Art, Entertainment, Ethics and Exploitation

I read an article yesterday (via JurieOnGames) about the supposed difference between game development in China and the West. I’ll deal with the nationalism of the speaker who was featured momentarily, but the article itself did a good job of framing the issues anyone confronts when merging art and commerce. This is particularly true in light of attempts to monetize free content, which is being explored in both the interactive (online gaming) and non-interactive (publishing) markets.

As I noted previously, attempts to emphasize money above all else are ultimately pointless. If you’re in business to make money, yes, you should focus on making money. But saying that money comes before everything else is a literal lie if you are in the entertainment business, because everyone knows it’s a horrendously bad way to make money. Mining zinc is better. Building houses is better, even in today’s market. Making cereal is better.

The article in question focuses on “Zhan Ye, president of GameVision,” who was “speaking at the Virtual Goods Summit in San Francisco on Friday.” In the article, Ye states that a new breed of Chinese developers is building games from the ground up that are focused as much (or more) on monetization as they are on art, entertainment or fun. He paints all Western development (including Western-trained Chinese developers) as failed precisely because monetization is not the primary focus during every step of the production process.

It’s tempting to dismiss Ye’s comments as either uninformed or nationalistic hype. But Ye is genuinely talking about a paradigm shift from creating and selling entertainment on the merits to actively exploiting customers.  

On this Ye is quite frank:

“Good monetization design is based on a deep understanding of human psychology. The best game designers in Chinese people all understand what Chinese people want, what they think; their weaknesses, actually. Good free-to-play game designers are exploiting people’s weaknesses in the game.”

What Ye is talking about when he says that art and entertainment are old-fashioned design goals is that interactive entertainment, and particularly free-to-play social games, should be built along the lines of casino gaming, where every aspect of the experience is designed to motivate the player to spend money. In casinos, everything from the color of the carpeting to the height of the tables to the free drinks to the feel of the cards to the sound of the spinning wheel has been tested with one goal in mind: motivating bets. And from a money-making perspective you can hardly argue against it because casinos are great at making money.

More to the point, casinos are great at exploiting their customers, including the weakest and most unhealthy of those customers. Yes, for every $100 million ‘earned’ from addicted gamblers and desperate alcoholics the gaming industry is required to run a 30-second commercial educating users on the rare negative aspects of gambling, but that’s about it. (I made up the ratio: you get the point.)

But that’s not even the best part. The odds in casino gaming are stacked against the player in such a way that casinos always have an advantage. Although an individual player may get hot, and some players may win as often as they lose, over time all players lose. There’s no chance involved at the macro level. Like stock traders, casinos make money no matter what happens with an individual game. Their goal is simply to motivate the players to keep playing in this rigged system.

And Ye acknowledges this similarity here:

“Conflicts make the game world more energetic and more lively,” says Ye, but “more importantly they trigger emotions, and when people are more emotionally unstable, they’ll make purchases.”

How can you argue with that? If you want to take money from people, yes: you should scare them or threaten them, then offer a way that they can solve whatever problem you put in front of them by spending money:

“It’s very easy to play with peer pressure,” because of the volume of users in an MMO. One of the most popular items that Ye knows of is one that lets you respawn with your party when you die instead of returning to town. “Most people will say, ‘I’ll just pay’, so they don’t let their friends down.” That’s convenience and peer pressure rolled into one.

So this is the great new paradigm rolling out of China. Yet this way of thinking is only one step removed from other voices advocating that creative people focus on money first. Ye isn’t proposing anything criminal. Disgusting, maybe. Unethical. Exploitative. But he’s not breaking any laws. He’s just being ruthlessly aggressive about exploiting an opportunity — like the people on Wall St. before the implosion of the housing bubble, or Enron, or the tech bubble. Which means it’s probably a good time to stop and get our bearings before we decide that whatever we’re doing it’s all good as long as we’re getting paid.

Art as a practice stands apart from commerce. You can sell art, you can buy art, but when you’re making art, if you’re serious about it, all of your effort goes into the art, and none into concerns about money. Art is meant to be pure not because purity is good, it’s meant to be pure because the minute you start wondering how much you can make you start making compromises. Art — real art, in any form — is about concept and execution, not about sales.

If what you care about is an artistic medium or form, I say go for it and don’t look back. Get a job in a diner slinging hash to make money for your paints. Work in a quarry so they’ll give you a cracked block of marble at the end of each month. Do whatever it takes and don’t compromise — and for god’s sake don’t pity the money-grubbing bastards who look down on you for being so naive. They can be replaced any day of the week with others just like them.

By the same token, if what you care about is entertaining people, then focus on that. And here it’s okay to think about making money, because entertaining implies an audience, and audiences pay for things. (Blocks of marble don’t pay for things.) Focus on your craft, learn what you need to learn, and get as good as you can get. Then take your talents and skills to market and see what you’re worth.

And as long as we’re talking art and entertainment, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do both. You can. You can work for clients (an audience), and you can work for yourself (as an artist). It’s not impossible to do such things on a per-project basis, and anybody who tells you it is impossible is a purist. Which is another word for snob.

Note, too, that even Ye cannot define where the line is between art, entertainment and the bold new Chinese concept of making money by abusing customers. If you’re displaying images in a coherent way to users then you’re using artistic skills and entertainment techniques. If you think you only have to put 20% into that part of the equation, and your competitor puts 30% into that part and beats you bloody, does that mean you should have focused more on the art and entertainment side of the business, or you should have exploited your users more? Or both?

When it comes to any argument premised on the idea that a medium of entertainment needs to be made more business oriented, always remember that there is no formula for the proper mix of art, entertainment and commercialism. No one has ever been able to predict in advance which video games, stories, novels, movies, stage plays or toys will be successful before they get to market. When it comes to selling entertainment, the only person who ever got it exactly right is William Goldman, who famously said that Nobody Knows Anything.

Using Ye’s own metric, the only question left is what you’re willing to do to make money. How far are you personally willing to go in exploiting your audience? At some point, if you really don’t care about the audience at all you might decide to give up on all the trouble of putting products together and instead just steal their money. Or, if you prefer a more business-like structure, hire people to do it for you, on commission.

Assuming you don’t want to risk jail, however, or that you’re not a sociopath, where do you draw the line? The answer is, wherever you think you should. Again, don’t let any money-grubber tell you you’re a chump if you take a principled stand against abusing people. If some people don’t care about other human beings, that’s on them. If they value money above anything else, that’s on them. Yes, they’ll end up with more money, and they won’t seem unhappy because they have what they care about most, and you’ll have to suffer their ugliness, but you’ll be able to get up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror without thinking that you’re a fraud. And if that matters to you, it matters.

Besides, the idea of screwing someone out of a buck, or a Euro, or a Yen, or any other denomination, is hardly new. And it does a considerable injustice to the Chinese developers who are making great games, great art, and great entertainment.

More here, here and here on social media abuses (or pioneering marketing initiatives) courtesy JurieOnGames.

— Mark Barrett

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