Back in the days, when I was a freshly graduated history master, unable to find any decent job, I worked at a commercial TV channel. Friends and family where thrilled – TV! In reality I was the assistant to an assistant and spent my days brooding over excel charts, trying not to mess up the formulas that projected the company’s profits and losses.
This was a short and insignificant yet very instructive epoch of my professional career. The people I was working with were well educated, culturally aware and basically very nice. The programme they were making was sexist, prejudiced and , well, dumb. Noisy afternoon talkshows, trashy tv series, stuff with tits all over …
So, how could they do this? Create something they themselves would never be able to enjoy? I think the key to this is to build up a high level of professional cynicism combined with a religious adoration of marketing figures. Every morning yesterday’s viewer ratings where handed to the CFO like the Holy Grail to King Arthur. Everything my colleagues did, was in adoration of this Holy Grail of commercial success.
Of course they needed good ratings, they had to live, and all that. But they tried to achieve success by constantly lowering the standards of their programme. And here is the basic problem: They tried to create something for “the masses”, the “majority”, whatever this may be. They would never have thougtht of themselves as members of the group they were producing for. I suspect that, apart from figures about their target group’s consumer behaviour, they did not know a thing about their audience. Businesspeople, who have better options than spending the afternoon in front of the tv just assume that the afternoon watchers are dumb. So let’s just drown them in rubbish! Make them even dumber!
And this is where videogames come in. I read some articles on game developer Jonathan Blow’s statement that most popular videogames are dumb. There was a lot of discussion about this. I do not even want to go there, since I actually do and did not play many “popular” videogames, so I have no real base for a qualified statement. But I visited GamesCom in Cologne the last two years and when looking at what the big studios showed the public I was really amazed how generic the aesthetics were. There seems to be one mainstream style that everybody in the industry thinks will sell.
I actually suppose that part of the problem here is that all these games are targeted to a specific audience. And this target audience, be it teenage girls, young males between 16 and 25 or middle aged housewifes, is fed exactly what the people in the suits think they would buy. Based, of course, on all kinds of market research.
So, pre-teenage girls get games about how to style your hair or how to be a model, the predominant colour being pink. Games for young males feature violence and boobs. Stereotyped targeting seems to suffocate any creativity. I think there again is the problem of people creating something for a group they only see in terms of marketing figures.
I must admit, I have no idea how an AAA-production – given the astronomic development costs - could address a mass market and in the same place stay artistically unique and deliver a narrative that is not just some generic remake of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings.
But I think it would help to not constantly underestimate the audience.
Sara Paretsky, a very successful author of crime novels, who introduced one of the very ﬁrst tough female investigators, was once asked for whom she was writing her books. Ms Paretsky replied, that she liked to imagine her ideal reader being a student who, instead of studying for her homework, reads Paretsky’s novels. And yet learns something.