The “Call of Duty” Blockbuster: Opiate for the Masses, Killer of Innovation?

Last week, I was making my rounds on the internet when an article on Digitally Downloaded caught my eye. Titled “Gamers are holding games back from being art,” the piece is worth a read since it delves fairly deep into comparisons not only with cinema and literature, but the manners in which audiences have, in the past, related to those media. It also touches on topics covered in columns by GeekParty writers Lance Liebl (“And the Gaming Industry Puts Its Foot in Its Mouth, Once Again”) and Jake Valentine, (“Whatever Happened to Commander Shepard?”), if briefly.

In it, Digitally Downloaded’s Matt Sainsbury expresses his fears about the democratization of game development; in an industry supported most visibly by big-budget, can’t-afford-to-fail titles like Call of Duty and Mass Effect, creative expression is subsumed by a corporate need for a game to perform at retail, meaning that its content must appeal to the masses.

This, Sainsbury argues, is strikingly similar to the Socialist Realism movement in Soviet art, which removed artistic merit, expression and advancement from Soviet art in that period.

As opposed to Soviet Surrealism.

It prevents videogames from being art, he feels, because the public holds them back, demanding the lowest common denominator, decrying scenes like the controversial sexual assault Lara Croft suffers in the new Tomb Raider (having seen it, it doesn’t come across as plot significant; it’s presented as just another terrible thing that Lara is made hysterical about, but that’s an entirely different argument).

I would instead like to ask Mr. Sainsbury: How does this differ from film? Film, too, is a medium of entertainment as well as one of art, one of commercial function as well as artistic expression, and particularly similar to videogames since the products are, in the end, the result of a communal effort rather than the solitary vision of one man, particularly in the commercial sector. There are many films that are advertised by virtue of their entertainment value alone: “popcorn flicks,” “summer blockbusters,” the movies that hit screens to provide a momentary escape from reality, rather than an observation or deconstruction thereof. It’s these movies that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars; special effects extravaganzas with brainless plots that barely justify themselves, if they even manage that.

And what of literature? The best selling novels of today are glorified pulp; Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey both spring to the top of my mind. Sure, there are stand-outs like The Hunger Games and A Song of Ice and Fire, but there is a tremendous place in people’s wallets, if not in the backs of their minds, for content they can simply consume and be done with, empty literary calories.

Back to videogames, which have become a tremendous industry, but one that is still (comparatively) young. It’s had the (mis)fortune of arising during an information and communication renaissance, which has gifted the hoi polloi, “the many,” with an uncanny degree of insight into the minds of those who entertain them. It has also given them an avenue to band together when they talk back, their input no longer limited to discrete (and discreet) letters, easily ignored, but emblazoned publicly on forums, Twitter, even the Facebook pages of their target developers and franchises.

As with film and literature, though, gaming is not merely a product, but a medium. As with its brothers, gaming has an independent development scene, which isn’t beholden to the whims of the mass consumer. Smaller profits among more niche audiences are acceptable there, and sometimes things explode and a mod, such as Counter-Strike, becomes a full-fledged product. More to the point of art, experiences such as Portal and The Walking Dead hit the ground running, often with ideas that have yet to be seen before and, over time, can become part of the larger gaming vocabulary.

But ask him if those guns care about his feelings.

Further, gaming has quirky developers with cult followings. The most apparent is probably Suda Goichi, often referenced by the pseudonym Suda 51, whose presence in the industry is comparable to that of Quentin Tarantino in the cinema landscape. Sainsbury knows this; he drew the comparison himself, through captions on a pair of images, contrasting the outcry against Lollipop Chainsaw’s overtly sexualized heroine, Juliet Starling, with the support for “Kill Bill Vol. 1” and its schoolgirl-trope-gone-awry, Gogo Yubari.

There are important physical distinctions, of course: Yubari is covered from the shoulders and arms down to her thighs, while Juliet sports naked arms, a bare midriff, and a knowing wink. Further, more was done with Yubari as a character, who offset her cute appearance with a sadistic personality; Juliet’s cheerleader persona is more or less played straight, calling into question the artistic merit of her appearance as any sort of satire. That said, Suda 51 has made sexuality and violence work for him on a surreal and artistic level in the past.

What I’m getting at, in my roundabout way, is that judging the artistic potential of games by how the big-name releases from monolithic corporations are handled — caving to consumer input, in particular — isn’t the way to paint the clearest picture of the gaming landscape and what it has to offer. While the concern is valid, and frustrating since the big-name games and the popular franchises are likely to be most of the uninitiated’s first foray into gaming culture, it doesn’t spell anything close to the end of artistic expression in videogames, much less innovation in the field.

With digital distribution providing a low-overhead alternative to traditional retail, small developers are, for the first time, able to reach a broad audience, sharing equal, or at least similar, billing with their mainstream counterparts. In many ways, we’re visiting a new frontier, as older methods within the medium are explored by new faces, crafted using more modern design philosophies that create more compelling and, often, more provocative products than ever seen in the past.

In film, 2011 brought us The Artist, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture over any number of major studio releases; it is an accomplishment that James Cameron’s Avatar failed to achieve two years prior, despite its nearly $250 million budget and almost $3 billion in revenue. And, while “Best Picture” and “Game of the Year” are fairly arbitrary monikers, bestowed upon any film or movie from multiple sources by many small panels, it’s telling that the nominees from such panels don’t just include the big hits, like Skyrim and Call of Duty, but smaller and more esoteric fare such as Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.

I agree with Mr. Sainsbury that there needs to be a greater respect for developer autonomy, and perhaps less of a feeling of entitlement regarding the product that one buys than currently exists. We live in a world in which players demanded a retooled ending for Mass Effect 3 and others are complaining about the fact that Diablo III, a game for which they paid $60 and into which they’ve sunk hundreds of hours of their time, does not go on forever, but has a definite ending point.

It’s hard to let the things one cares about go, change in ways you don’t expect or support, but sometimes it simply has to happen. I just don’t think it’s the end of videogames as an artistic medium if it doesn’t happen to Call of Duty.