Why Are We Still So Bad At Talking About Video Games? A Reply
This Tuesday (20/11/12) Helen Lewis published a piece over at the New Statesman entitled ‘Why Are We Still So Bad At Talking About Video Games?’, querying both gamers and non-gamers alike why gaming has failed to reach the same level of cultural acceptance as literature and film, and what we can do to change that. Below are my thoughts on the matter.
For all that Helen’s article makes of how video games have evolved since their inception, when compared to books and cinema it is still a very young medium finding its feet. In film, the biggest technical innovation that had a direct, tangible impact on the viewing audience in recent years is something that has been trialled several times over the years and failed to catch on (3D). The core experience of watching a film has changed little from the introduction of sound in the late '20s.
Though fondly remembered by those whose childhood memories are illuminated by their soft glow, to the outsider early video games appear laughably crude to what PCs and consoles are capable of today. Still, these new wonders are not so far from their immediate unpolished past that we find the rapidly advancing technology that delivers them still a marvel, much as the Lumiere Brothers’ Train Pulling Into A Station film astonished audiences of its day. For many, the question of whether video games can create convincing worlds through which tales of cultural import can be conveyed is still open, and it is hard to see how the medium will be accepted in the mainstream consciousness until this is accepted as a given. The whole industry is still in the uncanny valley.
That’s not to say they aren’t big business; indeed games are commercialised and monetised possibly even more than cinema precisely because they lack the cultural baggage that the silver screen has accumulated as it has evolved; deliberately throwback, concept pieces like The Artist can win a clutch of Oscars and accumulate resultantly massive sales, but while comparable indie games like Fez are critically lauded by those in the know, the wider audience remains in the dark about them and in terms of sales they can't even touch triple A titles like Call Of Duty et al.
Part of the difficulty in garnering mainstream acknowledgement of gaming greatness lies in the fact that while putting the player in control can be arguably more immersive than watching the action unfold as an observer, it also severely hampers the experience's ability to render narrative without appearing constrictive; at any point, the player can halt the flow and do something completely incongruous, if they should feel like it. A friend showed me Skyrim a while ago, and after the introduction where you were duly informed that the world was in peril, it was all down to you, and time was of the essence, my friend positively revelled in the fact that once you were out in the world, you could blatantly ignore that scene-setting exercise and proceed to do whatever the hell you wanted. I couldn't help but be puzzled. Even in a more linear game it's entirely likely that someone else might have a completely different playing experience to you, so evaluation though direct comparison is problematic. Single player gamers can have experiences that can vary wildly, and as far as multiplayer goes, players get together primarily to compete, not to share or discuss.
The games we have now are then necessarily composite entities, conjoined of various tasks to be accomplished (and the mechanics that define them), and the narrative arc that gives them context and ties them together. Because by definition they are games, the former has to be given priority. Games having any kind of an internal sense of story is an achievement in itself; the entire plot of 1979's Galaxians was the single text message "WE ARE THE GALAXIANS / MISSION: DESTROY ALIENS", which I still find amusing. Weaving narrative into the actual gameplay is difficult, but not impossible; the guys over at Extra Credits made a great video on that topic here.
So why are we still so bad talking about games? Because for the longest time, there wasn’t anything of note to say.
The lack of discussion about games' narrative and plot, with the focus more on the more objective assessment of whether the gameplay is actually any good can at least partially be attributed to the fact that games with strong, credible plots are very much still the exception to the rule (for further evidence and a laugh, check out our Top Ten bits of video game dialogue and the 50 worst video game voice acting lines. Now bear my arctic blast!) This state of affairs is improving gradually, mainly through incorporating actual actors into the game, most demonstrably in recent old-skool detection drama L.A. Noire. This doesn’t always guarantee success, but definitely lends a production a certain sense of legitimacy that it would otherwise be without.
You could argue that's there's just as much discussion of mechanics in film (lighting, cinematography, direction etc.) but for the average viewer, that's all bells 'n' whistles which happen behind the camera to deliver what they are there at the cinema to see - a story unfold in front of their eyes.
Gaming is our nascent joy, and as such we are often protective of it and lash out when other media pundits call it inferior and worthless. We are absolutely right to point out the diamonds in the rough to those that would listen, but still we must be aware of gaming's position in the cultural landscape; a small area, but one that is growing exponentially and expanding in all directions. Currently there is a large part of the establishment who didn't grow up with video games and still find them alien and treat them with extreme scepticism, but they will eventually be replaced by those with direct experience who can relate. The descriptor ‘video game’ can cover everything from a simple, contextually-free puzzle of challenge and skill to a vast, epic, multi-threaded adventure, and this identity crisis could be at the heart of their failure to be accepted in the artistic sense by the mainstream media.
It surely has been the case that discussion of a game’s worth is rendered moot upon release, but that tide is slowly turning. Classic games are repackaged and re-made for new audiences; Time recently published its top 100 games ever, other magazines like Retro Gamer exist to celebrate the high points that have come before; on the web you can’t walk the virtual length of yourself without tripping over someone waxing nostalgic about their treasured favourite game.
In summation, I'm pretty confident that one day gaming will become something that gets the cultural dues it deserves, but we have a way to go yet. Don't let that get you down though; when that day comes, we can say with pride that we were there at the beginning. We are the pioneers.