A Meandering Discussion About How Much Art is Too Much Art, With No Clear Answer

indie game discourse of the week: too many people are making video games and not enough people are doing something beneficial to society

Okay, so while I am as magnetically drawn to discourse like the rest of us, I rarely ever contribute or comment on it for a few reasons:

In this particular case, I’m an indie game dev with enough thoughts on the subject and only posting this on my personal blog that few read, so why not chat for a bit? Really, I doubt this writing will resolve in an easily-consumed moral vittle. That’s life, baby!

Anyway, long-time game developer Jeff Vogel made a series of somewhat connected, somewhat disconnected tweets about the state of game development today. He starts specifically with the fact that a lot of games are coming out. More than ever, in fact!

“This is a whole lot of young, smart, driven people making things nobody wants. At what point does this become a profound waste of human talent?”, a quote tweet containing some statistics that Steam added 18% more games in 2021 than it did in 2020. “New games per second” is a fun measurement, huh.

Vogel follows this up with a few other tweets that wander a bit, but he brings up a couple of larger topics, specifically:

  • We are making more video games art and entertainment than we could ever need or want
  • Art and artists are generally overvalued morally - creating art is not an inherently good thing, especially not compared to other callings that provide more down-to-earth, tangible value (he mentions plumbing, roofing, volunteering, and activism)
  • Does art have value if very few other people see it?
  • Are there societal or cultural reasons we’re making so much art?
  • I really like bulleted lists…

    As is usual on Twitter, there were plenty of folks aggressively misreading Vogel’s tweets and tweeting furious quote-tweets. The angry response is at least a little understandable, because “nobody wants all these video games” and “is this a profound waste of human talent?” is easy to read as a moral judgment of video game developers. However, I doubt this was the intention, since Vogel’s studio Spiderweb Software has itself generated around two dozen games’ worth of wasted human talent over the years. From here, the conversation spiraled into a dozen different new directions, such as the financial viability of being indie and the varying reasons people create art. Vogel’s more concrete discussion about the tangible benefit of art to society didn’t get started until later.

    I do agree with some of what Vogel is suggesting, but I also disagree with a lot of it, too, and I’d like to be clear about it all. Maybe I’ll just do another bulleted list… Are bulleted lists actually any better than Twitter? Shit. Anyway:

    And this idea - that societally, we overvalue creating art at the cost of doing altruistic work - is where I can start to understand where Vogel is coming from. “Humanity has real problems and limited energy” and “our value system has gotten very weird” are concepts worth grappling with, and something I’ve struggled with personally.

    I spent my first few years of college studying chemical engineering, studying years of calculus and organic chemistry. It felt like a strong calling at the time - I was always decent at math and science, and I believed engineering was the perfect path to contribute to society while also making rent. My sophomore year, I was lucky enough to find work as an intern in a chemical lab that had received a massive grant to research and develop renewable energy sources. I spent over a year cataloging different types of grains, harvesting corn stover from local fields, and shadowing an engineer who was trying to perfect AFEX, a technology that can drastically increase the amount of usable energy produced from plant mass.

    And… it was boring. Really, really, super fucking boring. I thought it might just be because I was an intern, but even the engineer I shadowed did the same thing every day: apply different chemicals in different quantities to different densities and quantities of corn stover, and then heat it at different temperatures for different amounts of time. Every day, he’d run about 5 of these tests, taking maybe an hour apiece. Watching the oven. Measuring the mass. Every day. I learned that this is how a lot of science gets done, and my ennui for the future grew. The noble path and the financially secure path is, often, monotonous.

    I failed a bunch of classes and then switched majors. Though I had always loved playing around with RPG Maker, I had always felt too inadequate to commit to making a game myself, and anyways, games don’t pay the rent, right? But I took a chance and took some game development classes, an excuse to really indulge in game development, and wow. It turns out that game design is just fun! The problems are varied and challenging, watching your players smile, laugh, cry, fail, and triumph is an incredible, unique joy. The pure motes of life that can only be communicated through art are satisfying to both the artist AND the viewer, often regardless of the mess or how many people actually see what you make. And now, over a decade later, I still find that creating video games one of the most satisfying drives in life, up there with my love for my partner, my friends, my family, up there with eating an incredible meal, up there with a good nights’ sleep. One of my life goals is to, hopefully, eventually, earn at least enough money making video games to not have to work for a corporation building software just to raise a CEO’s take-home.

    But isn’t that pretty selfish? To quit being an engineer and to become a game developer? I spent a long time thinking so, and deep down, I still kinda feel that way. It’s hard to argue that game development is not somewhat frivolous. It doesn’t improve society tangibly like building houses, activism, and volunteering can. Video games mostly just bring respite from life’s difficulties. At their best, they can provide a new perspective and inspire personal growth, but it can be hard to compare that to something as elementally destructive as global warming.

    Maybe, if I had stuck with chemical engineering a bit longer, I would have found a passion for it. Or maybe I would learn to appreciate the regular small joy of a job well done, instead of the sugar-high spikes and crashes of game development. I think I’d still like to learn that. That’s where I find the meat in Vogel’s argument. Valuing art above all else is a luxury, and we ignore our community and our society’s problems at our own peril. But it’s still a wobbly connection, isn’t it?

    “The weight of your responsibility is equal to your power.” The engines that systematically fuel humanity’s suffering are impossible for any lone human to scratch, let alone destroy. Thinking that you can sacrifice enough to fix the world yourself is cocky and naive. It is a privileged delusion and guaranteed path to despair when you are inevitably faced with your individual uselessness. But we learn. And once that lesson is learned, we can't resign ourselves to apathy - we have to be honest with ourselves, find our limits, find the small, human, sustainable, and often monotonous ways we can make the world a better place. We have to push ourselves when we can, and rest when we need. But totally sacrificing your personal joys - even if it’s as frivolous as making video games - is a doomed path.

    We can do both, can’t we?

    Whew, this really went way off course, huh! Thanks for listening. How much art is too much art? I have no idea! Sorry if you were expecting an answer to this. The answer lies somewhere between here and paradise.