Recently I del.icio.us'd a link to David Rejeski discussing the value of a corporation for public service gaming (in the US). We Brits have such a corporation, of course, in the British Broadcasting Corporation which, since its inception in the 1920s has done far more than just broadcast. The BBC makes television and radio shows, as well as hugely useful inventions, a walloping great website (and websites), content-on-demand, games of all sorts, commercial stuff (but not with public money, as I understand it), fundraising, interactive education, and a whole bunch of other interests that I've either forgotten about or never even knew about in the first place.
Disclaimer: a reminder that the following is entirely my own personal opinion, not that of my employer's, and should not be taken in any way to be the BBC's take on things.
While the US realises (rather ruefully perhaps) that public service media is a bit of a good thing, over the pond the BBC has recently been considering its future, and what public service actually means for the Corporation-that-does-far-more-than-broadcast. Putting aside the curiousness of a 'television license' - why just television? - and the fact that the corporation is currently stuck with the word broadcast in its name, many people have asked the question, or a variation of: "Should the BBC be doing games?"
Should the BBC, as a broadcaster, be doing games? Should the BBC, as a powerful creative content producer, be doing games? Should the BBC, as a public service entity with an understood remit to Educate, Inform and Entertain, be doing games?
And what's a public service game, anyway?
I LOVE this subject. And, because I haven't done this out here before, here's my take on things to date. I'm going to start with the last question from the group above, because I think it's the most important one, then work backwards to the least important one in context: whether the BBC should be making games of any kind at all. And like I said before, this is all my own opinion here. I'm more than open to a good discussion about it too, especially if said discussions involve cocktails and yelling.
1. What's a public service game?
My favourite question, and here's my view: a public service game is one that provides or creates a public good. Yes, that actually can just mean a good game. Oh that's convenient, you say, but let me explain: a fine, good game, one that will be remembered, one that does not necessarily pander to the already-popular but maybe creates "popular", one that can stand proud as a quality piece of work, and one that doesn't befuddle, sell soap or disinform. I'd say that was a work of public good, and if it's a game, so be it.
Commercial entities can therefore produce such games, and do so all the time (Lego Star Wars, anyone?), although maybe not explicitly. But perhaps if there were a public service entity producing such games, then that public service entity should strive to produce only such games? In brief, quality and originality, free of advertising and sponsorship bias, free of political bias, and where possible, free at the point of consumption, too.
Lastly, of course, public service creations should go where others haven't dared to tread (yet); they should experiment on behalf of the commercial industry as well as customers interested in the new, the alternative or the different.
Public service creations should strive to quest out at the edges, and bring back news of gold or inclement weather for the benefit of others. Public service entities are, after all, millions of tiny investments by the Many: they should risk more because they can afford to, and they should share those lessons and insights with everyone else. Yes, everyone else.
2. Should the BBC, as a public service entity with an understood remit to Educate, Inform and Entertain, be doing games?
Is a computer or video game capable of educating, informing or entertaining? Yes. Could a computer or video game speak to certain audience types or moods better than television or radio shows could? Yes. Do audiences want to spend some of their time playing games rather than watching television or listening to radio or browsing websites? Yes.
Is there an independent UK development industry that the BBC could work with? Yes. Is there a demand for high quality games? Well, yes, judging by the continuing rise in sales. Is that demand being fulfilled by commercial activity alone? This question is key. What do you think? Does it matter?
Should public service media only do what commercial media won't or can't? If so, the huge majority of public service output, including Doctor Who, Radio 1 and EastEnders, wouldn't exist. Oh, I'm sure there's someone out there who thinks this would be a good thing, but I doubt they're the entire country.
Would this sort of action "skew the market"? Only if the BBC were to somehow produce hugely successful triple-A games in-house .. without spending money in the UK industry .. and whilst muscling out commercial entities trying to do the same thing .. and stifling demand for any games other than those created by the BBC. My answer is therefore No, it wouldn't.
3. Should the BBC, as a creative content producer, be doing games?
Storytelling is a good talent of the BBC's. It has decades of experience telling stories, making people laugh, creating worlds, producing award-winning dialogue as well as visual and audio treats. It nurtures home-grown talent, and exports the work of that talent abroad.
However, the BBC's decades of experience are not yet in the digital world of interactive storytelling. I would even go so far as to say that no-one's single-handedly cracked it yet, although Marc Laidlaw, David Jaffe and a comparatively small handful of other folk have come screamingly close, hampered, I think, only by technology.
I'm saying comparatively here: compare film and television dialogue to that found in the average videogame and while games like God of War are eye-openingly marvellous, they're not quite Pulp Fiction in the dialogue department. We can expect this to rapidly change: movie and television talent can bring better performances to games, just as game talent can bring mystery and playfulness to shows. The talent agencies are there already.
Most importantly though, the BBC has an obligation to reach all of its license-fee paying households. If there are household members who prefer games to television and radio, then the BBC ought to be providing to them on the platforms and mediums they favour, whether they're spin-offs (where is that Doctor Who game?) or original content. As Simon says,
The cultural reference point for the next generation will be YouTube rather than Bleak House.
4. Should the BBC, as a broadcaster, be doing games?
Broadcaster schmordcaster! The BBC should broadly cast its public money about onto the best mediums and platforms for its customers, the license-fee payers. Yes, a broadlycaster, please, forgive me. If those customers want games (or movies, or television, or websites), then they must have them, and in various forms and formats.
As it stands, the BBC produces all such things, with commercial investment for the more ambitious and expensive projects. The balance of the public money spent is an intriguing one, and the majority will continue to go on news and television, I'm sure: but adjustments need to be made going forwards in the light of the popularity of certain newer genres and platforms.
Commercial investment does mean, of course, that the fingers of commercial concern begin to touch any projects in development. "Will it make money?" will come to the fore, hopefully not before "Will it be any good?" but sometimes such is the way of things. See Tomb Raider 3 through what was it, 7?, for examples of this. Or any Uwe Boll film. Or Star Wars Episodes 1-2 for that matter.
Here's the crux of it all though, if you're still with me.
If the BBC were to stand up and proclaim that it were to produce 'public service games' from here on in, it would be a disaster. Does it proclaim that it produces public service drama? No it doesn't. How about public service Doctor Who, or public service Strictly Come Dancing? Public Service Teletubbies?
If David Rejeski's corporation were to be formed in the USA - and it certainly would be interesting to see that happen - I'm sure that it would want to remain quietly in the background of game development, certainly not spending $$$ on flashy logos or television adverts.
"Public Service Media" probably suffers too much from being tagged as 'worthy' for it ever to have a public persona. Public service media should be like a cod liver oil pill: life-enhancing and good for you, as long as you can't taste it. A public service game can range from a quality web-based bit of fun to a multi-million-pound commercial co-production for the expensive stuff (much like Rome, a BBC & HBO co-pro TV show), but must have a primary focus on quality and integrity, not just a fast buck.
(Thanks to Jem for sending me the Simon link, which kicked this whole thing off: and yes, I totally agree with Simon - state-subsidised games for growing broadband takeup was nutty, and entirely moot.)
Over to you for corrections, improvements, and cocktail recipes.