Feb 222008

Yesterday Kotaku put up an article about Barack Obama’s line in which he says people “…are going to have to parent better, and turn off the television sets, and put the video games away, and instill a sense of excellence in our children…” The particular editor at Kotaku clearly overreacted by seeing this as Obama using games a metaphor for underachievment. That’s clearly not the point. But if it were, it would be a largely valid point, and more importantly a point with which most Americans would agree for mostly correct reasons. Anyone who has read this blog for more than a week knows I am not saying this because I believe games to be devoid of artistic content. Quite the opposite: I earnestly believe games have the power to convey stimulating stories and emotions in a uniquely powerful way. Unfortunately, most video games, and especially the video games that have the most impact on popular culture, fall far short of this ideal. True video gaming enthusiasts are not the only ones to blame for this problem. However, they are well-placed to do something about it.

The main features supporting Obama’s (and the larger public’s) view are pretty obvious. For the most part, games are not a physical activity, although the Wii is changing that to some extent. They generally do not convey enlightening or even interesting stories. Because they divorce themselves so totally from the science, history, or mythology on which they occasionally claim to be based, the vast majority of games are not even slightly educational. Indeed, in this regard they are usually so far off base they aren’t even wrong. It is at least possible, even likely, that shooters and gory games desensitize their players to violence (though not necessarily uniquely so), especially if those players are young. The majority of television and movies are at least as bad and probably worse. However, video games shouldn’t make a negative case versus competing media; they should try to stand positively on their own. This, at present, they cannot do, particularly not as they are perceived in the larger culture. Given what the average person knows, a parent promoting any alternative activity, be it reading books or playing with sticks, over video games would be acting reasonably. At least the sticks won’t make your kids dumber.

What makes this so upsetting to me is that it need not be so. Many games rely on critical thinking and problem solving skills. Games largely do not possess the “quick cuts” common in commercials and film that are suspected to adversely affect attention span and concentration. In fact, most games reward concentration and careful observation. And despite the generally grim situation, there are many games that include interesting and stimulating narratives. Even the first-person shooter genre, justifiably reviled for its generally awful writing, recently developed entries that featured a genuinely interesting story (BioShock) and an extremely clever and novel mechanic (Portal). Games like these, that favor inventiveness and storytelling over crystal-clear graphics of aliens’ heads getting blown to bits, are rare gems to be celebrated.

But why? Why is BioShock the revelation, instead of being the status quo? Why is Shadow of the Colossus the exception rather than the rule? The reason is that the low (intellectual) quality muzzle-flash-and-gore spectacles sell. They sell spectacularly, and the simple fact is that companies have not just a desire, but an obligation (to their shareholders) to maximize their profits. If cow manure sold like candy bars, you’d never see another Snickers vending machine. The reason gamers don’t get candy is that they’re willing to buy crap.

Why are there great artistic movies, despite the triumphant profits of summer blockbuster pablum? Because there are people that believe in movies as an art form, who support artistic movies, who tell their friends about the emotionally moving films they see and encourage those people to support them. Some of these buffs also enjoy the occasional schlock film, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with schlock films or watching them, as long as you don’t confuse Transformers with Citizen Kane. Look, Halo isn’t art. It’s got art—perhaps even really good art—in it, but hey, Face/Off had some great cinematography and set design. That doesn’t mean Face/Off isn’t schlock—nobody in film confused dual-wielding Nic Cage with Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Halo is great fun, but the perception of the broader culture is that we see Halo and Gears of War as the pinnacle of the gaming artform, while I think the genuine perception of gamers is that these are the easily-discarded summer blockbusters.

Game publishers appear to be content to let the public perception stand. Thus, it falls to the enthusiasts to help elevate the form. We can do that in many ways. The most obvious, and the one most likely to directly impact the choices made by publishers, is to shift our purchasing habits. When you come across a game that makes an artistic statement, buy it; when you want to play a game that doesn’t, rent (or ignore) instead. Stop pre-ordering games—require publishers to demonstrate quality and artistry before you buy. When it becomes favorable to a company’s bottom line to push artistry over flash, they will do so. Why? Because they love money.

In that same vein, reward reviewers (with your traffic) if they focus their greatest attention on the artistic merits of games. I know the initial reaction to this is to say that reviewers should review games for “what they’re trying to be” rather than focusing on the artistic aspects. That’s a bunch of crap. Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin, and that funny-looking guy from the Today show could all pan the hell out of the next entry in the “Michael Bay Blows Up” series (Michael Bay Blows Up Alcatraz, Michael Bay Blows Up Asteroids, Michael Bay Blows Up Your Childhood, etc.), and it will still make hundreds of millions of dollars. Game publishers and designers, as well as the purchasing public, need to develop a similar attitude towards bad reviews of schlock games, instead of insisting that review scores reflect popularity or ultimate sales. If Halo is bad art, give it an F, even if it’s a good time. There’s nothing wrong with doing that as long as the audience is aware of your angle, as they are with Ebert.

The final thing to do is for enthusiasts ourselves to talk about games as art, and to focus on artistic games when gaming comes up in casual conversation. Enthusiasts must get in the habit of talking (or writing) about games as art, rather than purely entertainment. The earnest, well-articulated, public attitude that games are art will do a great deal to promote this view in others, even if they have no direct experience of artistic games.

Obama was right to say what he did, and the next politician to say it will be right, and the next one after that, up to the day you lose your teeth and your mind. Games will always be a juvenile, inferior medium unappreciated by the public at large unless those who love them most put real pressure on developers, publishers, and reviewers to transform the motivations and attitudes that inform game creation and media response. If dollars support the best art instead of the best gloss, better art will be made and supported by the industry, and if the public at large gets used to seeing games discussed as art, criticized as art, and publicized as art, they will get used to thinkingof them as art.

  3 Responses to “Dear gamers: please stop buying crap”

  1. Michael, reading this post actually sparked a bit of interest in video games (for the very first time, ever) in my much-older-than-most-of-your-readers brain. And given the growing evidence that older brains must "use it or lose it," it strikes me that there's great potential here in terms of activities to challenge older brains and keep them sharp. Maybe games with narratives and characters that would resonate with older folks? Do you know if anyone is working on anything like this? Seems like something interesting for geriatric medicine specialists to explore.

  2. Well, it's actually becoming increasingly common to see Wiis used in nursing homes and geriatric facilities as a means of providing low-impact physical activities. My understanding is that the current approach is to use things like Wii Play. I agree that the ideal sort of game would be one that fuses a story with the physical activity to provide mental as well as physical stimulation. It would be even better if you could do something like Professor Layton where (mild) brain teasers are built into the story to help keep the brain working along with the body.

    The ideal approach with this sort of game would be to provide a core game with additional weekly content downloads. You could even do it like the old serial movies, with a cliffhanger every week. Thus, the story would stimulate additional exercise. Admittedly, the task of writing for this would be exhausting. You would need a large team of skilled writers and plenty of lead time for them to develop content so they're scripting a year or so in advance. It would be a pretty complicated design task as well. Hopefully, initiatives like that of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will underwrite the early development stages of a project of this kind.

    As for games that have narratives and characters that resonate with older people: not really. Although the average age of gamers is moving into the 30s, the developers do not seem to have responded at all. Honestly, most of the story content in games is still material that's too simplistic even for 20-year-olds. Most of the games that include more mature content (by which I mean content that would intellectually appeal to an adult) are not particularly accessible to non-gamers. I think that's a terrible shame: the developer that comes up with a game that combines intelligence with accessibility may transform the art of games and their perception. I'm just not aware of anyone who's trying.

  3. First time reader, great blog.
    This is a really interesting post. I think you nailed it.

    I totally agree, the developers need to start making games for different demographics. And putting more thought it video games. It seems games like Brain Games, even though very simple, and kind of repetitive are geared towards a little wider audience.

    I recently got my senior father a Wii and a Gamefly subscription. He has been really enjoying some of the simpler games. And the physical aspect of it is really great.
    I also have to young teens that game and have naturally gravitated to these more intricate games like Bioshock. So it seems that if they make them, the customer will be there.

    You better go pitch that serial game idea now, before someone steals it. Great idea!

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