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The Cultural Significance Of Video Games

kultcher, innit?

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).

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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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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