Monday, October 06, 2008

GUEST: Matthew Sakey

We have a fantastic guest blogger for you today, and I'm not just saying that to angle for an expensive birthday present. I'm proud to present my brother, Matthew Sakey, who besides being your basic hell-of-a-good-guy, is also a tremendously respected writer and scholar in the video games industry. Whether or not you play games, I think you'll find his take on the medium fascinating:

No Pulp, Please
by Matthew Sakey

I have often wondered, particularly now that my brother is one, how novelists feel when they hear certain types of stories decried as "pulp." Or "schlock," or "airplane reading," or whatever. I keep meaning to ask Marcus about it. To me, those terms sound derogatory; after all, authors work hard on their novels and care about the story and characters. Seems like hearing someone describe the product of all your beavering in that way would be hurtful.

On the other hand, a lot of people buy pulpy novels. Horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, and… crime fiction. These are the genres that generally endure the adjectives, but they're also the ones with the biggest margins. After all, any successful writer is essentially a business; a business that's in the business of staying in business. Who cares what they call your work, so long as they buy?

I am a some-of-the-time journalist and consultant in the videogame industry. This is a medium only 30 years old, the entire canon of which still exists in living memory. It's a medium that's still in the throes of the is-it-art debate (it is). Imagine: you are alive at the infancy of an art form, watching it struggle to define itself. And like rap before it and rock before that and Dungeons & Dragons before that and television before that and comics before that and the tango before that and the novel before that, it's also a medium in the throes of the it-will-destroy-our-youth debate.

To most--even to most gamers--videogames are seen as… pulp. As vapid entertainment. In fact, a large segment of the games industry actively fights against the merest suggestion that games have meaning, can affect emotion, can make social commentary. It's ironic that some of those creating art are also the ones who refuse to believe that it is art. It's especially ironic today, when in the past five years we've seen some games that flat-out prove the evocative power of the medium.

For me, games have always mattered. I have always been emotionally involved, even back when "videogames" were nothing more than yellow blocks moving around a screen. Everyone thought I was weird. Games sometimes made me cry when I was a kid; admittedly, that usually happened when they were taken away as punishment for some childish infraction, but not always. And little has changed, so I'm baffled when I encounter individuals who can't get emotionally involved, even now, when the technology is powerful enough to make it real and writing in games is often actually about something. We've seen games that deal intelligently with racism (Mass Effect), drug use (Bioshock), senseless violence fueled by misguided love (Shadow of the Colossus), teen suicide (Persona 3), and the Iraq war (Half Life 2). We've seen games based on Tarkovsky films (S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl), games as brilliant and minimalist as Samuel Beckett (Portal) or as extravagant as Frederic Chopin (Eternal Sonata).

And I spend a good part of my day trying to convince people of that, which leads to the sales pitch portion of this little rant. For the last six years, I've written for a small web outlet called Four Fat Chicks. I write there as "Steerpike," from the Gormenghast novels, and over the years, I've reviewed many of the games I mentioned above. It's got a great forum community and a tight-knit, intelligent staff. For a long time, it's been one of the few places you can go to read articles from people who know that games matter, and I've been proud to be part of it.

The original owners of the site--the, ah, two fat chicks who remained by 2008--were ready to throw in the towel this year. The community was dwindling, the staff's contributions were slowing down. Plus it's hard work and they were tired of it.

I couldn't let it happen. That place has been my snuggly blanket for way too long. Nearly every job I got in the games industry came as a direct result of something I'd written for Four Fat Chicks. I now write a monthly column for the International Game Developers Association because of an article I published at FFC. There's no opportunity for reflection or criticism on what games mean, and why we love them so much, at the other outlets I write for. FFC is the place where I do that stuff. So I bought it, along with a partner who does the technical work, and we rolled out a brand new site on October 1. It's still kind of an ugly mishmash of the old site and the new one, and we haven't installed all the features we want yet. But it's a beginning. A chance to drive some more traffic to a place that, hopefully, can one day convince at least one more person that games are more than pulp.

As we all know, "pulp" as a term comes from the crappy wood pulp paper on which dime store novels and so-called "Penny Dreadful" magazines were printed. The content of these publications tended to be fantastical, or violent, or weird, or heavy on the T&A. And over time the term "pulp" came to mean fiction that was cheap, tawdry… insignificant. I don't want videogames to be seen in that light any more than, I imagine, you would want literature to be.

So check out the new Four Fat Chicks. I hope you enjoy what we're trying to build. And if you've always dismissed videogames as something mindless, to be enjoyed only by children and adults who never grew up, give the medium another look. You might be surprised by what you see.


Matthew will be hanging around for the next few days, so if you have thoughts about his article, concerns about videogames or their content, or simply want to ask a question of a preeminent game scholar, please, let fly.


Anonymous said...

Hey Matthew, nice to have you.

I don't know much about games, but what you're saying sounds a little positive--what about games like Grand Theft Auto, or others that are just about violence? Are they art too?


Matthew said...

Hi Dave, thanks for the welcome!

You're letting a little too much mass-media spin into your opinion there. Grand Theft Auto is not "just about violence;" that's the local news talking. Violence is a useful tool to communicate a variety of themes, particularly in an interactive world, but game developers do not make violent games for its own sake simply because such games would be depthless and boring.

Have you ever played Grand Theft Auto? You might be surprised to realize what it's about. If you don't mind my continued pimping of my own site, check out my review of GTA IV: You may find what's there surprising.

To answer your specific question, understand that just because a medium is an art form, not everything in it is art. Yes, Grand Theft Auto is art, and so are a number of other games condemned by the mainstream media, often without any clear understanding of the content. But other games - Madden '08, for example, or tic tac toe, are not art.

People who don't know much about games assume the worst of them because that's all they have been told - usually in inflammatory and oversensationalized news reports borne out by little research and fewer facts. Trust me, even those games many find objectionable can be and are surprisingly artistic.


Bryon said...

I would argue that a game like Madden is art in the same way that the realists were art. The object of the Madden designers is to replicat the football experience as closely as possible to the real thing and each year they get closer and closer. It's no different than a painting with the sole goal of reproducing a realistic basket a fruit.

Picks By Pat said...

Great Article!

I grew up reading what would now be considered 'pulp fiction' in the form of boy's adventure stories, horror magazines and comic books. Although I write cozies, i would not be insulted if someone referred to my fiction as pulp.

Considering the stellar authors who have been tossed under the pulp label, I'd consider it a compliment.

Marcus Sakey said...

Hey Matt! Great article.

I just wanted to pop in and second the notion that games are about something these days. Not all of them, and not equally. But it's impossible to play a game like Bioshock or Portal without realizing that it's the story, not the technology, that's making it so fascinating. I love the written word, but I love story more. So long as important stories are being well told, medium is secondary to me.

Also, for any of you interested in a deeper look at some of the issues Matt touched on, I would highly recommend you check out his Culture Clash column. His thoughtful analysis and topical essays are fascinating whether or not you've ever so much as played Pong.

Jude Hardin said...

Hi Matthew,

Wow. What a talented family the Sakeys are!

I don't play video games at all, but my son (16) has all the systems and loves to play and is good at it according to his friends. Right now, as a junior in high school, he thinks he would like to pursue a career in the video game industry after college. He's thinking something to do with design, and he's very good in math. So, I was wondering what kinds of jobs are available in the industry and what kind of college major would be good as a springboard. Thanks!


There's are art to their creation and execution but very few are worthy of a real shelf life. They're here for good and will only become more popular in the future but they need far nore depth to become real art.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone, and thanks for reading! Let me respond to some comments.

@Bryon: you make a very good point. Maybe I spoke to soon when I claimed Madden wasn't art... instead, I'll say it's not art in the same sense that a game like Portal or Ico are art, but there is something to be said for your argument about realism and impressionism as movements in game development.

@Jude: there are many jobs available in the industry, across a wide spectrum of professions and skill sets. Your son is wise to think about opportunities now, and there are steps he can take to get noticed alongside education. I'd be happy to discuss it with you or him or both - I get requests like this all the time. email me at if you'd like to chat further.

@Archavist: give it time. The earliest films were nothing but motion shorts; it took a while for cinema to evolve into art. Games are infinitely more complex, since the issue of player interactivity is a factor. The medium will get there.

Barney Clonfelder said...

I don't like you and I don't like your blog.

You youngsters today think you know everything, well, let me tell you, you don't know much of anything!

These blogs make me so angry!

Marcus Sakey said...

The above may or may not be intentional comedy. But I'm cracking up regardless.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Marcus, I agree. I think it's funny. And I think it's intentional.