Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Art. Or Not.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 2, 2013

I’ve recently read a few older books and short stories. By older, I’m talking stuff from the 1800s and early 1900s. In particular, I’ve started exploring “pulp fiction” – the short stories or serials from the super-cheap fiction magazines that were popular from about 1890 to the early 1950s.

airplane_stories_coverTraditionally, “Pulp Fiction” is a term applied to “lowbrow” fiction of the era. It brings to mind gumshoe detective / crime stories,  sensationalist tales, and lantern-jawed serial heroes like Doc Savage, Conan, The Shadow, and Tarzan. In reality, the fiction from the cheap “pulps” was somewhat interchangeable with the more expensive “slicks,” as authors shopped around their rejected tales. Many of the pulp stories went on to be considered classics in the modern era, and it was how many famous, critically-acclaimed authors got their start – or at least where they gained popularity and paid their bills. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, O. Henry, Agatha Christie, and many other “classic” writers of the era were pulp writers. Charles Dickens predated the pulps, but his novels first appeared serialized in the newspapers in a similar fashion.

Was it lowbrow? Arguably. Was it low quality? Sometimes, definitely. But sometimes it was really great stuff. Like the rise of the “cheap indie games” on mobile devices today, the floodgates were open for titles of wildly varying quality. There were a lot of gems and even more crap. Parallel number one to the modern video game biz.

Sadly, with the demise of pulps, the major market for short stories went away as well, one of the many, MANY obstacles modern authors face today with actually making a living. Many writers and new publishers are effectively taking matters into their own hands and “going indie” much like the game industry is doing today.  Parallel number two. But I digress…

Amazing Stories July 1926The point is… many of the “classics” – the “masterpieces” that are held in such high regard today were simply yarns spun to pay the rent by these authors. Between a combination of good writing, good editing, a story that resonated with the audience, and possibly a healthy dose of good luck, these stories and serialized novels went on to become standards of excellence in their respective genres. The authors certainly did their best to make a great story, but I doubt they set forth with a prevailing desire to create “Art.” At least, based on some of the non-fiction and letters (especially to their peers) of the time, it certainly didn’t sound that way. That, or they were overwhelmed with false modesty. They tried to please their audience (and their editors), and the laurels came later. Sometimes much later.

Over the last couple of decades, the popularity of science fiction has declined steeply. There are a lot of likely culprits cited, and this phenomenon is frequently argued on websites, at conventions, and so forth. Author Sarah A. Hoyt offered her diagnosis a year ago, followed by something of a manifesto to fix it. (Amusingly, she refers to the aforementioned pulps as “the ghetto of crudely colored magazines.”) But she suggests that with the reluctant acceptance of science fiction as literature after a couple of generations, the SF community – authors, agents, and publishers – started making a concentrated effort to become socially relevant, and accepted as “art.” And in a nutshell, it got boring. She writes, “Between the bands of political correctness, the bands of ‘relevance’ and the bands of ‘we want to be literary’ science fiction was strangled in the crib by people who didn’t care if sales numbers kept falling …

Elvis_PresleyShe somewhat sidesteps the issue, but one could argue that the reason science fiction gained the seat at the table of cultural gatekeepers was because it was popular, and had those high sales numbers back when it was disdained by the literary establishment. Ditto for rock & roll music. Ditto for jazz. Ditto for just about every art form / genre that was “new” at some point in recorded history, but then caught on. In general, it takes about as much time as it takes from when the art form “catches on” to when the generation of gatekeepers for whom it is new and alarming to die off. In my opinion, “social relevancy” doesn’t often come by conforming to societal norms and expectations, but by challenging them.

Wasn’t that what rock & roll was all about in its heyday – giving a rebellious middle finger to establishment mores and values? At its best, it wasn’t even directly calling out the establishment it defied – it was simply leading by example and doing its own thing. Ditto for science fiction – it fired up the imaginations of readers back in the day because it smashed conformity and limitations of the present world and dared imagine something new and sometimes scandalously different.

So here’s parallel number three. As video games slowly, painfully gain acceptance as art (if not capital-A Art) and prove their relevance, I’ve seen the temptation – particularly amongst some journalists and indies – to argue the case for really focusing on the artistry, messages, social relevance, and (indirectly) the artistic legitimacy of video games. I hear arguments about whether or not it’s even important for games to be “fun.” Or, at least, not just fun. This combined attitude – particularly amongst the indies – is probably mocked more often than it is actually employed, and I’m not really worried at this point about game developers stampeding towards some mirage of artsy-fartsy relevancy. I’m not against games having deeper meanings or meaningfulness.  Quite the opposite.

I would just caution indies that pleasing their true audience – on whatever level is most “awesome” – should come first, and feeding their own creative desires should either be tied with, or come in a close second to that. Appealing critics should be a distant third. Trying to be “Art,” or trying too hard to resemble a different media (like movies or TV, the biggest temptation in gaming), or to please the cultural gatekeepers who don’t even like games are false goals – and possibly self-destructive at that. Games do not have to steer themselves towards old-fashioned definitions of art and critical acceptance. Screw that pretentious crap. Those things have to catch up to gaming. I think there are enough parallels in other media that we can see where trying to conform to conventional standards set by different art forms leads, and hopefully avoid the worst pitfalls as an industry. Let games be games – however that gets defined by the creators and the audience. Theirs are the only opinions that truly matter.

Let games be games, and we’ll sort out the definitions, standards, and questions of artistic legitimacy later. Just don’t be boring.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Aim for Purposeful Artistry, or “Just Be Games”? | GBGames - Thoughts on Indie Game Development said,

    […] Barnson recently wrote Art. Or Not. He drew some parallels between science fiction and indie games. He talked about how older pulp […]

  • Cuthalion said,

    Well said! I hope you’re right. It’s nice not to have to worry about what They think, whoever They are.

    But you’re wrong about not being boring. Desert Bus is boring, and look where that got it! (Which I guess is because it was so boring, that made it interesting. Er…)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I think that’s more of the exception that proves the rule. But you are absolutely right – it’s interesting simply because it’s gained notoriety as the most boring game in the world. But if a game can’t hit those lofty heights of badness, it will be forgotten. 🙂