We all know why video games suck in '08. It's the money.
When critics ask why games aren't realizing their potential as a medium, we are all are pretty comfortable saying that the basic problem is that somebody has to write the checks. In a capitalist society that somebody is suited men helming publicly traded publishing companies. These men answer to shareholders, and shareholders prize stability. More than anything else, the one thing stockholders want to know is how much money a company will be making three years from now, and the way for the suited men to put their minds at ease on this score is by assuring them that their franchises are ripe for continual exploitation. The critic's ideal is as a genre-defining feat of ingenuity, and the shareholder's ideal is a revenue stream. Sometimes these two ideals coincide, but this is somewhat accidental.
So it's easy to get down on the market for making everything more terrible. But I was rereading Dave Hickey over the weekend (this is a good idea), and reminded me that art is a field of value governed by the market too.
Karl Marx based the value for goods on labor. Understandably, he thought that forging a foundational connection between economic value and labor at the basis of his economic theory was the way to make human misery a factor in the workings of the post-industrial economic order.
While classical free-market economists like Ricardo and Smith also openly advocated a labor theory of value, Marx argued that holding this position within the framework of post-industrial production rested on some dubious propositions. He thought that classical free-market economics amounted to an exchange theory of value. Because exchange value is determined by the interaction of supply and demand, and demand is a psychological phenomenon, the perception of value plays a crucial role in an economy where the value of goods is regulated by market forces; on this view the study of economics is the study of incentives. (This is why wallstreet panic is literally panic-- the value of some assets in market economies are conditioned “by the imagination of man (or sometimes, so it seems, madmen)”, as Warren buffet said of the now-infamous Credit Default Swaps. And let's not forget that, in his off-hours, Adam Smith was an acute moral psychologist). And at the base of everything, Marx aid, is the commodity fiction, the more-or-less reliable faith that fellowmen will continue to give us certain goods in exchange for intrinsically worthless slips of paper.
It is a good thing that Marxist economic principles don't rule art. If we adhered to a labor theory of value, then each copy of Chinese Democracy would cost 8 million dollars. But it's not. Art is a field of value that is utterly in the hands of the perceivers. (Even those morgage-backed securities are going to get valued eventually, and it's going to come down to what people are able to pay.) The value of art is all exchange-value, pure commodity fetish. And it's a good thing.
As Hickey notes, the value of art comes down to the risks that critics are willing to take on behalf of the things they care about: “Art and money are cultural fictions with no intrinsic value. They acquire exchange-value through fiduciary investments of complex constituencies-- through overt demonstrations of trust (or acts of faith, if you will)... The Whitney Museum may say that Wanda Whatzit is the next big thing, but only the sustained investment of money, journalism, exhibition space, scholarly prose, foundation awards, loose talk, and casual body language can maintain Wanda's work in the public esteem.” Scholarly prose doesn't set the price-- at least not initially-- but over the long term the value of a work of art comes down to its cultural capital. It's us-- and by us I mean both consumers, and people writing on the Internet-- who determine what these experiences are really worth.
There's been a lot of talk about the troubled relationship of the industry to the critical apparatus. Mammon raises his head again. The financial equation for the online mainstream games journal site is well-established: previews=page clicks=profit. This isn't quite payola but it's a situation where the sites stand to benefit from giving positive reviews of a company's releases. (And here, I'm not even going into the whole matter of ad buys.)
But all this anxiety covers up the fact that what critics think of games actually matters. The fact that a critic's is something that someone would want to buy is a testament to the sovereign power of partiality over the realm of culture. The deregulation of opinion come the advent of the internet has loosened rules of the market: there is a flood of ordinary citizens avid to squander hours of their life in advocacy of their “particular marriage of desire and esteem.” is a testament to the democratic possibilities that are at the center of Hickey's vision.