What Games Are: The Unfulfilled Promise Of Videogames

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

There are few figures in the games industry more deserving of respect than Chris Crawford. He founded GDC, has designed numerous games and written many books that are considered vital reading for budding game designers. Like many game makers Crawford wants gaming to be meaningful, at least as much as movies, ideally more. He’s not the only one.

While Crawford is trying to make games and stories work together, others attack the problem differently. Jane McGonigal, for instance, is very focused on helpful applications of gaming in the real world. Gabe Zicherman is promoting the idea of gamification. David Cage is focused on stories and games and beating Hollywood. Palmer Luckey wants to make your virtual reality dreams come true.

All of them are trying to fulfill the great promise of videogames. It’s a promise that most of us have instinctively felt at one time or another. It’s the cyberpunk future sentiment (without the depressing bits), the time when games are all. Growing up in the age of computers and technology and watching games grow up, we can almost taste it. We don’t just like to play videogames, we like to imagine how they might influence society. We like, as noted designer and author Eric Zimmerman advocates, to think of the 21st century as the “ludic” century. The century when games become the premiere art form.

Problem and Promise

“Easy” problems may be very difficult to solve yet their their parameters are definable. But “hard” problems have qualities that are indefinable. A certain segment of the games industry thrives in considering games as a hard problem. There is much wrangling over what the idea of “game” even means. There are many debates over the maturity of games, what games should become and what lens they should be viewed through. There’s a lot of extrapolation over where games might go. And yet.

The problem with always thinking of games in terms of their promise is that the present looks disappointing. If you’re deep in the scene, for example, you probably already know that Grand Theft Auto V sold a hilarious number of copies. But you also know that the reaction from the critical community has been lukewarm. Meh, they say. Where’s the progress? Where’s the sense of the next step on this journey? Why are we repeating ourselves? Why do we seem to be stuck?

The problem is not the market but rather the promise itself. It is the key growing pain of games as a medium. Fundamentally what the promise says is that games are not yet good enough (in whatever capacity) and could be better. Deeper perhaps. More meaningful. More engaging. More social. More visceral. More real. More… But what if they are good enough? What if this is all there is?

Videogames have been around for a long time. You buy and play them on your chosen device. What do you do in them? Mostly you swap jellies, race cars, grow virtual vegetables, sort words, wait on tables, fish, dance, fight, shoot stuff and so on. They may be difficult to learn but the essence of what they are is not hard to grasp. We’ve been playing them for decades, and the successful ones often have a sense of format. Not formula per se, but certainly of form.

Yet the very fact that games are in some ways formed aggravates some. Leigh Alexander, for example, eloquently captures the essence of her frustration: What used to be fun is now an empty experience because she’s been here before. Crawford doesn’t play games any more. Both are reflecting a tiredness with games as they are and wish them to move on. When’s their promise going to come true? When will they be more than they’ve been?

Better Promises

Sidestep the all-too-typical press rage and look at what Rockstar has made in GTA V. It’s an incredible playpen with a lot of action, detail and satire. Consider the scale of it and how much human effort was involved. It may have the same form as previous GTAs, but what’s wrong with that? A whole lot of other media settles into successful patterns but it doesn’t bother us. Why should it with games?

Games don’t really change from game to game, platform to platform. They tend, like any art form, to have some practical boundaries beyond which they become difficult to make work. They don’t necessarily live up to everyone’s dreams all the time, but that’s okay. As a type of thing they may be well understood but that’s not necessarily cause for misery. We may not live in the founderwork age of games any more, the time when games could be considered to be in their infancy. But that’s no cause to be depressed.

One of the most powerful and important stories through the medium for at least the last two years is representation. There’s Tropes vs Women. There’s Anna Anthropy. There’s critical observations that GTA  doesn’t yet have the balls to include a female protagonist. Game makers are not yet confident enough in themselves to regularly show strong powerful women, such as Sandra Bullock aptly reminds us can be done in Gravity. There’s the growing sense that game makers need to broaden their horizons, and that doing so isn’t some endless hard problem. It’s tangible, doable and happening.

Another issue is the acceptance of games outside of the community that already knows what they could be. It’s about how the medium is treated, such as in the press, and how it is in the ludic century that companies like Apple still treat games as second class culture. Platforms still commonly stand in the way of games, often with no reasonable justification, and that’s a problem that few are tackling head-on. It’s not just about making incredible games like Papers Please. It’s about getting those games into the hands of people who play on iPads or game consoles.

Overcoming those kinds of issue are, to me at least, how we fulfill the real promise of games. I don’t care if games never really beat movies at their own game, or if gamification or exercise/motivational games always remain on the fringes. I also don’t mind that most game mechanics are recycled. They simply provide a great framework to take content to interesting, even promising, places. I fully expect most games we have to day will still be alive and well throughout the ludic century.

I don’t think it’s useful to think of games in founderwork terms any more. I want to see more and better games that are cultural events. But I don’t think that we have to keep finding fault with the form itself in order to get there. We may have invented many genres of game and in some ways repeat ourselves year after year, but that doesn’t mean we have failed.

(Image credit: From a cover of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker)