Fixing “Videogames”

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

Videogames are taking over the world. Videogames are bigger than movies, books, music, cars, mobile phones and sandwiches. Videogames are diverse, wonderful, causes for celebration. Videogames are art. Videogames are the tipping point of a 21st century revolution. Videogames aren’t some corner obsessive activity on the fringes of culture. Videogames make all the money. Videogames are going to win.

So they tell me. So I’ve told you on many occasions. It’s not just a matter of conjecture or wishes for the future. There are numerous examples of super successful games. There are games that make more money than the national economies of small countries. There are games that manage to elicit that thaumatic experience which the medium is uniquely able to deliver. There are games that artistically play with the medium and do very bold things. You already know all this, I’m sure.

And yet games don’t seem to be taking over the world. Games struggle to gain a wider acceptance equivalent to their footprint. Plenty of people play games but much fewer want to really associate themselves with “Videogames”, the culture around games rather than their content or the activity of play. Videogames is an entity that many people within gaming talk about, participate in and subscribe to. And Videogames is often not warm. It’s cold, sour and riven with civil warfare.

My Kind Of Gaming

One example this week is the reaction to an article by Ian Bogost at the Atlantic. Bogost asks a perfectly intellectual question about the direction of the gaming medium, about whether the focus on characters at the expense of expressive systems was a bad choice. His is a question analogous to any that a literary critic would ask about whether the novel had gone wrong (as they do from time to time). In any other medium such a question would be a cause for debate, for thought, for response essays and so on. Mostly, however, what Ian Bogost sees in response is a variety of hysterical responses accusing him of trying to kill Videogames.

Whether you sit on the lefty indie/arts side or the righty consumerist/product side of gaming culture you do so in relation to Videogames. There are those hyperactively feel the need to defend Videogames, and those believe that Videogames has to die or change in order to evolve. However that’s simplistic. The argument over Videogames tends to seem like red-vs-blue to the death, but the reds and the blues often change. Historically there are many factions and sub-factions who endlessly disagree over language and take any opportunity to beat down each other rather than communicate. Why? Because someone somewhere is always wrong about Videogames.

The kind of frothing that follows is spectacular both in its breadth and its capacity for cognitive dissonance. One example is the way that It works itself up in a variety of rages over criticism (ask Anita Sarkeesian). Another is the way that whatever the current sides happen to be actively generate drama. Another example, also from this week, is watching Gamergate attempt to resurrect itself by bigging up a new hashtag cause (#NotYourShield being effectively dead) in the form of #LetDevsSpeak. (an EA exec retweeted a notorious GG self promoter, found himself auto-blocked by the people sick to death of being baited by GG, wrote about how he felt blocklists were a bad idea, attracted the ire of a journalist who in turned complained on Twitter, and somehow GG rolled this up into a story about “devs” being “silenced” because some people use the Twitter block function to get mental garbage out of their feed).

It’s always basically like that, and a lot of it is to do with identity. Every group involved defines itself in relation to Videogames. And in so doing all of them, without exception, are arguing from a smaller understanding of games. When any group actually makes invocations to Videogames, what they actually mean is “my kind of gaming”. But, interestingly, they often don’t see it that way. They think they speak for everyone.

The People’s Front of Gaming

Gamers, whether of the gamergater variety or a bit less extreme, usually subscribe to the idea gaming is taking over the world. They happily tell you that there are over 1 billion players now (if you include iPhone, Facebook, Web, Asia, this is probably true) but they don’t say it like that. What they say is there are over 1 billion gamers. No numbers back that assertion up but the attachment to the idea that their kind of gaming is taking over the world is very strong. They yell at you if you say otherwise. On the opposite side the argument can be equally as vociferous. A couple of years ago two designers, Raph Koster and Anna Anthropy, had a go-around over comments that Koster made about Anthropy’s game dys4ia and it blew up into a (smaller, but just as volatile) saga over who got to call what a game.

So the argument is not about “gaming taking over the world” but rather “my kind of gaming taking over the world, and yours is in the way”. But in fact nobody’s kind of gaming is taking over anything. Everybody’s obsessed on the internal fight, on trying to “win” Videogames as a prelude, and so in large part the culture around always ends up descending a kind of bickering reminiscent over the argument about which rebellious group is most pure in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (the People’s Front of Judea vs the Judean People’s Front and so on). And that’s why gaming as a culture struggles to cross the great divide. All sides are often too wrapped up in struggles over who is most pure.

You may be thinking that of course it’s ridiculous to expect gaming audiences to receive such a question such as Bogost’s in an adult fashion because Videogames. But I’d counter that it’s not ridiculous any more. Gaming was young once but it’s practically middle aged now. Of course there are many young fans who tend to be as easily led as pop music fans are, and who react from the hip. But gaming as an activity is much larger than them. Most reasonable people would ask why, given all the history, the evolution and the expansion of the form, players are still arguing theology over the feckless god Videogames.

The Bind

There’s not a game maker that I respect who isn’t sick to death of Videogames and the sense of self-entitlement and drama that comes with it. Whether in the business of trying to make fun engines or quirky art installation projects, the prospect of running the TotalBiscuit-style gauntlet makes developers cringe. Their kind of “pro-consumer” position devolves into the psychology of the bullied in turn bullying, the mentality of dissatisfaction in the face of nostalgia, the self-appointed demanding appeasement. This makes developers shake their heads, look for different markets or even different industries. It’s usually not worth the grief.

It also prevents the medium from growing in some ways. Regardless of whether you love or hate certain movies, the movie world is big enough to allow both the Uwe Bolls and the Francis Ford Coppolas without doxing or making death threats to either. Not so with Videogames. Not unlike the state of comics fans in the 1980s, todays gamers come with a “seller beware” association. An association that says “Are you sure you really want to deal with these people? Why not make casino games instead?”

And that in turn affects the growth of the overall business. While the adherents of Videogames remain loyal to their PCs and consoles, their numbers are smaller than they would like and their chosen platforms not able to keep up in terms of user numbers with their expectations. This creates all sorts of pressures. Meanwhile mobile gaming is reaching vastly more numbers of players (not gamers, players) and is unencumbered by the baggage of Videogames. And so, arguably, it exerts more real cultural influence around games than the churchy platforms of Videogames.

But mobile’s also highly mass-market focused which means it’s difficult for new game makers to get a look in. This leaves many innovative game makers in a bind. Do they go to the easier platforms and run the gauntlet, or do they attempt to go mainstream and play the long odds of scoring success there in the face of Clash of Clans? Increasingly its seems there’s no middle ground. Either you get swept up in Videogames or you avoid its touch entirely.

Transcending Videogames

At the end of last week I went on a hike called GDC Feet, an annual post-GDC stroll around the beaches and parks of San Francisco. Organized by my friend Richard Lemarchand (an associate professor teaching game design at USC and former designer on the Uncharted series) there were about 25 of us. It was a glorious day of sand and surf, unseasonably warm and bright, more akin to May than early Spring.

Richard had created a game setting for the hike. In the game we were all actually inter-dimensional travelers from the future projecting back into a troubled past, and essentially playing characters having a reflective conversation about the future. I admit at first I thought the game aspect a little silly. In my youth I used to create similar live action scenario games, and I’m familiar both with their delights and their limits. I played along a little while walking along the beach and listening to the surf, and thought.

Many of the people who joined us for the hike were students and younger developers, and as we walked I began to listen to them more. They were enthusiastic, into it and not approaching the game with the usual cynicism that being a professional in games involuntarily invokes. There was no combativeness over what was the correct game, the right way to play, anything. We were just hanging out pretending to be better people from a better future while on a ramble.

I find that this experience comes back to me a week later. It reminds that play is important, but also that play is just play, and I often feel that this is something that Videogames robs us of. It’s the true cost of the big-V idea that it eventually turns all play into something judgmental, callous and mean. A few friends walking on the beach and simply imagining on the other hand, is a good time. Gaming should be similarly so simply joyful, meaningful and plain-text.

And so maybe as a way to get to that state, where we just have fun or sad feelings and like what we spend our time playing, we need to get the hell away from Videogames. Comics authors started to come out from under the shadow of “Comics” by opting to call themselves something else: Graphic Novelists. Maybe game makers should do something similar. For me at least there’s a real distinction now between video games and Videogames, between just wanting to make and enjoy good things versus pouring them through a sarky cultural lens that demands obedience.

I know which one I enjoy more.