An Exercise in Futility
Console launches are traditionally well orchestrated media circuses complete with pomp, circumstance and a whole host of B-list celebrities. Games companies stake the reputation of their product on the implementation of a rapturous launch ceremony and, quite helpfully, the media lap up the glitzy affair with the gusto of a famished feline in a milking parlour. It might surprise you then that in the second half of this year a console will quietly step into the market, being careful not to tread on too many toes, or steal too much of the limelight. Unless you went looking for this console you’d probably never find it. It is called the iSec and unless it sells over one million units it will only ever be available in China.
At first glance, the iSec appears to be little more that an amalgamation of a Nintendo Wii and the Xbox Kinnect camera. Its main user interface is similar to that of Microsoft’s motion detection unit and many of the launch titles are reminiscent of basic party games; dancing and bowling and so on. It would be fair to say that it all looks very rudimentary at this phase in its development. That’s not to say that I feel the iSec will not sell well, quite the opposite in fact. Both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 are banned in China as the government fear the consoles will taint the youth of the nation. The Nintendo Wii has managed to smuggle its way into Chinese living rooms due to the obtuse law being almost impossible to implement, so the console marketplace is wide open.
Console gaming in China must feel like a fruitless activity. Disregarding efforts of the smuggelers, gamers in China have a disappointing variety of cheap, knock-off hardware with which to while away the minutes on. The PS3 inspired ‘Winner’, the ‘i-dong’ and the suspiciously titled ‘Vii’ all boast similar features and functions to their better known counterparts, but with a library of games that make them appear little more than children’s playthings than fully-formed media hubs. So will this raft of doppelgangers ever reach our shores? Unless the smugglers somehow get their wires crossed, I imagine here in England we’ll never get to witness the capabilities of an ‘i-dong’ in full flight. It won’t be down to import duties or logistical limitations. It won’t even be due to an overbearing state imposing its archaic foreign policy laws on business and industry. What will hold these consoles back is an unnerving lack of creativity in both the design and implementation of the iSec games catalogue.
Creative output in China seems to have much more jeopardy attached to it than in the rest of the World. A risky decision in the development of any creative process could result in the success or failure of that particular project. The poor implementation of a creative decision in China, however, could land you in a gulag for an unspecified amount of time with only endless amounts of ‘re-education through labour’ to look forward to. The plight of Chinese artists and creative types has recently come into the spotlight due to the detention and subsequent disappearance of Ai Weiwei, creator of the famous Bird’s Nest stadium used in the 2008 summer Olympics. The treatment of Ai has managed to breech every major media outlet and outrage humanitarian groups across the globe. His infamy as an artist was highlighted last year with an installation in the London Tate Modern gallery which comprised of millions of hand painted porcelain sunflower seeds. Due to the notoriety of his work, many thought Weiwei would circumnavigate the stringent laws set out by the Chinese government.
They were wrong.
Weiwei had fallen victim to the same system that which had entrapped many of his artistic comrades: the same system that inhibits the very existence of free speech and free expression. It is in this environment that a games industry is attempting to flourish. Imagine the struggle developers are going to have to create a game that attempts to be anything other than utterly banal.
It is possible that in the West we take creative freedom and the lack of state intervention for granted. The argument of whether video games should be considered as art will rage on for some time yet, but we must remember that the main foundation of contemporary art is that it is created precisely as the artist intended. The intervention of an outside element, be they political, financial or ideological, will only serve to diminish the original intention of the piece. Games such as Ico, Okami and Shadow Of The Colossus are often mooted as arguments for the ascension of gaming, but this is usually due to the high concept design of the graphics. Games which have a much more traditional design, but serve as purer statements of creativity and individuality are much more relevant to the argument of gaming as art. Many of these achievements would not have been possible without a state urging free trade and commercial creativity.
Videogames should be classified as a valid art form. Art can be described by a million different definitions in a million different tongues, but ultimately, a creative output which is divisive and expressive can be labelled as nothing else. China’s videogame market is silently and clumsily moving forward, replicating ideas and mimicking design. It’s a sad state of affairs and quite comical in the eyes of the average Western gamer. The guidelines and potential violations which a game can become banned for are rather eye opening. Threatening national unity, damaging the nation’s glory and portraying animals as dominant over humans are all reasons games have been banned in the Peoples Republic. Heaven knows what they made of Planet of the Apes?
It’s not hard to see why I hold little hope for the likes of the i-dong or the iSec. Even with the potential audience of 1.3 billion, the restrictions imposed by the government and the lack of international third-party development will stifle these consoles immeasurably. Quite frankly, I can’t imagine the ideologically-elite gaming community (if there is one) will harbour much affection towards the development of what are essentially an amalgamation of stolen intellectual property. What it does show is an interest in digital creativity from a people who have limitations enforced on their basic civil and human rights. With the proliferation of the internet, digital media has become more and more difficult to censor or restrict in China, and online videogames have become a way for many Chinese to interact and express themselves to the rest of the World.
So what is to be done? Nothing really, apart from signing a petition to free Ai Weiwei and casting a disapproving glare at China’s shocking human rights record. We will continue playing our games and the Chinese will continue playing theirs; indifferent to the last. One point is worth mentioning however. If we want video games to continue to develop and thrive we must allow for creativity in all its forms. Occasionally this may manifest itself in peculiar ways and breakthroughs may appear when we least expect them, but the important thing is – they do appear. Videogame design has developed purely because we have allowed it to. Open mindedness is a gift which gives us the chance to better our creative output. If this is restricted in any way then we cease to produce relevant art (if that’s what you want to call it.) The Chinese government has restricted the output of its most creative minds, and the existence of a videogames industry which falls well short of the benchmark proves it.