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The First Annual Game Design Think Tank
Project Horseshoe 2006
brainstorming graphic

Group Report: The Legitimacy of Games

Participants: A.K.A. "The Legitimate Bastards"

Brian Moriarty, ImaginEngine

Victor Jimenez, Northrop Grumman
Noah Falstein, The Inspiracy Brian Green, Near Death Studios
Richard Dansky, Red Storm Entertainment  
  Facilitator: David Battino, Batmosphere

Problem Statement:

The question of the “legitimacy” of games is one that has hovered over the industry since its inception. Within that question are other, more specific concerns that need to be examined.

  • What is meant by “legitimacy”?
  • Who determines whether or not games are “legitimate”?
  • Do we, as an industry, need to do anything in order to achieve eventual legitimacy?
  • Is legitimacy an ultimately desirable goal?
  • What steps might speed up the process of obtaining legitimacy?
  • What happens when games are finally accepted as a legitimate medium of artistic and creative expression?

That being said, it seems inevitable that games will achieve some form of legitimacy. With that in mind, we need to ask what can we do to categorize and leverage our current qualities, so as best to speed up the process of legitimization – if, of course, that is what is desired.

A Brief Statement of the Group's Solutions to Those Problems:

We are aware that games will almost certainly achieve legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream and intellectual culture, given enough time. As more and more of the population grows up with games, and with the idiom of gaming as part of their culture, the percentage of those who oppose legitimacy for games shrinks. What we are seeking to do is to speed up the timetable on that – not simply to wait until the population consists of gamers and the debate is put in the grave on its own, but rather to demonstrate that the debate is worth having, and winning, now.

Thus, we've developed a list of approaches in order to tackle various aspects of the problem, ranging from the high-level to the extremely granular. These solutions are listed en masse under heading G. We have, however, prioritized one particular solution that we feel will provide the best intersection of long-term benefit, utility, and feasibility. That solution is described below as the contents of our action item list.

Action Items:

The core action item that we feel is most achievable and will have the biggest impact is to work in conjunction with an academic institution to create a game archive for research – a central site that allows the history of the medium to be accessible for study and appreciation. History and accessibility are in large part the foundations on which legitimacy rests, and this archive would help lay that foundation.

Task Owner(s) Due Date
Create Base Proposal to Academic Institution Victor Jimenez 2/28/07
Approach Conferences for Support Group Ongoing
Finalize Proposal Group 3/30/07
Establish Contact With Academics – search out a possible location for the archive Noah Falstein,
Brian Green
Approach Publishers for Donations of Games to the Archive Brian Moriarty,
Richard Dansky
Publicize Creation of the Archive Group 9/30/07
Turn Over Stewardship of Archive to Academic Institution Group 10/1/07

We are aware that these items can conceivably be achieved concurrently, and in an order other than the one listed above. The deadlines proposed are what is considered to be the most likely sequence of achievement and timetable. All items labeled “Group” responsibility will involve the coordinated individual efforts of all of the group members.

Assuming success in this area, there are numerous additional items to tackle. These are detailed in the appendix, broken into four general areas.

  • Leverage Existing Qualities – Noah & Victor
  • Change the Discussion - Richard
  • Find the Seminal Moment – Brian M.
  • Work Toward Academic Legitimacy – Brian G.

Expanded problem statement:

The main focus of the group developed along two main lines. First, we addressed the question of if/when games are a legitimate art form or, at worst, medium. From that, questions fell out along the lines of language and comparison to film, what the hallmarks might be of being accepted as a legitimate form, and what steps might be taken to reach that goal. The other half of the equation was what can be done to establish and promote games' already existing legitimacy, something of which the general public may not in fact be aware. We also pondered why it is a problem that games are considered not legitimate, and whether legitimacy is worth actively seeking instead of allowing the perception of it to evolve.

Expanded solution description (Appendix):

  1. Leverage Existing Qualities - Demonstrating Existing Legitimacy
    1. As gamers grow older and make up a larger and larger segment of the population, including the political arena, that affords us some opportunities.
      1. Network with politicians who are gamers or who are demonstrably game-friendly in order to promote a more positive political discussion of games
        1. Identify politicians who may be game-friendly
        2. Invite more of them to conferences
        3. Demonstrate the potential benefit of taking a game-positive position
      2. Organize lobbying efforts on local, state, and national levels to counteract the negative image of games, and games' status as an easy target for cheap scare-mongering.
      3. Examine the possibility of establishing an equivalent organization to the RIAA (though less evil – not that this will be terribly difficult) to advocate for gaming in a way that the ESA, the IGDA, and other organizations are not currently set up to do.
    2. Serious games, in large part, can easily be mapped to social positives. This provides an opportunity to promulgate information about the good that games do, which in turn can help move them out of the “just for kids/no good can come of that” ghetto in which they're currently interred.
      1. Orchestrate better publicity for games that do good, as opposed to doing well in the marketplace. Bringing to light the fact that games help kids fight cancer, take their medication, etc. and ultimately save lives can potentially go a long way toward counteracting the notion that games are an exclusively negative activity.
      2. Work with the organizations using games in a beneficial way to encourage them to promote their use of and results with games, so the support isn't just coming from inside the industry.
      3. Move the debate – look at the non-traditional ways in which games are doing positive work and bring that to people's attention (c.f. laproscopic surgeons playing Super Monkeyball) – in other words, change the conversation about games into a larger conversation in which games are a part.
        1. As a supplemental action item, we need to support the individuals doing this. The relationship needs to be a reciprocal one, and as such will also cement bridges outside of the game dev community.
  2. Change the DiscussionEstablish Games As a Legitimate Medium
    1. It is a given that games are not regarded as “high culture” or a worthwhile artistic medium. This provides a convenient launching point for attacks on games, as well as limiting the appreciation and opportunities for games in wider culture.
      1. Re-consider the constant comparison between games and the movies with an eye toward re-casting it as a metaphorical, not a direct, comparison.
        1. Recognize that we do not map directly to movies. Instead, we can recognize similarities to, learning opportunities from, and intrinsic differences between games and film.
        2. Work to establish our own language and descriptors, ones that are accurately targeted toward games instead of being directed toward movies and not quite fitting ours.
          1. Look to the codification of African art as an example
      2. Encourage serious critique and review of games.
          1. The mainstream media can be interested in games outside the box – this can be taken advantage of.
          2. Consider “directors' commentaries” for games.
  3. Find the Seminal Moment - Look to our seminal moment – the one game that changes the debate by its existence. Where is our “Birth of A Nation”?
    1. Create a climate in the industry where a game with the characteristics to be a seminal moment can be created, up to and possibly including supporting the creators.
    2. Dedicate a team at next year's Project Horseshoe to developing a pitch for precisely the sort of game that could change the discussion.
    3. Consider the equivalent of the G-Prize.
  4. Work Toward Academic Legitimacy - One of the main pillars of a claim to legitimacy is context, both historical and academic. This context needs to be created, recorded, and made accessible.
    1. Create a historical and academic context for serious discussion of games.
      1. Work with universities to support the serious study of games.
        1. Suggesting and supporting research.
        2. Designing study proposals and using the results.
    2. Develop publicly accessible “game libraries” so that the history of the medium is accessible and isn't lost with platform changes.
    3. Record the experience of the pioneers of the industry.

Items from the brainstorming lists that the group thought were worth reporting:


Parallels with electronic music/digital art

Pertinent Quote
And Roger Ebert says "To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers... for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and

58. Games As Legitimate Medium
This the single most important question facing our industry, in my opinion.

I hesitate to use the word "art" here, but that's usually how this is described. A less loaded way is to ask: What will it take to have games considered a legitimate medium? Right now most people consider games as something for kids, and this is why we get slammed for things you see in nighttime TV.

To paraphrase Scott McCloud in Reinventing Comics: "As long as the broader community assumes that comics [or, in our case, games], by their nature, are without social value and, by their nature, are suitable only for kids -- then charges of obscenity will always hit their mark." So, what do we have to do to be considered a serious medium like movies, books, and TV?

Related to this, how can we make "mature" games without resorting to sexual titillation or hyperviolence? – Brian Green

57. Games and Media Envy
Why do people always compare games to other media? Is it realistic to look at the usage numbers for other non-interactive media and expect that games will ever match the numbers of these other media? Should aspiring movie-makers go work in the appropriate medium instead of messing up our industry? ;) – Brian Green

41. Game creators union
Should we form a Union, etc. to become politically active around some of these points? "... and how not be confused or tied up with the political activism centered around censorship issues?" – Mike Steele

42. Government intervention
Will the governments of China and the US have us killed too when they figure out that the Internet might be able to disintermediate them? "Too late, Adm. Poindexter and the NSA are already reading your posts right off the PH reflector" – Mike Steele
34. The Human Condition
I am opposed to thinking of games as "Art" (that's a longer discussion). But one thing that much of our great art, entertainment, and media culture does is help us understand something about what it means to be human - to shed insight into our experience, or ideas, or history, or the world. Can games do this? Are games already doing this? Could they do it more fully? – Eric Zimmerman

14. Game industry specific metrics
Can we come up with our own metrics, or will we forever be stretched out against the Procrustean model of Hollywood?” So much of the discussion that goes on either places what we do in opposition to movies or holds them up as our shining example. Are we by necessity locked in, is there another paradigm for discussion that we can develop, and is it worth trying to do so? – Richard Dansky

7. Making games more emotional than movies
How can games become more emotional than movies? What's preventing us from doing so? - Nicole Lazzaro
1. Why is there no equivalent to the XPrize for games?
If we had a million dollar fund and could award it to the first person or group to answer just one question about our medium, or invent a tool/process/algorithm - what would that be?

What is our GPrize? – Mark Terrano

What is the language to discuss games? Other media have their own terms – game media should have their own language

Ron Gilbert on his blog, April 24, 2006

“I think it's irresponsible for the industry to bury it's head in the sand and pretend that what we do has no impact. Like any force of popular culture, what we do does have an impact and designers need to understand that.

I am not suggesting we stop making violent games or censor (or let anyone censor) ourselves, but we do need to realize that what we do affects people, and that's a good thing. It means we're relevant and artistically influential, but with that comes responsibility, not only for the people making the games, but for those who are writing about them and standing up for them.”

Tapping younger politicians who grew up with and are familiar with games?
Doug Lowenstein – says he's connected to politicians who have said positive things (sometimes off the record) about games.

Educational games = sinking the bottom line (according to EA Marketing)

The calculus of votes – say something bad about games and you get parent votes, and there are a lot more parents than game devs.

Possible action item – what kind of campaign can be run to convince folks this is legit?

Governing bodies? Lobbyists? Game equivalent of RIAA?

Ironic - $ vs movies is our first claim of legitimacy

Persuasion – If we can persuade people in a good way, that can give us legitimacy.

We need to create our own language – stop being measured with the inaccurate yardstick, having to explain
-This is something the IGDA could do
-Art in part means having an accepted, serious body of review and critique.
     How do we get from “U SuXX0r” to Pauline Kael?
     Time investment to review properly
     Journalists are in bed with the developers – can we take advantage of that?
          Is that a disadvantage as well?
          What does this do for legitimacy?
-long-discussed topic as a path toward legitimacy
     Can we do more than provide tools and publicity?

Who reads the reviews?
     Cf New Yorker article with Will Wright – sways the art intelligentsia
Encourage critics from legit pubs to look at our stuff?

Cross-pollinating – record reviewers?
It's never been hard to get mainstream media to look at stuff outside the box of pure gaming.

A lot has to do with the games themselves.

Serious games – our PSA games
     Darfur minigame
     Columbine game
EU child safety game (Victor EU story)

Serious game industry has been kept out of consoles
Pressure on console manufacturers to allow serious games into the console market
     Remission – Dave Warhol's company for HopeLab
     DDR in the middle schools (Virginia)
Get news out about the good stuff like Remission

Parallels in successful industries
     Psychotherapy? Guided imagery?

How to persuade console manufacturers to allow serious games into the console market?
     Industry execs with kids who've had personal experience of this.
     Direct download (Xbox marketplace, etc.)
     Tax break for companies that produce this kind of games?
          Take advantage of existing breaks
Letting people now what Serious Games are?
     New name?

Butch Rosser, head of laproscopic surgery at Beth Israel in NYC
     Uses games to train surgeons to warm up
     25% faster, 37% fewer screw ups

The word “game” has baggage – we want to change the baggage

How do we get games perceived as art?
Ben Sawyer against using serious games as part of argument for legitimacy

Games as art, games as free speech – how do you get there?
     Codification of African art “legitimized” it.
     Where is our taxonomy?
Explosion of game training in schools.

[Charnel Houses of Europe stuff]

Brian – historical perspective
“Cadre of snobs”
There hasn't been a “major work” to stamp legitimacy on electronic music
Look to the early days of film – one movie that turned the corner – Birth of a Nation
     Important to study

Film industry
1890s – peep shows, first use of films – the nickelodeons
Graduated to theaters – bad neighborhoods
Considered “low” entertainment for many years
When you couldn't work onstage, you might condescend to movies
(DW Griffith)
Why Birth of a Nation?
     Subject matter – history as written by losing side
Sensitive subject told in sensational way – and it worked
“like history written with lightning” – Woodrow Wilson
-movies were established as a medium where you could make art

“Science advances one funeral at a time” – Max Planck

     We still need examples of “history written with lightning”
Balance of Power – got massive mainstream attention in its day
     Book that followed up on the game

The meta-questions
Can anyone encourage such a thing to happen?
     A prize?
     It has to be one of us…

“Need to get rid of the fear of poverty” for the person who makes it

Not sure it's wise to try to fertilize the field for serendipity
It could just happen incrementally

Nudge vs. huge change…
How to speed up the process? If it can be speeded up…

Academic side…

If you teach it, will they come?
     Academia – legitimate study -->grant money
     Come up with proposals for research projects?
          Institutions gain legitimacy by doing research that helps legitimize games
     Check out papers from IGDA Academic subject (and BBQ audio docs)
Schools are looking for some need from the industry.
     Serious demand for trained workers – see EA academic summit (hush-hush)
Keep enrollment up
Are you giving the students what you want?
If not, what do they want?
(Summer outreach program for HS kids is packed)

Older generation is fighting against us – what can we do to prime people who are game-familiar to talk about games? Go for the kids….
Money talks – growth industry, jobs are a legitimizer

(Brain Age – 6M units sold, lots of studies showing it helps stave off Alzheimer's – do more to show it)

Acceptance of responsibility – if we say games can do good, can we in good conscience claim we don't do anything bad?

“Favorite scenes” – not quite the same thing in games
     We get cool experiences repeated
     WoW gets it like movies
The water cooler effect – shared experience

Game gives the player choice – “bad” things happen because the player chooses them.
     (Sometimes – not so much in FPS)
     Gun control analogy

Why are games illegitimate here – residue of Puritan work ethic

Pascal's Wager quote in Raph's book…

Floyd – moment is more commonly associated with linear entertainment.
(Death of a skink…)
It works so well because it happens to someone else – linear entertainment is someone else's stuff happening

We're better at evoking the sense of identification than movies (fiero)

Is it not that we don't evoke emotion, but don't evoke higher/more artistic emotions?

King – quick establishment of sympathetic character

XPrize equivalent – foundations with $$$?
Crafting proposals and passing them around?
Biggest problem may be measurable results
     Specify the testing
     Next year, one team could possibly craft the proposal

(tools for amateurs – future direction of the industry?)
Brian's history of film lecture – post on YouTube? Give the lecture again?
     Here's what we can learn from the analogy of film…
     Cultural illiteracy about video games in the audience
     Uncanny parallels w/other tech types

Why compared to film – to observers, it looks the same.
Chasing after Hollywood model – envy?
How can we get glamour into games? (Do we want to?)
     Film – you leave your mark on the product. Games, not so much
     Game auteurs?
     Industry problem ashamed of being art – and great art has the fingerprint of the author
     “Somehow, designers have to understand that this is art, and you are artists.”
     How do we get the artists back into this thing?
     Recognition of who's doing this thing?
     Is there a way to beef up the characters? IP that's owned by the publisher…

Games designed for the observer to enjoy as well as the player

Union question
Game Designer Only Organization?
     Guild that promotes excellence vs. union (bad rep among knowledge workers)
     AMA as model, also architects
What would its charter be?
     Trying to advance game design as a legit profession
     Legitimizes the training?

Sometimes the answer is time…some things never (or almost never) do.

Establishing the history lends context and credibility – and we always present ourselves as bleeding edge and ignore the history – we seem to be ashamed of it.

Accessibility because of platform/accessibility issues
     Emulators are the way to keep it alive…
     We know where to get them. The hoi polloi don't
          Need an organized, legitimate way to make them accessible
          Wikipedia-type commentary
          Do it with universities? A library…
               Stanford? MIT? CMU? Wisconsin-Madison? Indiana?
               Advisory group to set the list of important games to preserve
               Important critic attached to library…
      Gathering for historic industry figures while they're still available

We're not JUST LIKE movies - we have similarities and can learn from them.
List the characteristics of the experience we're trying to achieve?
     How do we know when we've achieved legitimacy? - when it's no longer a question, when we complain that we're too straight-laced and respectable

Presentation - "Mac/Windows" riff...
Movies, games and TV thing? Puppets? Play-Doh?
Advertising - generally hideous.
We should invite people who make trailers to game conferences

The danger of legitimacy:
     Fading into irrelevance.
     Counter via an independent/fringe game.
     Who says we're illegitimate? We do.
     Commercially legitimate companies cannot do anything "illegitimate"

Types of legitimacy: commercial, moral, artistic.

Negative sides to legitimacy
     Overbearing oversight
     Fosters irrelevancy - the "sellout" factor
     By becoming legitimate, you lose cachet
          Only trying "safe" things
     Influx of new people/change in and dilution of culture - "this is the downside of growing up"

Are we kids in our parents' clothes? Recent graduates transitioning to adulthood? Petit-bourgeois condemned to a second-class status?

What do you do when you get legitimacy? What does it enable you to do?
Right now, we're more accessible to the indie side of things
Where's the YouTube for games? (flash games portals)
The barriers to entry are low

section 6

next section

select a section:
1. Introduction  2. Speakers  3. Executive Summary  
4. Online People's Revolutionary Army of Horseshoe
5. Building Innovative Games That Sell
6. The Legitimacy of Games
7. The Creation of Radically New Game Experiences
8. Schedule & Sponsors