The language that we use to discuss things also influences our ability to think about them because the frame of reference becomes inherently bound up in that language. Locally, one of the main ways we talk about games, from the industry side at least, is bound up in the idea of original I.P. versus work for hire, with that discussion also spilling out into our audience. You don’t have to dig far on tsumea to find a heated debate on the perceived merits of original I.P.
But film-makers, novellists, and musicians don’t talk about creating original I.P., so what makes us different? I’d argue nothing – just the frames of reference we’ve built around the discussion. Those other mediums might talk specifically about engaging audiences, but they also have their strong creative voices saying ‘make the sorts of things you want to see’.
This post isn’t an attempt to say that isn’t important to foster and develop original projects, but more an exploration of what that process might mean and ways we can look at reframing the core of that discussion beecause when you step away from it, what are we talking about when we say IP?
When you pull a wikipedia, there’s nothing that really illuminates what is being talked about. Is it the characters, the world, the game mechanics itself? Is it some sort of exploitable elements that can transition into other forms, something frequently touted but which rarely if ever materialises? It’s potentially all of these things – or none of them – which is a real danger because this call for original I.P. has become an abstraction from what should really be focused on – which I’d argue is the game itself – and an abstraction which emerges from another: the description of ourselves as an industry.
Both of these uses of language sets up certain expectations – whether intentional or not – in how we discuss our work. Industry conjures up images, whether true or not, of replaceable cogs, of machines producing easily repeatable product, of a clear path of training and careers. Original IP conjures up, at least in my mind, images of nothing because it is something inherently intangible. It has no boundaries, and that’s what makes it a difficult thing to discuss. If I’m writing a novel, I know the strengths and weaknesses of what I can do within the form. If I’m creating IP, what are the edges? What are the strengths and weaknesses of what I can evoke? What do I really mean? Tell me I’m making a game, and suddenly, I know the parameters, have 30 years of experience to draw on, and a clear sense of the possibilities.
This isn’t to say that you can’t build an industry out of a cultural form, because there is certainly evidence that you can, and not that you can’t develop and exploit I.P., because there is evidence for that too. My argument is that we need to look beyond the words we use to find others that fully describe our intent in that development because this use of specific words & descriptions restricts not only our ability to evaluate the industry itself and what we produce, but also our ability to critically engage with our own culture – which is at the heart of what I think these series of posts are about, finding the words that express the thoughts we need to properly and honestly talk about the medium.
So, I think it’s about time we staked out our claims for specific words that more adequately explain what we do, and also if we need to, to reframe what those words can mean. It’s time that we found ways to better establish the boundaries of the conversation about our place in the culture, establishment, and how we relate to other forms. It’s time that we reevaluated our use of language and became clear about what we do. Original IP is important, but it’s only important if we can see beyond that to the heart of making a specific game with a clear emotional arc that’s delivered through identifiable mechanics and narrative. By the same token, industry is important, but only if it’s part of a broader framework of culture, art, and community.
And I think this is important because culture isn’t defined by I.P. There may be elements within a title or a franchise such as a character or a moment or a story that could be described as I.P., but audiences respond to things in a far more visceral, experiential way to how they were moved or transported or affected emotionally. Movies can do that, books can do that, songs can do that, and games can do that. I.P. on its own can’t.