From The Vault: Pixelated Art

Ok campers, this has been an interesting day, content creation-wise. While I had stated yesterday that I'll be looking at citizen science and crowdfunding of scientific research, that topic needs more time and attention than I can provide in one day, so that will be coming up on Monday. And my back-up plan has hit some snags as well. As I'm writing this, it's after midnight and I could stay up late to make something shoddy, or I could access... THE VAULT.

The Vault is essentially my hard drive where old essays and schoolwork lingers with a promise to turn into something magical. Today's offering from The Vault is about video games.

Context: I minored in English in my undergrad, and this was an essay for a course called Canadian Literature and Culture: Contemporary Cultural Texts which focused on the documents that guide today's cultural offerings in Canada. My essay was on video game production in Canada, and if they are considered art, and as such, are subject to Canadian content norms. Coming in at just over 2200 words, it's one of my favourite essays (the other is about David Hasselhoff, and will probably be put up here in due time). I've maintained the MLA citation style and bibliography, but I've added hyperlinks where they make sense. I haven't gone over the content in depth, so if you see something that is outdated, 1) this was written in 2012, and 2) let me know and I'll update it! Enjoy, and I'll see you tomorrow with the news update.


Canadian Video Games as a Form of Canadian Culture

When the unknown and unnamed arbitrators of Canadian culture declare its accepted mediums, the more conventional forms found in popular and fine art tend to make the cut: the written word, visual art, music, film, television, and performance. Missing from this group is the digital, more specifically, video games. Video games are a more recent form of entertainment, and are slowly beginning to be appreciated as both an art as well as an economic force within Canada. The video game industry in Canada had a quiet start, but following booms of provincial and federal subsidization, it has been able to become an industry on par with that of music production.

What remains to be seen, however, is how a Canadian identity can be represented by video games and their production within Canada. This depends not only on how mainstream media portrays video games within Canadian culture, but also how the medium is treated by retailers and well as levels of government. Only by improving these aspect of the industry will video games become a pillar on which the tenets of Canadian culture rests.

A Brief History of the Canadian Video Game Industry

Remaining consistent with other discussions on the subject, the term “Canadian video game industry” encompasses Canadian-located companies that develop, publish, and/or distribute video and computer games (Dyer-Witheford and Sharman 190). These companies can range from an enterprise of less than 10 people to a major studio employing over 150 people (189). The geographic spread of these studios is typical of Canadian development, with a large amount of studios in urban centers such as Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, and very few in the northern part of the country (191). There is a surprising amount in the Prairies and Atlantic regions given the relatively young age and small numbers of the industry (191).

One of the first major studios to arrive in Canada did so with the help of provincial and federal assistance, and set the tone for later subsidiaries to form on Canadian soil. When the French company Ubisoft sought a North American office, Quebec lobbyist Sylvain Vaugeois sensed an unparalleled opportunity to promote further investment and intellectual capital in Montreal (Tremblay and Rousseau 307).

Initially denied by the Quebec government on the grounds of cost, Vaugeois went to Paris himself and delivered the prospects to Ubisoft, who were under the assumption that the provincial government would back this plan (308). Following some back and forth and plenty of face-saving, and even an opposing bid from New Brunswick, the Quebec government sealed the deal with Ubisoft on an employment subsidy agreement with financial help from the federal government (308). With a five-year plan for the creation of 500 jobs, Ubisoft was given $25,000 per job created, and Ubisoft Montreal is now the largest subsidiary of the company (309).

Other studios have been able to establish themselves in Canada through indirect subsidies that are not specific to the video game industry. This includes national grants from the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Program (SR&ED) and the National Research Council of Canada's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP) (Dyer-Witheford and Sharman 198). Because these granting bodies are not specifically for the benefit of the video game industry, this lessens the pool available for companies and represents an obstacle to most companies starting out. Once a company has made it, the benefit far outweighs the costs associated with starting up a company, as shown through Edmonton’s own BioWare.

BioWare, originally an independent studio formed in 1995, is right up there with other Canadian developers in terms of output, recognition, and profit (Dyer-Witheford and Sharman 193). Following several successful releases from BioWare, Electronic Arts, a large Los Angeles-based conglomerate, bought it alongside another firm from Australia in a deal worth approximately $860 million (Fritz). In the deal, BioWare was able to maintain its own direction while being able to reach a larger market, an enviable trait among developers that are bought out. While the sale of an independent Canadian company to multinationals is not the best way to promote a Canadian industry, it does show that the industry is profitable and desired.

Independent studios are not going out of fashion any time soon. While Montreal and Vancouver have the lion’s share of large-scale studios, Toronto is the home to many small-scale independent studios that are able to cater to smaller yet still profitable markets (Dyer-Witheford and Sharman 193; Webster 36). Able to serve emerging markets such as smartphone gaming platforms, independent studios in Toronto have also been able to take advantage of granting opportunities at a municipal and provincial level unavailable to larger corporations (Webster 36).

Interaction with Other Industries

Video games do not appear fully formed from a room of developers, although developers do make a lot of the magic happen. When all of the architectural aspects of a video game are considered, from its conception to its distribution, several other industries are involved, including those that are considered more traditionally representative of Canadian culture. Illustrators, graphic designers, writers, musicians, actors, and even personal performers (such as for motion capture) are brought into the process, and depending on the hiring strategy of the company, local talent has the opportunity to be brought in first.

For musicians interested in getting their original work into video games, they have the option of licensing their work, or underscoring directly for the title (King 43). These opportunities are actively being promoted in professional conferences and magazines across the country (42-46). Writers are a large part of video game design, whether its plot, action, or dialogue (48). Mark Meer is a well-known actor within the Edmonton theatre scene, but he is also the voice of the lead character in the Mass Effect series, the male Commander Shepard (the game allows for the user to select their gender, so Meer has a female counter-part in Canadian-born Jennifer Hale) (Bissell 49).

However, this large crossover of artisans represents its own governance challenges for those within the video game industry. While the industry itself has a lobby organization (the Entertainment Software Association of Canada), there is no effective union for workers within the industry, and while artists such as writers and musicians have the option to join their own guilds outside of the video game industry, there are no comparable options to designers, developers, testers, and other non-artisan positions (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 612).

Issues brought up by critics of the industry include institutionalized sexism, absurdly high productivity quotas at deadlines, and even lawsuits for unpaid wages (612). While strictly “union neutral,” the International Game Developers Network attempts to serve as an independent third party that workers can work with in order to advocate for issues that arise (613). While it remains to be seen if this is enough for those within the industry, companies would rather deal with issues themselves before unionization has a chance to occur based on dissatisfaction (613).

Mainstream Media: Friend or Foe of the Industry?

When it comes to media coverage of the video game industry and its customers, mainstream media coverage is often dismissive to the art value of video games. Customers are called nerds or typically illustrated as lonely men in basements (Shimo). Political headlines involving video games are often those denouncing the violence found within a certain subset of video games (Dehaas). Video games and the lengths that some are willing to go to play can inspire full features in national magazines that reduce video games to at best, a distraction, and at worst, an avenue for addiction (Campbell and Gatehouse). While these aspects are supported with expert opinion and personal accounts, it is hard to find articles that go beyond the economic gains and negative effects of games and instead focus on their artistic value and cultural worth.

One exception to this rule is Victor Lucas. Though he is just one man, Lucas has been able to turn video game coverage into a Canadian mini-empire, with television shows such as Electric Playground, Reviews on the Run, and numerous making-of documentaries, all running from his production company, Greedy Productions Ltd. (Electric Playground). Additionally, Greedy Productions has hosted the Canadian Videogame Awards since 2010, which is broadcast on G4TV, a Canadian premium station available across most of Canada that focuses on pop culture, entertainment, and above all, video games (Canadian Videogame Awards). Having an awards structure and ceremony equal to others in Canada (for example, The Junos for Canadian music), allows for both fans and members of the industry to celebrate success of video games as well as promote an artistic and culturally significant quality found in the games. All of the aforementioned shows and productions also have a heavy web presence, and make good use of social media as well as some corporate tie-ins without getting direct funding from video game companies, allowing all processes to be independent (Electric Playground, Canadian Videogame Awards). This web presence is echoed innumerably across several blogs that exist devoted to video games, though the exact number and influence is not known.

Towards a Canadian Content Model

While the Massey Commission’s final report came out several decades before video games became an influence in the Canadian market, its findings are just as important for the video game industry as it was for film, radio, and periodicals. Without support for Canadian creativity and production, the American influence may become a dependency that Canada is unable to free itself from (Government of Canada). In 1961, regulations on the minimum amount of Canadian content required by national broadcasters were put into effect, and Canadian content regulations are still present today in television and radio (Edwardson 90). Regulations such as this are put in place to ensure that Canadians have access and exposure to Canadian content, and are part of an effort to preserve Canadian culture. While it is more difficult for this model to be shifted onto video games, the principles behind the way these decisions are represented in the market are worth looking into.

For example, in a Canadian record store, there is usually a section for Canadian artists or signs or stickers that indicate Canadian content, sometimes both. Walking into a store that sells video games, however, this is not the case, and it is near impossible to tell from the packaging or marketing of a game if it is Canadian or not. This is one area where visibility of Canadian products is the issue that could easily by solved, however, it would be a voluntary action of the distributor and/or retailer. If consumers are not aware of Canada’s thriving video game industry and the titles that have been released from it, they’re not going to actively appreciate it as a form of Canadian culture.

Canadian developers themselves are known to sneak in Canadian references here and there, such as in exchanges between minor characters or design elements of the game, but in terms of an overarching, purely Canadian game, it has yet to hit the market (Dyer-Witheford and Sharman 195). Such a game should not even be considered the gold standard of what a Canadian game is, as Canada is a wide range of people and ideas; it cannot truly be captured accurately without using historically-enforced stereotypes that are ultimately more damaging to Canadian culture.

What may be lacking is support at different levels of government that is not purely monetary. While the presence of video game developers in Canada has been shown to be beneficial, there is little to show in terms of recognizable appreciation from the surrounding communities. For instance, if Edmonton is the Festival City, where is a festival devoted to all aspects of video games and the Canadian industry (art, design, impact, etc.), especially those located in Edmonton?

The closest that has occurred is a player-organized LAN (local area network) party (Shimo). Described as the largest Canadian LAN gathering, those involved were met with sarcasm and derision from the resulting article. It has since been renamed Fragapalooza, and despite it’s growing attendance, lacks municipal or provincial support and is now held in Leduc, just south of Edmonton (Fragapalooza). While similar promotion and support is given to other forms of art in the form of festivals, galas, and shows, it appears that video games are not currently considered a form of cultural exchange, or at least, not considered to be culturally significant to those who determine what is funded and what is not, what is art and what is not, and what is culture and what is not. This mindset is at the very least condescending and at the most damaging to a highly creative industry and the artists within it.


The Canadian video game industry is booming, and will likely continue this rise for as long as video games remain popular. The products of this industry, while not necessarily strictly Canadian in content, are a part of Canadian culture as well as a representation of Canadian capabilities. The Canadian mainstream media needs to toss aside their current methods of diminishing or demonizing the roles that video games play within our lives.

While there are negatives, such as addiction or encouragement of violence, these are part of larger societal issues, and should not be borne solely on the back of the video game industry. It is time for video games to be seen as an art form on the Canadian cultural stage. This requires government support beyond business incentives for companies, but also for the artists within the industry to be able to exhibit their creative talent. Video games are not only a form of art, but they are also a form of Canadian culture.


-->Bissell, Tom. “Voicebox 360.” The New Yorker 87.24 (2011): 48+.
Campbell, Colin, and Jonathon Gatehouse. "What Happened to Brandon? The Disappearance of the Teen Has Sparked an Outcry Over Video Game Addictions." Maclean's 121.44 (2008): 50+.
Canadian Videogame Awards. Greedy Productions, Ltd. 18 Mar. 2012 []
Dehaas, Josh. “A Cozy But Violent Game.” Maclean’s 123.35 (2010): 52.
Dyer-Witheford, Nick, and Greig de Peuter. “’EA Spouse’ and the Crisis of Video Game Labour: Enjoyment, Exclusion, Exploitation, Exodus.” Canadian Journal of Communication 31 (2006): 599–617.
Dyer-Witheford, Nick, and Zena Sharman. “The Political Economy of Canada’s Video and Computer Game Industry.” Canadian Journal of Communication 30 (2005): 187–210.
Edwardson, Ryan. Canadian Content: Culture and the Quest for Nationhood. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
Electric Playground. Greedy Productions, Ltd. 14 Feb.
2012 []
Fragapalooza. 18 Mar. 2012 []
Fritz, Ben. “Game Giant Gobbles Top Indie Players.” Daily Variety 297.10 (2007): p1+.
Government of Canada. “From the Report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (Massey Commission).” Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader. Ed. Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. 518–532.
King, Andrew. “Music & Gaming.” Canadian Musician 30.9 (2008): 42+.
Shimo, Alexandra. "Call It Nerdapalooza: Rows of Men Silently Playing Video Games Together. What A Party!" Maclean's 120.06 (2007): 49.
Tremblay, Diane-Gabrielle, and Serge Rousseau. “The Montreal Multimedia Sector: A Cluster, a New Mode of Governance, or a Simple Co-Location?” Canadian Journal of Regional Science 28.2 (2005): 299–328.
Webster, Andrew. “The Rulers of the Game: Canada’s Independent Videogame Designers Level Up.” This Magazine 43.5 (2009): 36–7.


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