Monday, May 15, 2006

Do We Need a "Corporation for Public Games"?

Should there be a "Corporation for Public Games" in the United States? Do we need more public media, and should games be one of those media?

I would say no.

I'm not persuaded that the US should be increasing its share of state-sponsored broadcasting. A private, commercial mass media certainly has its problems, but becoming a bureaucratized institution like the BBC doesn't seem like an improvement.

Assuming we can accept the premises that art is of sufficient public value that funding it with money taken by taxation is appropriate, and that videogames are a valid art form, I think we can still question the "CPG" proposal on two grounds: propriety and efficacy.

"Games in the public interest" sounds to me like "the state should use its power to tax workers because they won't voluntarily give me money for my brilliant game." In other words, it sounds to me like yet another impatient attempt to bypass the marketplace.

If people aren't interested enough in some entertainment product (regardless of its artistic qualities) to be willing to buy it, who is wise enough to say that, well, these people don't know what's good for them and what we really need is another public, state-run bureaucracy to provide this game to them whether they like it or not?

In a nation founded on the principle that the power of the state should be limited, is it appropriate to expand that power for any trivial purpose? What necessity is addressed by allowing the state to compete with the private sector by providing games that are (in someone's opinion) good for us?

The argument from efficacy is that even if the intentions are good, the results will eventually wind up being not so good: power corrupts. Instead of trusting the marketplace to do its thing, state-run media forcibly extracts money from people so that a few elites can broadcast the messages they think the people should hear. Eventually it becomes impossible to resist using that power to push one's favored point of view. The unbalanced and hysterically over-the-top charges made by the Moyers and Totenbergs of NPR in the U.S., and the BBC's frequent anti-Bush editorializing, are merely recent examples of how state power over communications channels can be abused. Conservatives could just as easily install their own mouthpieces if they assumed power and decided to fight fire with fire.

Do we really need more of that? It's all very well when the state favors your political views, but how will you feel when you learn that your tax dollars are subsidizing "World of Limbaugh"?

I'm skeptical. I don't think there is any mandate for citizens to accept being forced to pay for yet another bureaucratic agency, and in particular I don't think a public game development institution is justifiable. Given the examples of CPB handouts thus far (some foolishly political subsidies among many worthwhile disbursements), it's unlikely that a similar institution would fund games that people would want to play. And given the degree to which game developers tend to be left of center politically, it's highly unlikely that such an institution -- if headed by people with any professional experience in game development -- would remain unpoliticized.

The odds of a Corporation for Public Gaming serving all the people effectively are just too poor to make such a suggestion a serious one. I think we're better off without a CPG.

Please note that this is not some philistinic, torch-and-pitchfork-wielding, "ban Big Bird" argument. The question isn't whether art is socially valuable -- it's whether government is the best or an appropriate source of such art.

Maybe next time we'll take up the "are videogames art?" question. :)

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