Sunday, December 5, 2021

Creativity and Capital

(First published in the Business section of the Jamaica Monitor November 28, 2021) 

I recently made my way through the book Significant Zero: Heroes, Villains, and the Fight for Art and Soul in Video Games. It was published in 2017 by Walt Williams a video game writer and executive of over ten years. He is experienced in creating Triple A (AAA) games, which are multimillion-dollar blockbuster games. Williams is candid and hardly holds anything back in the book, sharing the good and the bad, while giving the reader an insight into his rise in this industry in the US. This book is helpful if you are trying to understand the business side of the industry. I found several of his introspective analyses throughout the book extremely insightful and thought-provoking. If you are like me and you maintain a broad interest in the expansion of the Jamaican entertainment industry, I recommend this book to help in thinking of possibilities. 

Image Source: Getty Images

In the book, Walt makes the unequivocal declaration that video games are art, digital art, and I agree with him, few forms of art could be more contemporary. Tangentially, related to this digital field of art and entertainment is esports – another multimillion-dollar industry expression of digital culture – both of which are potentially available for exploration by us. Whereas video game development is not something that we have given emphasis to in Jamaica, I have very little doubt that we have the stories and the cultural material that could make entertaining brand Jamaica games. Having said this, the truth is, these fields are capital intensive, and so the reality is our ambitions for these sectors will of necessity be measured in the first instance until we can figure out our game for sourcing capital. 

It is on one of the discussions about funding and capital in Williams’ book that I want to reflect. Walt outlines for us the relationship between a video game developer and a video game publisher. Typically, game developers rely on video game publishers for funding the north of US$10m game development budgets - the largest game development budget reported to date is for Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) at US$174m. In these instances, the publisher is the entity that pulls the purse strings because they front the cost of development and promotion in exchange for the financial returns on the back end. This is not an unusual arrangement across entertainment sectors, and so what this gives rise to is something that I have heard raised many times in my over twenty years of working with creatives – can art for money possibly be as good as art for art’s sake. 

Significant Zero by Walt Willams

It is essentially an assumption that art and creativity on one hand are mutually exclusive to capital, and that those who possess capital cannot also possess genuine creativity and can contribute to good art. This I am sure will be an ongoing debate, but those who are up to learning how to employ their art in making money will be the winners of now. Of course, this means a willingness to share, if needs be, in the creative control, which I suspect is the challenge many artists have. But, sharing in the creative control does not automatically mean that your art will become bad art, unless the artist really thinks that those who possess money cannot possibly know what good art is, and that the financier does not wish for the artist to succeed. This is a sinister disposition, but in my experience it holds true. We somehow still believe that capital is creatively bereft, while artists are perfect stewards of their own talent. 

If Jamaican creatives want to expand their reach and utilize their art across a wider range of entertainment sectors then there has to be a greater effort in moving them to greater levels of collaboration and trust for capital, because it is those with the capital who have the resources to empower the creatives to reach levels they usually won’t accomplish slogging away by themselves. Buying into this may require an ideological shift, to go corporate, and to aggressively pursue the goal of making money by making art. Williams assures us that there is nothing wrong with that, and uses words in reference to video game development which I think are useful to include here for their relevance. He writes, “Greed and artistic intent are not mutually exclusive, …we all have bills to pay, creating marketable games with broad appeal does not make you a greedy [capitalist]. The reverse is also true, creating pure vision-driven games does not exclude you from being a money-grubbing credit-hogging [detestable person]. If developers aren't necessarily pure of heart, then we can't assume publishers are devoid of it.” In other words, if artists and creatives aren’t necessarily pure of heart, then we can’t assume financiers and capitalists are lacking a well-meaning or a sincere heart. 

My point, therefore, is we need to revisit some of the assumptions we have about capital and the nature of the relationships we should encourage creatives to cultivate with capital in the contemporary period. For us, Garveyite praxis was an early nudge in the modern era that capital would be essential to economic success, and our creatives cannot afford to ignore that message now. The nature of art has expanded beyond the traditional into the capital-intensive digital space where if brand Jamaica is to maintain a presence on Jamaica’s own terms then the way Jamaicans think about the business of art, culture, and entertainment will need an update. 

Kam-Au Amen has several years of combined industry experience across the areas of business management, brand licensing, media production, and eCommerce. He is the conceptualizer and first coordinator of the pioneering BA in Entertainment and Cultural Enterprise Management at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.