The Ugly Future: Video Games as Art

Some games may forever be lost due to a trend of locking content behind paywalls.

By , Contributor

Struck this week with pneumonia, I decided to sit down and catch up with a growing stack of unread video game magazines, because yes, some of us still prefer paper. In that mass of gaming-related journalism is an interview with Chris Melissinos and Georgina Goodlander, two of the people responsible for a video game art exhibition that will begin its run at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in March of 2012.

They go on to speak to Francesca Reyes of OXM about the exhibit, the voting process (the public chose the games), and how they would be displayed. It was crucial, they said, that the display not turn into an arcade, but a true exhibition of the medium's progress, including running commentary, stills, and video. Wonderful. Put that on the list of "things to visit when I recover from whatever is physically attacking my lungs."

Two days after, I finally sat down with the latest release from Codemasters, a rally racing game titled Dirt 3... err, well, it's actually DiRT 3, but spellcheckers hate that. Upon booting up, before I've even selected an option past the title screen, I'm asked if I'd like to input the code for my "VIP Pass." Um, no actually. Not being a huge rally racing fan, I chose to rent Dirt 3.

Regardless, in a haze of antibiotics and Mucinex, it dawned on me while two and two came together. See, the VIP Pass locks a portion of the game out for used game buyers or renters (new players have a free code in the box), requiring the player to pay $10 to access additional content like online multiplayer or certain vehicles. All of that data is, in fact, on the disc itself. It's merely locked away. To actually unlock that content, you need to be online and there needs to be a server on the other end that sends the proverbial "okay" to your console. At some point in the future, that server will no longer be with us.

EA is trying something similar with their upcoming Alice: Madness Returns. Instead of online features, the original game, American McGee's Alice, is locked behind that same server authentication. In other words, as a likely renter of Madness Returns having never played the PC-exclusive original, I won't have access to that "bonus." Neither will anyone else prior to release, including the mass of console-only gamers like myself.

But, neither will the Smithsonian in 2022 when the ten-year anniversary of that exhibition rolls around. Maybe Madness Returns or Dirt 3 will be considered great enough to be entered into the hallowed halls of their latest exhibition. What then? I can only envision a future narrator speaking of the greatness of Madness Returns while a black screen appears on the video underneath our speaker, the line then something like, "Footage of American McGee's Alice unavailable due to shortsighted business decisions."

Can you imagine what the future holds? It's hard enough to defend this industry as an artistic enterprise now with hooker-killing and fatality-dealing dominating the 11 o'clock news. When all of that seems passe (and hopefully long forgotten, much like the Comic Code) in ten or so years, the new battle will be preservation of the absolute anti-consumer garbage being spewed from the desks of CEOs who simply are not looking forward. This coming digital age spells disaster for anyone who cares about history and cares about ensuring future generations enjoying the same things we did.

Imagine, a crucial scene in Citizen Kane lost because we have no means of accessing the film canisters. Think of Action Comics #1 with the first appearance of Superman without the all-American hero, all because the business dictated only a certain consumer could access it.

I want that console version of Alice to survive. I want to see it last. Most importantly, I want to see it on a wall alongside Pac-Man and Halo in a museum where these brilliant pieces of work deserve to be displayed.

Apparently, EA has a different idea of what this industry is supposed to be (it's surely not art), along with other companies hiding behind "online passes" or "bonus content." I'm looking at you, Codemasters, THQ, Warner Bros., and anyone else considering forever wrapping up a piece of artistry behind an impenetrable barrier simply because you think anyone who doesn't pay $60 for your product isn't worth your time. You might not regret it, but those of us who actually give a damn will end up paying the price one way or another.

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Matt Paprocki is a 13-year veteran of the video game, movie, and home media scene. He has written thousands of reviews, has been published on a variety of websites, and contributes his thoughts daily on a diverse range of topics.

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