The gaming industry and community is constantly in flux and flow; ever changing the way it interacts with, and constructs itself through the medium. As technology and communication continuously develops and reinvents itself, one of the more beneficial and progressive transformations has been the democratization of video games. Now, this obviously isn’t a phenomenon unique to 2015. This has been an ongoing process for the last decade or so, but as part of the obligatory reflection that ensues at the year-end, I feel as if this movement to communize the industry really flourished in this year. In many ways, these processes truly point to the testament of Video Games as Art Form; a sign indicating its maturation as a cultural object, imbued with significance, meaning and history. So while the patterns have been developing over time, there have been discernible trends this year that acted to centralize it as a definitive feature of the industry.
But first, what is democratization? As with any concept, it’s at once simple, and at once complex. Briefly put, to democratize is to allow access of something to larger amounts of people, versus its control by a select (read: elite) few. This process is political, and it is mundane, permeating most facets of society. Art is a prime example of the democratization of expression. Anyone can produce it; anyone can consume it. That isn’t to say there are still struggles in defining what constitutes art, and Art (with a capital A) is nonetheless delineated along trends that are usually controlled and established by those in control. Regardless, the medium of art can be freely engaged with by anyone, and creativity can be expressed without prior training or knowledge, and is easily shared.
As such, the recognition of video games-as-art has been gaining ground in recent years, legitimizing it as a medium through which personal expression, emotion and cultural ideas can be transmitted. Democratization helps as it promotes accessibility rather than restriction to a select few who have formal training and experience in the industry. What’s great about this, is that the greater amount of people who participate in the community, the greater the variety of works. This is largely in part thanks to the proliferation of technology and the freedom of the internet; this democratization isn’t limited to actual game creation, it permeates all facets of the community. From creation, to funding, to feedback, to criticism, everyone has a chance to voice, and ultimately shape the content we consume. Everyone has freedom of expression and creation, which is particularly important when it comes to minorities trying to create and participate in a dialogue in an industry controlled by white, cisgender men. As open, mass-supported technology and tools become available, this inevitably shifts the power away from the privileged few who enact control over content created. Again, this isn’t perfect, and there are definite shortcomings and downsides, but this isn’t the purpose here. Rather, let’s celebrate 2015 with the ways in which this wonderful industry has moved forward.
This one is the epitome of democratization of video games, but it isn’t unique to 2015. Nevertheless, there are various free kits and tools that are open to everyone and anyone who aspires to create video games from the comfort of their homes. The release of Unity 5 Personal Edition this year contains all engine features used by those in the industry, and is available for all platforms. But there are also a horde of other tools available for the aspiring dev, some which are rounded up quite nice over here. So as gaming technology becomes more and more available to the masses, this just breeds an environment of diversity in genres, voices and entertainment which is beneficial to all.
Disclaimer: I have some qualms about Kickstarter, particularly its uses by major studios and players. But. As a whole there are some truly positive aspects in crowdsourcing. The democratization of lending, particularly with video games, goes hand in hand with the technology available, as now people will no longer be yoked to venture capitalists and other forms of large-scale investors. This allows for more freedom for the developers. On the flip side, this allows consumers to have a say and give feedback to the creators and studios. Money talks, and Kickstarter enables a healthy dialogue between the producers and consumers. Even with this year’s controversial Sony E3 announcement that Shenmue III’s funding would be crowdsourced, the concept of it is still a step forward. This allows for those who contribute money, whether big or small, to have a voice in which, and how games are developed. This ties into our third point about 2015 and transparency in gaming.
A key advantage to crowdsourcing (and to its success) is transparency. Developers will need to constantly give updates on their progress if they want to continue to raise money for their project. Kickstarter is all or nothing: if the project isn’t fully funded, no one gets charged. The beauty of that is that if the developer goes in a direction that the consumers don’t agree with, funding will end and the project won’t be realized. Yes, this method might hinder creative directions but ultimately, it allows the community to help shape the games that are created. Other initiatives, such as Steam Early Access, allow users to try/purchase games before release in order to give feedback.
However, transparency in video games isn’t only limited to the indie sphere; this trend has influenced the AAA community as well. With more and more developers creating open-access Alphas and Betas, they can no longer hide away in the ivory towers of game development. They now foster a dialogue between players and creators in order to gather feedback, and work on shortcomings. A good example of this from this year is Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege. After their closed beta, they released an infographic on meaningful gameplay stats that they accumulated during the time. They also released two blog posts detailing their post-launch plan, as well as the changes executed based on user responses and some gameplay data. Though not perfect, these sorts of exchanges are great in that they foster discussions not previously had between producer and consumer. Hopefully, this will encourage more and more developers to open their eyes and ears to what the community has to say.
Finally, we have social media in which people can voice, comment and criticize video games and the industry. What was once only accessible to those who have had formal training (i.e the journalist), or a experience, can now be utilized by all who have access to technology that reaches the masses. Passive consumers have now become agentic in discourses surrounding video games, and it’s wonderful. No longer is the media we consume solely in the hands of those with influence. This is particularly true in streaming services such as Twitch, and this year’s YouTube Gaming. Players can now interchangeably be entertainers, critics and viewers of video games through these services, making larger websites more and more obsolete. Again, as technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, these forms of democratization of information and exchange in regards to the industry will necessarily continue to flourish in the years to come.
The process of democratizing the video game industry isn’t perfect, and there are definite shortcomings and pitfalls. However, it’s nonetheless exciting to see the maturation of this medium. As accessibility grows, and technology proliferates, the gaming community will see an influx of diversity never seen before and 2015 has cemented this trend.