Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Art, Games, and Money

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.


LJS said...

To be fair, the boys at EA don't wear suits.

They do think of how much money games will make.

Simplistically, everyone benefits from having critics and a public that appreciates high quality games. Designers know that quality (however defined) sells games. Easy incentive to focus on quality product.

Sure there will be throwaway movie tie-ins, annual sports title updates, but the real money is in creating an original story that can keep everyone hooked for not just one game, but three.

I think the incentives are working just fine for now.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@LJS: I knew I was gonna get slammed by anyone with half a brain and and MBA! This is what I get for trying to talk about incentives.

Also, I'm not trying to say that the market is intrinsically bad for games. It can be, when it rewards ceaseless iteration on stale gameplay ideas and discourages risktaking. It only does this part of the time.

In fact, part of what I'm saying is that market principles are good for art, which is what Hickey sez. (read his book!) And games are plenty good, which counts in favor of your theory.

chesh said...

DJ Shadow reference (quotation?) = I love you even more. Now I'll actually read the post, and maybe have something of substance to say.

Kirk Battle said...

The problem with game industry now is what XBL and indie games have been slowly fixing: the cost and potential reward were terribly high for companies. Spending millions of dollars on a game that costs 60 bucks means your journalists and critiques play a much larger role in tipping the buyer's minds. If a game costs 10 bucks, no one bats an eye at buying it and giving it a spin. If it costs 60, then they might check and see what other people are saying.

I don't think movie or book critics get this kind of pressure because the movie companies know that people will buy that stuff on impulse much more often because of the lower cost. Particularly with a new IP, so long as they have good advertising they can expect to get a decent amount of their costs back.

So yeah, I agree that the incentive structure still exists in games. The problem is that it was and still is so enormously large that the critic ends up being a much larger cog in the machine than they normally are.

Nels Anderson said...

@L.B. Jeffries Maybe my impression isn't accurate, but I still get the feeling that many folks are still looking at console downloadable/indie games in terms of dollars per hour of play. I can't count how many times I read someone complaining about the price of World of Goo or Braid versus its length, despite the fact that they were, what, $15-20? Maybe I'm just less selective with my entertainment budget, but I just don't get how a great game is worth it at $10, but travesty and betrayal at $15.

Obligatory PA link: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2008/8/8/

Kirk Battle said...

@ Nelsormensch

Eh, brats who have to bug their parents to break out the credit card every time they need to download something are a very suspect audience in my book.

Now that Microsoft has made the video game equivalent of Camel Dollars with their point system, I think the tone might be changing up a bit.

Who knows though, just give it time and trust in the long tail. It is your friend.

Ben Abraham said...

@L.B. Count me suspect then, 'cause I don't have a credit card of my own. ;-)

As to the post, I only have a teeny-tiny sliver of comprehension when it comes to money and economics, but I do wonder if "The fundamentals of the game economy" really are strong... If not, well I guess there'll be hell to pay eventually.

I don't buy much of the "free markets are the the ONLY markets" ideology. If the whole "less regulation" thing actually worked, it would be working right now...

Still, that's mostly to do with the mortgage crisis/credit crunch, so I don't know how directly applicable it is to games.

Oops, got on a bit of a tangent with this comment. My apologies. =P

Anonymous said...

Hmm, well, markets are all well and good, and for the most part it's a good idea to trust them. But, not to get too poetic, it isn't hard to imagine something that that is 'good' or 'beautiful' that also wouldn't make enough money to justify its production.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@l.b. jeff: I think you're right that the production costs and pricing of games is a major factor in why game companies have trouble justifying non-exploitable franchises to their shareholders. Maybe the new price structure of the downloadable stuff and the buying habits that go with it will convince some game publishers to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.

@ben: yeah, I don't think unfettered markets work for the economy. George Soros tells me that liberal orthodoxy in economic thought leads to boom-bust cycles, but I'm not well-informed enough to judge whether this is true.

What I was trying to say but didn't succeeding in saying elegantly is that aesthetic value is a market phenomenon, in that the worth of a piece of art derives from what we're willing to stake for it: our money, our opinion, our time.

@charles: I mean, I like to think that everything praiseworthy gets its due over the long haul. But games like Okami and Psychonauts-- really fine games, among the best in the medium-- have been total commerical failures. So it's hard to keep faith.