Feature Article: Have Games Grown Up Yet?

Posted Thu May 29, 2008 at 10:00 AM PDT by

Editor's Note: Columnist Wayne Santos is a dedicated gamer from the infancy of the medium. He is a contributor at IGN and associate editor of Southeast Asian gaming publication GameAxis. In this new, semi-regular column, Wayne will be discussing a broad range of topics related to High-Def Gaming.

By Wayne Santos

This article is going to be a little different in that it won’t look at the technical aspect of HD Gaming, but rather the cultural aspect of gaming in general. It’s a personal hobby horse of mine, as, having grown up with games and received many fond memories over the years from the medium, I tend to take the optimistic view that games are just that, a medium. And like any medium, such as film, literature or paint, it has the potential to make positive artistic contributions. Of course, the current mainstream cultural perception is at odds with this opinion, and whether it's lawyers, politicians or various “scientific experts” commenting for popular news outlets, the prevailing opinion seems to be that games – particularly violent ones – are an unhealthy hobby at best, and a training ground for future psychotic murderers at worst.

Yet, at the same time Grand Theft Auto IV recently launched to the public at large, and in the span of 24 hours, it made more money than any other single piece of entertainment in the history of the entertainment industry as a whole. In the span of one week, the game made US$500 million and was prominently featured on everything from talk shows, to no less an institution than the New York Times referring to it as the “entertainment event of the year.” Even the same news stations that revile violent games gave the launch of GTAIV extensive coverage that wasn’t necessarily all focused on the corruptive influence of the game. And finally, in a telling sign of the growing influence of the gaming industry, financial analysts even speculated that GTA IV’s April 29th release could impact weekend attendance to the opening of Paramount’s 'Iron Man' which debuted in movie theaters just a few days after the game hit the stores. Gaming, for all the vitriol being directed at it, can’t be ignored.

The Growth Of Games

So what does this mean for games as a medium and the people that enjoy it? At the moment games occupy a strange position. The popular view of gaming is that it is a toy, something meant for children, and a subversive element. At the same time, the industry itself continues to grow, its consumers continue to spend and in the span of just 20 years, it’s proven to be a large threat not to children, but to film, television, and literature in terms of its popularity. One thing that almost everyone agrees on however, is that games lack the legitimacy of established art forms. Cinema, the stage – and recently even comic books, ie graphic novels – have all been recognized as making worthwhile contributions to culture, where the very best examples of these mediums make worthy insights about the human condition, comment on social concerns and educate and enlighten their audiences. The prevailing opinion is that games do none of these things and never will, despite the fact that at one point in the infancy film, theatre and comics, exactly the same perception was held, that they were common entertainments devoid of cultural value.

Is this current popular view of games always going to remain the dominant one? It seems as though games as a medium have a lot of similarities with two other mediums that emerged largely in the 20th century, namely film and comics. Aside from the initial perception as a “vulgar entertainment,” games take much of their advances in craft from technology, pretty much like film. From comics, games have created their own version of an arch-nemesis opposed to their proliferation. For comics, it was a doctor known as Fredric Wertham who, in the 1950’s went so far as to write a book called Seduction of the Innocent as he made a correlation between children reading comics with anti-social behavior depicted, then going on to imitate those actions in real life. In the 90’s and now at the turn of the new century, that role for games has been taken up by the lawyer Jack Thompson, who also wrote a book in 2005 called Out of Harm’s Way in which he also makes assertions of anti-social behavior depicted in games being played out in real life by people who play these games, but are either of these perceptions really true? Are games really only fit as distractions for children or the ignorant, or are they somehow more culpable than other mediums of infecting the impressionable with potentially anti-social behavior?

To the second point, the answer is much more clearly turning out to be “no.” A book was recently released in April of 2008 that went by the mouthful of a title Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Videogames and What Parents Can Do. In the book, authors Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olsen reveal the final conclusions reached by a long term research project conducted by the Harvard Medical School Center For Medical Health and Media, at the request of the US Department of Justice. Their findings were that videogames pose no more of a corrupting influence than any other traditional media like films or comics. Their results even indicated that while some youth who play violent videogames for more than 15 hours a week might be prone to more violent behavior in reality, that tended to be more a result of home conditions and general behavior problems, and the videogames were merely the symptom of a larger problem. Surprisingly, the study found that children who don’t play videogames at all actually had a larger percentage of behavioral problems. The earlier so called scientific studies that anti-game proponents such as Jack Thompson usually cited as their evidence of the harmful effects of violent games were found to have questionable results. The studies were either conducted with too small a research sample, had vague interpretations of violent behavior, and some of the research doesn’t make any distinction between short term behavior and long term behavior, which can be the critical difference between a child talking about how a cool an explosion was, and actually thinking for years and months on end about that explosion in a game and going on to replicate it, rather than simply moving on after getting distracted by something else. In short, after a proper, government funded study was finally conducted on the more controversial aspects of games, they were found to be no more harmful to children than the comics and rock and roll that previous generations had condemned as threatening the very foundation of society.

The first point however, the actual social or cultural value of games, is one that, until recently, had a certain amount of merit to it. Like film, games were limited by the technology of the medium, and while films could aspire to moments of art even in the Black & White era, it was really the advent of sound, then advances in cinematography and color that unleashed the creativity of storytellers in film to tell tales that would engage audiences and make a lasting impression on them. In this sense, Games themselves have only recently entered their own “Talky phase,” as the graphical limitations finally begin to fall away, and higher production values are dedicated to such traditional media as writing and acting in games. Over the course of the last several years, a few games here and there have come that have skirted “dangerously” close to making a worthwhile or even artistic statement. Shadow of the Colossus on the Playstation 2 is perhaps the greatest current example games have of art in a unique, interactive way that only games can achieve. With only stellar – for the time – graphics, beautiful animation, music, and sparingly used cinematic cut-scenes, Shadow of the Colossus created a rich, unique experience for players who were tasked with killing the 16 “Colossi” of the game’s name, as part of a bargain to resurrect a dead, lost love. However as the game continues, players begin to question the seemingly straightforward task as it becomes obvious through the player’s actions that the Colossi may not in fact be evil. The game never makes any judgments about the player’s actions, or even give the player any kind of direct reassurances about the rightness or wrongness of the actions, instead leaving it up to the player themselves to decide if taking of these lives is worth it to bring back the girl. In the end, the answer to that question is still left entirely up to the player, but Shadow of the Colossus managed, in completely interactive manner, to make players experience complex, difficult to articulate emotions and conclusions over the many hours of gameplay that lead to its conclusion.

On the other end of the spectrum far less abstract and far more cerebral is the game Bioshock. If Shadow of the Colossus is an attempt to bring an artistic experience through interactivity Bioshock is a marriage of all the best traditional elements brought together into a game to provoke debate in a much more straightforward, intellectual way. The game, by Kevin Levine of 2K Games Boston is, on the surface a first person shooter of the Doom or Halo variety, in that corridors are wandered, strange opponents are fought against and combat is the very foundation of the gameplay. However, outside of those seemingly simple mechanics is a startlingly in depth examination of the question, “Does Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism taken to its final conclusion actually make sense?” Over the course of the game, players will find that Levine and his crew have crafted an experience that dissects the ideas proposed in famed philosophical novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, giving them a chance to explore an undersea city constructed by a prototypical Randian Superman who tired of having his genius used by the mediocre, and created an undersea utopia where he and other similarly gifted individuals could get away from the vast numbers of the average that relied on their genius to survive. Bioshock in very direct fashion explores complicated ideas of greatness, ambition, and how these factors can lead to riches or ruin and by the time the player is through with the game, they will doubtless have questioned for themselves whether or not genius is something that should be spirited away from the “dirty unwashed masses” to maintain its purity, or whether this is simply another form of pride that is prone to the same kind of hubris as any other.

There are plenty of other examples in gaming, of course, but these are two of the most celebrated in recent years. Even Grand Theft Auto IV has been making some progress with institutions traditionally aligned against games. Once again, it was the New York Times that called GTA IV a “Violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun.” If a fixture of American journalism like the New York Times can make a statement like that about a videogame, of all things, then it makes one thing very clear. The times are definitely changing.

Time Of Transition

In one sense, it’s a strange time to be coming into games, because modern society seems to be shifting over from one perception of gaming to another. On the one hand, the previous generation which grew up largely without the presence of games finds (like other generations that hadn’t been exposed to movies, comics or rock and roll) that games are an unwelcome new cultural artifact that threatens the traditional perspective of the world that they are familiar with. On the other hand, there are already two generations of people that were either introduced to games at a very early age, or were born into a world where videogames were already a growing hobby, and don’t know a time without them. These people are already easing into the reigns of power in society, and there will come a time when politicians who condemn gaming will be offending their voters, in the same way it was once acceptable—and now not—to denigrate African Americans or homosexuals. For now, there is a very practical, political consideration to taking an anti-gaming stance, as there is still a significant percentage of the population that – again as with comics, rock and roll and Dungeons & Dragons – feel their concerns are represented by someone with a publicly hostile position to what they feel threatens society. However, times do change. Racism moved from an officially state sanctioned policy to an illegal practice. Homophobia has been dwindling in society as time passes. And, most telling of all, rock and roll is no longer viewed a destructive social element for one very simple reason; all the people that listen to rock and roll and enjoyed it are now in charge and are dictating political and public policy. What they fail to realize now, is that they are making the same mistakes their elders did when they were young, fighting to listen to rock music while they couldn’t understand the threat the older generation saw in that music. The rebels of rock have now moved into the channels of power and are fighting against games because they have become the stodgy, conservative elders they once fought against in their youth, similarly threatened by something new they don’t understand.

So does any of this answer the question first asked by the article? Have games grown up yet?

For now, I think the answer is “No, but growing up is happening.” It will take a certain combination of elements before games can be accepted as a “mature medium” with the same cultural legitimacy that film lovers with high definition theaters enjoy today. The technology of games still has a lot of room for expansion, and games need to get over their particular holy grail, namely photo realistic visuals, before they can finally concentrate on their greatest strength, interactivity, a quality that no other media before games has ever possessed. Games also need to be completely embraced by society – or at the very least, not viewed as a threat – and this is only going to happen in the next 20-30 years as the generation the came before games either dies, or retires from the sphere of policy-making and lets younger generations that have grown up with games simply as a fact of life take over the reigns of power.

Finally, the other thing that games need, perhaps the most crucial ingredient, is the unpredictable combination of artist and art. In every other medium, there an artist and work that somehow finally elevates that medium into public acceptance. In the case of the most recent “inductee” into legitimate artistic mediums, comics have the likes of Frank Miller, Alan Moore and perhaps Neil Gaiman as key figures that created works so potent the critics could no longer keep dismissing comics as children’s distractions. In film, it was the work of greats like Orson Welles, and before him, Sergei Eisenstein or D.W. Griffith that took film from something merely amusing to something that could act as a vehicle for artistic and social contribution. Do games have a Frank Miller or Orson Welles yet? Some would argue that the likes of Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid fame or Shigeru Miyamoto who has recently unleashed the Wii and Wii Fit upon the world are luminaries in the industry that could conceivably push gaming into a much more publicly celebrated sphere of perception. But games have yet to have that combination of a brilliant creator coupled with a brilliant work that makes the mainstream fall all over themselves to embrace the medium the way comics and film eventually did. There are great games, yes. And there are certainly great game developers, but neither of these two factors have yet impress the established critical, academic and pop culture spheres simultaneously, but at this point, it’s probably just a matter of time now. Games may not be considered a serious, mature art form, but they’ve come a long way from simply being regarded as something only kids play in the family basement, and their entrenchment in the culture is only going to become more secure with the advancing of the years and the technology.

Wayne Santos's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.

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