon the exact same fallacy as Horkheimer and Adorno’s. There is not some golden past that used to exist but has now been quashed by the ravages of capitalism. What we have now is pretty damn special, and, for the time being at least, it certainly seems to be the best we’ve got.
“Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go travelling”
– Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1969