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Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Kukier claim in Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think that the use of big data is so pervasive, so effective, and so radical that it is fundamentally changing the empirical process across practically every discipline from emphasizing the “why” to the “what”. That is, human beings need not be concerned with the causal mechanisms that underly correlations so long as we can observe and apply them; further, these correlations should give rise to our scientific theories and experiments rather than the other way around. This kind of shift would completely change how we think about the challenges we regularly come across in our lives, not to mention the hundreds of industries that have an ever-stronger grip on everything we do. The essay Narrative Architecture and Big Data by Jacob Stern claims that this shift will translate to video games, incentivizing an emphasis on sales as opposed to depth and complexity.  In contrast, according to principles of Ranciere’s democratic paradox, big data does not pose a threat to innovation and creativity within video games as an artistic medium because emphasis on sales and emphasis on game quality are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This is idea fundamental to the game industry and player culture, which rendering the distinctions Stern makes between games developed for the masses or created for their own sake largely invalid.

In order to understand the democratic paradox as it relates to video games, we must first understand its implications as a sociopolitical construct. Rancière presents the idea first as a truism that is relatively intuitive: the democratic government is threatened by the excess of social/political activity it needs in order to function properly. Social/political activity must be somehow regulated in order to keep the government and society stable, which makes most democracies as we know them today actually aristocracies with the approval of the masses. The conception of the paradox pits democracy as a form of government against democracy as a form of social and political life; however, as Rancière argues, it from this very notion—this separation between the government and the people—from which a much truer, much more profound paradox arises. If democracy is defined by the absence of grounds or qualifications for power, then everyone should have the opportunity to exercise this power equally; to move between universals and particulars, between citizen and man, to challenge the order society follows. In this type of society, he claims, the function of political activity to challenge this order and the function of control and policing to maintain it are inherently intertwined. Democratic government is not threatened by social and political life, but indistinguishable from social and political life, making Democracy the institution of politics as such. Political activity thus becomes a struggle against categorization, putting these boundaries into play and disrupting them.

Stern claims that big data will incentivize “pop” games based on sales and other types of consumer data (such as non-substantive additions to already lucrative franchises) over more innovative “independent” games designed purely out of creative spirit (e.g. indie games). He/she is implying that video games as an art form are threatened by games as a product; however, games as a product and video games as an art form are not so neatly separated either.

Perhaps the clearest way the video game market exhibits the democratic paradox is in the sense that, just as policy and institution are both legitimized and delegitimized by the people who make them up, the video game market is both legitimized and delegitimized by those who make it up. That is to say two things: players’ response and sales already have an enormous impact on which types of games are created and which are not, but more importantly, players both give rise to the market’s existence and render it powerless to quantify a game’s artistic value because they are just as capable of judging as those who created it. (Policies and institutions function in the same way; while the peoples’ approval determines whether or not policies are enacted, the people as a whole both give rise to these policies and render them powerless because those the policies governs have equal grounds to rule as those who wrote it.) This is exemplified by games which are not quite as immensely popular as those in the top tier, but have massive cult followings which validate their artistic genius and encourage innovation and experimentation. For example, Supergiant Games received massive praise for their cult hit Bastion, known for its incredible aesthetic beauty and high quality of gameplay despite a relatively traditional post-apocalyptic story. However, instead of following that simply with a game of the same type, the studio produced an equally beautiful game called Transistor with deeper characters and a more complex narrative that defies video game and scientific conventions while challenging the player to experiment and develop unique combat styles. While these games may never enjoy the sales of games such as Titanfall or Call of Duty, this does not discourage the developers in any way from continuing to create incredibly well made and thought provoking games.

The line between creators and consumers of video games is also becoming less and less defined as many companies such as Bossa Studios are making player feedback an integral part of the game creation process, while subcultures surrounding particular games based in YouTube playthroughs, commentaries, and other related fan content can become an integral part of the player’s experience. For example, we discussed gold farming in World of Warcraft and how the game’s economy became increasingly intertwined with that of the real world, which drastically impacted how certain players participated in the game and what they got out of it. This is not limited to MMOs, however; it takes place across genres, content, and fan bases. Super Smash Bros, Nintendo’s immensely popular fighting franchise showcasing the company’s most iconic characters, has a very active professional competitive scene and wildly dedicated fan communities surrounding it. In the case of sandbox games such as Minecraft or god games such as Civilization, among many others, mods and DLC (downloadable content) created by players form huge proportions of the games’ content (Minecraft has a number of unique online servers containing player-created worlds that are dedicated to particular styles of play as well).

Finally, Just as political action is the disruption and putting into play of lines that divide categories of people, innovation in the game world often involves the disruption and putting into play of lines that divide categories of games (as well as other forms of media). Henry Jenkins frames these boundaries in terms of franchises such as Star Wars or Pokémon that traverse media as parts of what he calls a “larger narrative system.” In Game Design as Narrative Architecture, he describes these systems as unique domains “which [depend] less on each individual work being self-sufficient than on each work contributing to a larger narrative economy.” Aspects of the narrative structure are experienced in different ways through different media to create a broader, more complex, and more fleshed out universe and story. “In such a system, what games do best will almost certainly center around their ability to give concrete shape to our memories and imaginings of the storyworld, creating an environment we can wander through and interact with,” again according to Jenkins. These boundaries can also be disrupted within games themselves; for example, The Stanley Parable combines the rigid path structures of a choose-your-own-adventure book, the panoptic gaze of an omniscient narrator, and the illusion of freedom of an RPG to create an incredibly witty and insightful commentary on traditional video game tropes as well as remarkably self-aware commentary on choice and authority.

All of these modes of interaction prove that video games as an art form and video games as a product are not two distinct realms. By extension, it cannot be assumed that Big Data will cheapen the artistic depth of video games and reduce them to empty pieces of entertainment because they are fundamentally intertwined. The future of these games will see innovation and experimentation just as much as response consumer feedback—often in the same places—and we must embrace this interplay to allow their full creative potential to be realized.  In Jenkins’ words, “there is not one future of games. The goal should be to foster diversification of genres, aesthetics, and audiences, to open gamers to the broadest possible range of experiences.”