Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Culture Shock: Citations in Games?

When an Academic writes a research paper, the paper generally cites a large number of sources. This serves several purposes:
  • The more sources a paper cites, the more legitimacy it appears to have at first glance, since it is building on established material. Especially if it cites sources that are already well-known and established in the field.
  • The more papers that cite a specific source, the more weight is given to that source, and the more prestige to its author(s).
  • It helps avoid claims of plagiarism, copyright infringement, etc.

Ultimately, it benefits the creators of the cited work and the new work.

Games don't really do this. In the industry, an obviously derivative game tends to not list the game it's derived from in the credits, even under "special thanks". Sadly, this is even the case in direct sequels, where the team that built the original engine may get no mention in the credits of the sequel. The closest we get is paying homage to an older game by including an easter egg as a direct reference.

It struck me the other day just how wrong this was, when a student of mine pointed me to a game called Bubble Tanks. This game is an extremely obvious ripoff of Jenova Chen's flOw: both take place in water, both have relaxing background music, both let you grow by defeating enemies and shrink by getting hurt, both send you back to easier areas if you get hurt too much. Bubble Tanks adds the ability to shoot, and that's about it. And yet, Bubble Tanks makes no mention of flOw, either in the main screen or in its credits. "Special thanks to Jenova Chen for inspiration" would have been appropriate, no?

The issue is even muddier in this particular case, since flOw was part of a graduate student project, as the practical application of a written thesis. If Bubble Tanks were also a thesis project, you can bet there'd be some serious allegations of academic dishonesty; and if flOw were simply a commercial project everyone would call one or the other a "clone" and be done with it. But when a game crosses boundaries from Academia to Industry, then what? (Not to mention that flOw was commercialized; you can play it if you have a PS3.)

What do you all think? Should commercial games be required (or at least encouraged) to list the games that inspired them in their credits somewhere? I think it'd be useful, in that it would make it easier for Game Studies folks to trace the history of games and game mechanics... but at the same time, I don't see it happening any time soon. Which brings up another question: why the difference between academic projects and commercial ones?

No comments: