The Cultural Significance Of Video Games

By John Walker on February 16th, 2008 at 12:57 am.

Level designer and blogger Steve Gaynor has made a superbly inflammatory statement on his site, Fullbright, that “videogames will never become a significant form of cultural discourse“. He goes on to say, “I’ll bet you that fifty years from now they’ll be just as mature and well-respected as comic books are today.” (Those chomping at the bit at this remark will be relieved to learn it’s addressed below).

kultcher, innit?

There has been an interesting reaction from other gaming writers. Newsweek’s excellent games reporter, N’Gai Croal, has been inspired to write a series of essays, reflecting on Gaynor’s post, and that of another response by The Plush Apocalypse’s Borut Pfeifer.

Croal’s first post responds to Gaynor’s assertion that videogames are limited by the potential audience’s lack of previous experience with gaming, and for want of a better term, lack of formal training (as one might receive for reading or film viewing). Croal contends,

“This is certainly a legitimate comparison, but it neglects the amount of time, money and effort that it takes to teach a child to read. Ditto for the number of hours we all spent in our youth consuming a variety of moving images, which enabled us to develop the visual literacy required to understand a modern movie or TV show. If children spent the same amount of time playing videogames as they did learning to read or learning to watch, the maligned-by-comparison-to-the-Wii-Remote Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 controllers would be second nature to most people.”

But the meat of the discussion comes when investigating the notion that gaming will never achieve significant cultural discourse. Refreshingly, he avoids approaching the subject suggesting that videogames are incapable of being culturally discoursive. And as such, we escape needing to wallow through the tired, and frankly embarrassing grounds of people name-checking the four or five games we’ve commonly accepted to be “highbrow”. Rather, Gaynor is stating that they simply won’t.

The very nature of interactive games bars them from ever truly gaining mass acceptance, and therefore mass cultural relevance. The strength of video games, what makes them unique, interesting, and affecting, is that they engage in a dialogue with each individual player. They ask you to invest yourself in the experience, to explore and understand the logic of their gameworld, and to activate the experience by doing. Video games require you to be involved, to take responsibility for your actions onscreen. They expect more out of you than film, television, the internet or a book does. You get from video games what you’re willing to put in. The audience at large only wants to take.

The bulk of Croal’s first response is addressing Gaynor’s continuing arguments, about infantilisation and marginalisation. But I wonder whether it’s an impossible task to deal with Gaynor’s essay. He constantly moves the goalposts, changing the focus of ‘blame’ for gaming’s apparent ghettoisation, from their complexity, to their infancy, to their infantilisation, to their lack of ambitition, to their fear of being themselves. All are valid areas to explore, but here Gaynor seems to leap from one to the next without having justified the last.

As Croal points out, a lot of it comes down to a “glass is half empty” position. Gaynor offers no hope for games, rather concluding that they will remain marginalised forever. But as Croal observes in his second post,

“Popular fiction generally outsells literary fiction. Summer blockbusters generally out-gross arthouse films. Is this any different from, say, Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat out-NPD-ing BioShock last year, or Madden doing the same to Shadow of the Colossus in 2005?”

Gaming is already mainstream. The problem just isn’t marginalisation. It’s simply that the crap will always outsell the emotionally and semiotically complex. In fact, gaming often gets a far better deal! Sure, it’s miserably depressing to see a TV quiz show-based game outselling everything else at Christmas, but as much as we might like to berate EA for milking The Sims franchise to a rubbery, drooping sac, The Sims is a brilliant game. (Not one I particularly enjoy, I should add, but still a brilliant one. Much the same, I’m writing this while my housemates watch Old Boy – a fantastic film I’d really rather never have watched, nor want to watch again – liking something isn’t always necessary for recognising its achievement).

Similarly, Gaynor’s assertion that, “like comics, video games are never going to grow up”, betrays his gloom-overriding-the-evidence outlook. I need not repeat Croal’s immediately obvious points about the extraordinarily grown up, rich, and culturally significant nature of so many popular comics, and indeed that of so many games. I don’t question for a second that too many games are far too infantile, either due to poor developers or fearful publishers, but this in no way implies the medium’s inability to be culturally or emotionally complex. Of course, we’re once more wandering dangerously close to the embarrassing position of naming the few that manage this – that’s simply denial. Games are capable of it, and occasionally demonstrate it, but it would be ludicrous to pretend that it was the norm. The point remains, Gaynor’s statement is incorrect now, as much as it will be in the fifty years ahead he projects.

Borut Pfeifer writes a similarly focused and intricate response to Gaynor’s “bet”. Taking the wager, he approaches the subjects Gaynor raises one by one, presenting the half-full perspective of the current situation. I think he captures my perspective of the debate when he says,

“The larger problem though, that I often get frustrated with, is that game developers on average just aren’t interested in making anything that says something meaningful about the world around us. Even really smart folks, good friends, lots of people, just have no interest in it. That is the one thing I am perhaps least confident will change. Even if games diverge from simple adolescent male power fantasy to wider range of “fun” topics, that doesn’t mean there will be many games that seek to provide insight into human nature.”

(There’s another part of Pfeifer’s response I want to address. He says,

“If you read Rock, Paper, Shotgun, among other review sites, they’ll often complain about the dumbing down of games, especially for consoles compared to PC games. Which, in a larger context, I think is reflective of this trend towards improving accessibility. I find when there are vocal proponents to opposite sides of an argument, typically everything is preceeding as well as could be expected.”

For the record, I don’t believe the four of us at RPS have argued that games are dumbed down when they are made more accessible. We’re capable of being clumsy-hooved idiots with the rest of them, and accessibility is a joyful thing. I can’t immediately recall any “dumbing down” complaints on the site, while I’m sure there have been some, so I’ll speak only for myself here. If I were to be complaining about “dumbing down”, it would be parsing gaming through a lens of base stupidity, treating them as if they are only for a drunken, post-club audience of horny men. They ARE for these people, absolutely, and joyfully so. But this isn’t the extent of their ambition and scope, and the behaviour of publishers who see things this way strikes me a significant problem in the battle against infantilisation.)

I think there is a missed target in all of this. I think we, the gaming press, and we, the gamers, expect far too little of games. BioShock was a great game, but really, its commentary was a pamphlet. And yet it was heralded as an intellectual goliath. Of course there was a backlash to this – no, most of us won’t have read Ayn Rand, and will learn something. But it isn’t good enough for the adulation it receives. However, it’s a perspective thing, and when compared to the rest, we feel we’ve no choice but to get excited. “Good grief, this one tried!” I stress again, I thought BioShock was an excellent game, but one with a poor narrative structure, and many failed ambitions.

And at entirely the opposite end, I think we expect far too much of games. We do not lament Scrabble for its lack of Brechtian estrangement. We enjoy playing Mousetrap because the pieces go plonky plonky plonk and then the diver falls in the cup. Games so often should be visceral fun. I think that once we relax and let games be this, we’ll perhaps develop the confidence to let other games aim higher, and achieve more, without feeling the need to pretend they’re our Citizen Kane.

But with GDC almost upon us, I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a buzz of intelligent people demanding intelligent discussion about intelligent gaming. I think now, more than ever before, gaming is ready to make a push into a smarter, more culturally significant place. I think accessibility is key, but I think we have a generation near-fluent in gaming’s grammar, that is teaching the previous generation the same. I’m very hopeful right now. My glass looks very full.

So I’ve meandered all over as well. But go and read all three sites, and come back with your thoughts on the matter.

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30 Comments »

  1. Dracko says:

    “I’ll bet you that fifty years from now they’ll be just as mature and well-respected as comic books are today.”

    I fail to see a problem with this.

  2. wyrmsine says:

    indeed. The most fun in that sentence is replacing “comic books” with “TV”, “movies” or “music”, and following the argument from there.

  3. Rich Powers says:

    These inflammatory essays about how videogames aren’t art represent intellectual masturbation at its finest. Frankly no one really gives a crap. As long as games are fun and mentally stimulating, I couldn’t care less about silly categorizations.

    And even if not art, videogames are at least a multi-billion dollar business >:)

  4. Borut says:

    It’s Pfeifer (only two f’s).

  5. Borut says:

    Oh, and to clairfy the “dumbing down” vs. accessibility, I didn’t mean to imply that you guys couldn’t tell the difference or were arguing against both – I mean that as PC gaming-centric site, it is common to see criticism of over-simplified games, and that over simplification is due to the developer screwing up their own attempt to make the game more accessible. But the fact that developers are attempting to make their games more accessible, even if they are fucking that up, is a sign of progress. Sort of.

  6. Steve says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, John. I’d just clarify a couple of things:

    - I don’t jump from one singular ‘blame’ to another; rather, I’m trying to say that all the points I bring up together contribute to the stunting of games’ cultural relevance.

    - I never say that games don’t have the potential to say great, meaningful things; I absolutely believe they do. I’m simply arguing why they largely don’t reach that potential, and why even when they do, that message can’t reach many people.

    -To Rich Powers above, I explicitly state that this essay is not about “art” in any way. There’s a difference between a piece of media being relevant to someone’s life, versus being “art.”

  7. Will Tomas says:

    I think games’ cultural relevance is entirely determined by the age of the people that play them at present. This is where things like the Wii bringing in middle-aged people is great. Gaming is generally a young (teenage-early 30s) interest partly because those in their 30s now were young enough to get interested when the first, most obviously childish or toy-like, games started to come out and have sustained that interest.

    I don’t see a problem with things taking time to become culturally significant. An anecdote: I saw a Mum and a 5 year old in WH Smith’s, and the Mum (early 30s) said to the child, “Let’s go buy Daddy’s magazine, then we can look at the kid’s section.” Daddy’s magazine was PC Gamer. Times are moving on and will continue to do so, so that when today’s 20 year old gamers are 60, I’ll be shocked if games aren’t culturally significant. It just takes a long (decades long) time for new technology to gain that cultural significance.

    I agree it could become so faster – but isn’t that what the Wii’s trying to do by gaining mass-age-market popularity?

  8. Drakkheim says:

    I’ll bet you that fifty years from now bloggers be just as mature and well-respected as forum trolls are today.

    Oh wait… it’s not gonna take anywhere near that long.
    Chalk up another one for
    John Gabriel’s Greater Internet F*ckwad Theory.

  9. Ben Abraham says:

    Drakkheim – so very appropriate in the current climate.

  10. Matthew Gallant says:

    I’m really not much of a PC gamer, but it’s sharp writing like this that keeps RPS in my RSS reader. Well done!

  11. CrashT says:

    Part of the problem is that the type of people who’ll play something like Wii Sports, Brain Age, or The Sims don’t see themsleves as being “people who play games”. To them there’s a big difference between the things they might play and what they see games as being generally about, big guns and power fantasies.

    What’s needed is not more mass market games, but better quality ones, games that can bridge the game between the mass market and the hardcore and become gateways between the likes of Wii Sports and Civilization. What’s needed is something that is accessible to the casual gamer but still caters to gamings natural strengths, showing the mass market what games are really capable, of instead of just being another mini-game collection.

    Dare I go out on a limb and say maybe such things are actually on their way from the likes of Warren Spector or Spielberg’s work with EA?

  12. drunkymonkey says:

    Nice piece of writing there, John. I’ll have to get reading Croal’s gigantic thoughts on the matter, too.

    And yeah, GDC this year seems to be promising, more so than most other years (last time around, it was already quite exciting to read up on the news), and hopefully some nice discussion will come from it.

    I just hope the critical acclaim, and commercial success of Bioshock spurs other developers to make other politically, morally, and thought charged games.

    Um, as long as they’re not bullshit, like Blacksite’s narrative seemed to be…

  13. John Walker says:

    Steve – First of all, a big thanks for inspiring all this discussion. It’s often not much fun to be the thesis that attracts all the antitheses, so I want to say I appreciate your taking that role. You’re correct to reiterate that you don’t think games lack potential – as I wander into my own arguments, I do begin to imply that slightly. However, I do recognise that you believe this, as I say in the fourth paragraph.

    Borut – That will teach me to copy the spelling from Newsweek : )

    Rich – Very many people give a crap, including me. And all the people discussing this in their posts. And all the interested readers of their posts. It may very well be true that you don’t give a crap, but it seems a little unfair to pin your position on others.

  14. Dinger says:

    Correct about Bioshock: the narrative is about as profound an exploration of Ayn Rand (assuming, for the sake of argument, that Ayn Rand’s work were ecapable of profound exploration as the movie Starship Troopers was of fascism, and somewhat less sophisticated than the facile Poli Sci 101 tie-ins of Deus Ex.

    Not that it matters. Deus Ex‘s strong points were the varied settings and stealth vs. noisemaker approaches. Bioshock, to judge by the reviews it got, was also a winner because of the creativity it gave the player: so many ways to kill people, so little time. The result is the same (even the ultimate “choice” of Deus Ex has the same result: the game ends and the player “wins”); the path is variable, and, for games, the experience lies in the way, not the what. Otherwise, we’d be content to follow sports scores, and not watch the matches themselves.

    Correct about comic books too. Genres borrow from each other all the time. My favorite Looney Tunes (the Duck season trilogy of 51-53) borrow heavily from radio comedy. Borrowing does not mean “aping”, however. And the worst comic books ape the movies; for that matter, GTA is a ripoff of every action film ever made tied to a Playstation controller mechanic.

    But no need to attack any one medium as infantile and male-fantasy-oriented without taking on the other media too. Most movies are oriented to the same demographic as most videogames as most comics: the adolescent male with socialization problems. What the heck are horror movies anyway? You’ve got a whole genre where the bulk of the films appeal primarily to testosterone-poisoned males with socialization problems, who are eager to see the popular kids — the ones who have sex — get horribly bludgeoned to death. Not that there’s anythine wrong with that, mind you.

    Yet such a focus really isn’t fair to any medium. From where I sit now, I can see a whole stack of art history books and comic books (none of them mine, thankfully). The titles? Natacha, Lucky Luke and Yoko Tsuno. Yes, people actually buy that stuff, read it, and make up a large part of the comic book audience.

    We call them girls.

    Movies have their “chick flicks” just as they have their male fantasies. Video games not only have violent bits; they have stuff that appeals to different sections of society, even if they buy less, they do constitute a significant market. So, niche or not, don’t mistake the part for a whole, or a genre for a medium.

    Oh yeah, and for those who want to give the finger to the mass audience, is that really necessary? Shakespeare, Dickens and Eisenstein produced for a mass audience, and explicitly so. They were surrounded by a bunch of hacks who did the same, but that diminishes not their import.

  15. Satsuz says:

    I really enjoyed reading all of this, though for all of my eyestrain I still haven’t formed all of my own opinions on this. Am I a victim of too many well-written arguments, or am I just easily swayed? Perhaps I’m simply tired and haven’t thought about this enough, yet.

    Regardless, I’d like to support N’Gai’s point about the effort it takes to teach a child to read. I honestly could not tell you when exactly I started playing video games. It’s beyond the realm of coherent long-term memory. Mind you, I have patchy bits left of this era that the adult mind loses hold of. Why, I can even remember the tail-end of my days (or nights) of sleeping in the crib (a.k.a. the baby-cage). The point of all this being that I was very, very young when I started. And the process must have been very easy, given the facts about my (or anyone’s) mental development and dexterity at that age. Now for reading, I hadn’t even begun the lessons proper until I was almost 7 years old (I’m not counting the foundations for reading like learning the alphabet, but the process of learning that squiggles on paper are representing sounds and words and how to interpret their meaning for myself). And it was very difficult, at the time. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think that says a lot for the accessibility of games.

  16. Larington says:

    Hmm, I certainly have stated that consoles often lead to oversimplified gameplay (Deus Ex 1 versus Deus Ex 2), but that certainly doesn’t mean the story need be oversimplified. Story does NOT = Gameplay (Though they can influence eachother they ain’t the same thang).

    In fact I suppose you could use a console as justification for spending more time on story than if you were developing it for a PC…
    But thats assuming that the developer actually tries to do that and since consoles give the impression of being the home of the mainstream folks who might not take it in, you first have to get past the ‘why bother?’ bit before you can even get to the ‘how do we do it?’ bit.

  17. Gylfi.Fenriz. says:

    *quote– I never say that games don’t have the potential to say great, meaningful things; I absolutely believe they do. I’m simply arguing why they largely don’t reach that potential, and why even when they do, that message can’t reach many people.-*unquote

    I really fail to see the problem. Shakespeare’s works took 3 centuries to be considered as something more than silly stage entertainment of clowns and posing foppery.

    The fact people don’t understand it doesn’t mean much. That’s not videogames problem, there’s a problem with the media through which the message arrives to people. But we who know the truth, can’t fail to recognize the monumental culturality depth of a Fallout or Ultima7, and that’s all we need.

    I think you, sir, are just escaping what you posted by way of little quibbles.

    And for the record, i loved this interview, it’s a great manifest of the “grandiose revolution of interactive culture” we are fighting EACH day

  18. Alex says:

    “I’ll bet you that fifty years from now they’ll be just as mature and well-respected as comic books are today.”

    I fail to see a problem with this.

    A lot of people, including myself, won’t.

    In general, however, the comic book isn’t seen as being on par with, say, the literary novel. Which is the point being made there, I think.

  19. Kieron Gillen says:

    Will delve into this properly later, I suspect – and I think Walker did a great job with this post, just to be publicly nice to him for once – but there’s one assumption which always kind of throws me – the Popular=Crap argument.

    That’s self-defeating bollocks, and always has been, and confuses uncommercial with good, which is absolutely fatal. They’re separate qualities. Any world where the Beatles were the biggest selling band of all time should make it untenable, but people throw it out there all the same, not realising that what they’re arguing forever damns them to the boundaries of culture. That’s what THEY want you to do. Vibrant art can /engage/.

    (I don’t even like the Beatles that much but…)

    The Theory which I nurture is where a medium is at its heights, the best stuff will also – as often as not – be the most popular stuff. It’s only when a cultural form has played out that the shit starts to overtake it. For me, I suspect, games are still well in their relevant phase, simply because games like GTA and The Sims are formally brilliant creations and people who think otherwise are primarily snobs.

    KG

  20. Garth says:

    To be fair, Kieron, a lot of the time popular things are terrible, as the majority of people tend to be.. odd. For example, Halo is one of the greatest selling games-series of all time, yet you’d not be hard pressed to find far, far better PC FPS’.

    If you take your top 5 favourite games, chances are at least 2-3 aren’t super popular. I was not a big Sims fan, I hate Madden, I can’t stand Halo, but I loved Close Combat IV.

    I think there’s hyperbole involved, but the idea that popular stuff is bad, while a little too narrow in view, has it’s merits. It does happen to stem from the “I hate what people like” dynamic though.

  21. Kieron Gillen says:

    Garth: I think you’re disregarding Halo too easily, to be honest. Those enormous scores Halo 3 gets are given by people who know about all the PC stuff.

    EDIT: Not that I’m dismissing your taste. But Halo isn’t games’ equivalent of the Lowbrow Sacharine Pop Trash which people are thinking about when they say “Shit sells”. It’s not Celene Dion or whatever.

    (Also, at no point did I say that “Good=Popular” either. The idea that good stuff automatically fails to find an audience is what I’m dismissing.)

    KG

  22. Theory says:

    I don’t think your definition of “good” is in line with Gaynor’s here, Kieron. Neither GTA nor The Sims nor Halo have anything much to say, and if they do, it’s certainly not the reason for their popularity.

    Personally, I think Gaynor is very wise to lay this wager (and it is a wager, note, not a statement). If we – the creators, amateur or professional – carry on as we are his predictions will indeed become the reality. I prefer to solve the problem by doing rather than talking, so I’ll leave my response to the debate at that.

    (I don’t read comics, but two anecdotes come to mind related to them. The first happened some time ago when I stumbled over the climax of one of the Civil War issues. One of the leading characters had just been assassinated on the steps of the American senate because of his support for superhero “registration” with the government. This appealed to me as an obviously sophisticated story, but I was put off ever engaging with it because the characters were dressed in skin-tight spandex, called things like “Captain America”, and had lightning bolts stuck on top of their heads. It was a bizarre juxtaposition.

    The second happened earlier this morning, before I packed and returned home to write this. I had Chris Ware’s comic page on my screen and was admiring its intelligence when my mother walked by and, unprompted, asked why I was looking at children’s stuff and said that it looked like something my younger brother might have made. We had happily watched Finding Nemo together the previous night.)

  23. Will Tomas says:

    On the art issue, I quote Douglas Adams: “I think the idea of art kills creativity.”

    The popular=bad/good argument is a little spurious, simply because popularity happens to a somewhat odd range of things, both good and bad, usually because whatever it is catches a zeitgeist. Such as Wii Sports, or the first Halo. Even if people who just play these don’t think of themselves as “gamers” the fact is that the medium is integrating itself into more and more people’s lives. This is a good thing.

  24. Nick says:

    I heartily support your nurtured theory, Kieron. Makes a lot of sense to me anyway.

    Also, great article by John Walker.

  25. Steve says:

    re: Theory: if you think that neither GTA nor The Sims have a LOT to say, particularly about contemporary American culture, you’re underestimating them a great deal.

  26. Theory says:

    They’re set in and parody American culture, but as far as I’ve seen that’s it. It doesn’t go anywhere.

    Of course, this is us digressing…

  27. Jp says:

    How are people in the discussion defining significance in terms of cultural discourse (Steve in particular)? So far it seems to be accepted that novels and films are culturally significant, but that games and comic books aren’t, and Steve identifies two qualities that the former have but the latter lack – maturity and respect, but also discusses the necessity to achieve “mass cultural relevance”, so we should probably add popularity as a third category he requires.

    Respect is probably the easiest of the three to deal with – it could probably be defined as “something the educated person is broadly expected to be knowledgeable about”. In which case games are very much not there yet. But can never get there? It took novels/romances more than six hundred years to make their way from being something an educated person should ignore to something considered worthy of study (The Decameron was completed in 1353; the English faculty at Oxford University was set up in 1891 – and even then, novels were considered frivolous). Films took fifty years or more before it achieved any widespread intellectual respect.

    Gaming is still less than forty years old, and is still something the majority of opinion formers did not grow up with – there’s a generational divide there which will dissipate over the next twenty years. Admittedly comic books have never overcome this, but I think this is largely because there’s an alternative medium – novels – you’re supposed to progress onto; there’s no adult replacement for games.

    Popularity as a measure is easy to dismiss as a strike against games in this regard. If you’re admitting novels as being culturally significant – well, in the UK last year 70 million novels were sold, but 78 million games.

    Finally, maturity is an difficult quality to define because there’s a few different properties it could refer to. I think we’re probably talking about the degree to which a medium is still defining itself (in terms of techniques, overarching goals etc), which introduces a whole new complication: the underlying platform on which games are based is significantly more open than the platforms supporting novels or film.

    As a result, novels and film are relatively homogenous, and different genres broadly share the same techniques and principles (linear narrative, chapters, cuts, etc). Gaming genres are vastly different. Interactivity is the only constant – shooters, RPGs, RTSs have wildly divergent goals, techniques, and means of interactivity, and are as different from each other as novels are from film (in film, The Longest Journey and The Secret of Monkey Island would be considered different genres;in gaming, they’re both in the adventure genre).

    In literature and film, narrative quality tends to be the principle standard by which maturity is judged – most other factors (e.g. acting quality) are judged for the contribution they make towards the convincingness of the narrative. And that’s the standard which seems to be applied most often to games, but it’s not how we judge other cultural forms (e.g. music or art), and whilst it might be appropriate for some genres of games, it’s probably not appropriate for others. We haven’t decided what is important for them yet, which is a very strong reason for arguing that these genres (and perhaps games en masse) aren’t a mature cultural form yet; it’s a very weak reason to argue that they will never be mature.

  28. Dinger says:

    Okay, fine, let’s take GTA III:Vice City as an example (San Andreas would work just as well, or even plain ol’ 3.0):

    The “game” as imagined exists in at least three forms:

    A. The narrative (“New kid in town rises to top of criminal empire”)
    B. The scope (“sandbox”)
    C. The experience (“stealing cars in ’80s Miami”)

    Frankly, the GTA narrative contains every cliché of the “crime film” genre, with a few other ones thrown in for good measure. The developers take a consciously cinematic approach, employing film actors who made their career in the “crime film” genre to reprise in voice their veteran characters. There’s nothing novel or interesting here: it falls into Gaynor’s description of most comics as bad storyboards for movies that would never be greenlighted. Uwe Boll isn’t the only reason why many video game movies suck.
    Yet when we try to explain the game to others, the first thing we reach for is this story. A similar phenomenon occurs in popular music, where lazy music reviewers and fans get obsessed with the lyrics to the exclusion of the motive force of the art form, elaborating on the brilliance of using place-names like “The Rotherhithe” instead capturing and dissecting the music, the sound and the feel.

    B. GTA gets praised among gamers for its “Sandbox gameplay” (now there are two words, I hope, the RPS folks, with their ties to the Académie Anglaise, banish from the English language). Most gamers believe that the GTA III series creates a world, with toys, where the player can do whatever the hell s/he wants.

    Huh? Do people actually play these games? A sandbox implies creativity. GTA III doesn’t provide a sandbox, it provides a themed amusement park. Almost all the “things you can do” are predetermined, and occur in carefully delineated time and space. Just like a theme park, there are those little rides where you play with radio-controlled vehicles (yes, those ‘rides’ are still there). There are races, roller coasters — all sorts of events; but all scripted, and all more or less on the same theme. Step out of the bounds of the “ride”, and you’re free to wander the park. Moreover, since the game is at heart a PS2 game, the things you can do are built around a game controller.

    C. But there is something downright cool about the game. For me, it’s the use of art direction and music to create a stylized impression of an environment. Blasting through a pastel city, running over pedestrians, being chased by cops, all while listening through 99 luftballoons – that’s when you appreciate the game for what it has to offer.

    But none of these levels are meshed that well. A and B are themed on C, but as the narrative advances, not much happens in the town (other than the training wheels coming off at some point). The amusement park is still static. You’re still a petty thug who’d rather jack a crappy car than pay cab fare.

    So GTA as narrative, stands on the level of a bad comic book serialized to conform to an addict-friendly intermittent reinforcement structure . GTA builds a “sandbox” more like an amusement park strained through a PS2 controller. But it excels in the detail of the gamespace it creates.

    So no, I don’t find it GTA formally excellent. If anything, it’s formally dull, and materially excellent. GTA would be formally excellent if we didn’t notice that it was an amusement park, or didn’t play the master game segments just to advance the cinematic cutscenes.

    (Please note too: many early movies stage plays with a camera in the audience. We still have such films today, but they’re not mass circulation. There’s always room for “aping” another medium, but a sign of a medium’s maturity is when people no longer feel the need to discuss it as existing in comparison to more established media)

  29. Crispy says:

    I think perhaps one of the biggest key ingredients to making a game that ‘has something to say’ is that games -in most cases- don’t have a unifying artistic force behind them. Film and television shows have a director and perhaps a key writer who are able to have overarching artistic control. In games, generally speaking, we haven’t got to the stage where a key individual takes the lead in shaping the game to something very personal.

  30. Janto says:

    Hmm. I don’t feel that Steve’s assessment of comics as inherently harder to read than novels is accurate. (Apologies if this is a misrepresentation, but it seems to be point made in the article.) In fact, I’d argue that precisely the opposite is true, and Steve’s rubbishing of conventional formats and storytelling techniques in comics as ‘badly drawn movie stills’ does not reflect the creative skill in telling an effective comic story. A badly designed comic page can be confusing, but so can a sentence or conversation with no punctuation or grammar. A well designed comic page has a visual edge that literature does not have which allows the reader to progress through the story more easily, once the basic ‘grammar’ is grasped. I can (and would) skim a comic and see if it looks interesting before purchase without batting an eyelid about missing subtleties or ruining plot twists, something I’d never do with a novel.

    Even in terms of cultural relevance, Steve seems to have artificially narrowed the definition of ‘comic’ to exclude things such as newspaper comic strips, such as, say, Peanuts, and enduring comic stories, such as Herge’s Tintin and Goscinny/Uderzo’s Asterix the Gaul, which have a wider appeal, and more importantly, a much wider cultural footprint than what might be regarded as mainstream comics. You can argue that the later ones are infantile in their subject matter, but not that these foreign cultural imports haven’t made an impression. And that in other cultures, the medium has a far greater impact, such as the cultural significance (and diversity) of comics in Japan. I’m not an expert on manga, and this stuff on comics is going on long enough, but from the outside it seems to be on par with other types of mass media. I mean, take martial arts movies, limited cultural significance in Western cinema culture, but look at Crouching Tiger’s Academy nominations, and impressive box office performance.

    I appreciate that Steve’s point is not that games and comics lack the potential to have cultural significance, but that their current thematic limitations and lack of maturity limits the respect and influence of games in general culture, a serious issue for people in the games industry looking to expand the market. (And many comics are a very good example of how to poison your own market by catering to the ‘hardcore’ without having enough titles aimed at bringing in fresh readers.)

    I find it a little bit hard to pin down what he actually means by cultural significance. Is it awareness? Sense of identification? Popularity with the unwashed hordes?

    From my perspective, the big problem with games and cultural significance is that many games have become stuck in the Science/Magical Fantasy ghetto, or the adjoining but slightly more upscale Crime and Horror sections. It’s an unwillingness to play outside this field, even slightly, that means that games and comics are culturally marginalized. Even the great stuff is often still in that limited arena, which means that most of the D&D, Terry Brooks/X-Men reading rabble don’t get it, and neither do most outsiders. I remember talking to a development team about races for a MMO, and being stunned at how the banal fantasy cliches were slowly winning a war of attrition on original concepts.
    There’s nothing stopping sports games, for instance, from achieving mass audiences, provided the hardware support is there and the game design taps into a fairly basic unfulfilled urge.

    I suppose the closing point would be that generational shift is possible over the next 50 years, to the extent that games can achieve a cultural significance beyond being ‘for kids’ or ‘young males’. As those kids and young people grow up and have their own families, become teachers and policy makers the culture of acceptance can change, although it’s certainly not a guarantee. (I always find people who seem to have suddenly decided that they’re x age and they now have to be some sort of responsible adult with all the baggage that that entails deeply scary.)