2.09.2008

Wager

[Thank you to everyone who has added thoughtful response to this post:

Borut Pfeifer took my bet, as did my friend Marek Bronstring. Michael Samyn contributed an important distinction to the argument. N'Gai Croal was kind enough to lend his considerable insight to the issue in a pair of posts, working from a wide base of media criticism. John Walker lent his thoughts to my, Borut, and N'gai's pieces in an entry on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. It is heartening to see so much knowledge and passion enter into this debate.]

I'm not normally a gambling man, but I'm in a betting mood. Maybe a bit pessimistic, too. And I'll bet you that video games will never become a significant form of cultural discourse the way that novels and film have. I'll bet you that fifty years from now they'll be just as mature and well-respected as comic books are today.

I feel this way due partly to the inherent formal obstacles to video games' wide acceptance, and partly because of the uninspiring mindset prevalent among the developers and players of games. I make the comics comparison because I believe the two media have much in common at a high level.

Video games are hard for people to get into. The barrier for entry is higher than perhaps any other popular entertainment medium. To read a book, all you need to do is go to a library, pick one up, and start reading (which isn't usually an obstacle considering the high literacy rate in the modern world.) At the advent of popular film, you only needed to walk to a movie theatre and pay your nickel (or nowadays, ten bucks) to see the latest release. Processing the experience isn't an issue: sit, watch, and you've received an experience equal to anyone else in the audience.

Television brought moving pictures into the home, and presented a more significant obstacle: the large sum required to purchase a television set. But this was a one-time fee, and once installed, the viewer needed only tune in, sit down, and enjoy. Cable television, VHS, DVD, satellite, all required a nominal entry or recurring fee and specialized hardware, but the media received was passive and accessible. It required no physical investment or learned skill to enjoy.

Then came the internet; the fee for entry was highest of all, requiring a home computer, and the physical and skill investments were equally taxing: one had to frequently interact with a mouse and keyboard, know how to type, and understand the interface of their chosen operating system and the conventions of the internet well enough to get online and navigate effectively. But the received media itself was familiar-- static words, images and video-- and the required skills could be picked up from a suburban gradeschool or common office job. As the relative price of a home computer dropped and usability of the web increased, the internet became the new millennium's shared media experience of choice.

How do video games fit into this scheme? Their popular debut fell between television and home video, and was highly accessible: Pong, Pac Man and Centipede arrived in bars, movie theatres, bowling alleys and arcades, and one needed only drop in their quarter and try their hand. Sure, they were more like electronic carnival games than any sort of meaningful media experience, but they touched lots of people and indoctrinated them into the conventions of video games. Home games such as the Atari and NES came next, gradually overtaking the popularity of arcade games and putting standup cabinets out of business. These home consoles had major barriers to entry: the high financial cost of the unit itself as well as each game cartridge, the physical requirement that one constantly be manipulating a control pad or joystick while taking in the experience, and the skill investment of learning how to excel at them without failing. Home PC games became popular at this time as well, and only rebalanced the same barriers: PCs were significantly more expensive than home consoles but had less general usefulness than they do now, while still requiring constant input and mental investment in deciphering play mechanics to avoid failure.

Over time, the technical and systemic complexity of video games have increased, while the barriers to entry have largely remained undamaged. Taking inflation into account, the cost of a home console unit has stayed largely constant since the mid-80's (and the price of a competent gaming PC has similarly kept pace;) controllers have sprouted more buttons, gyroscopes, and analogue sticks than ever; and it's still extremely common for games of high quality to be too difficult for a non-gamer to play effectively.

In other words, 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.

People don't want to enter into an agreement that requires them to be constantly fiddling with a complex input device. They don't want to expend effort understanding an interactive space. They don't want to face failure while trying to be entertained. They simply want to sit back and enjoy. They want media that will go on without them. They want received experience. Passiveness. They want to relax in front of the television set, doing not much of anything.

That is one aspect of why video games will never be a relevant cultural medium.



The second is the form of expression itself used by video games, and the pervasive attitude of the people who create and consume them.

The mode of expression in a video game is the interactive system. The simplest game would contain one system. Pong, for instance, is born out of the interplay of three systems: player input moves the paddles up and down; the ball bounces back and forth according to a simple physics simulation; a score increments based on the ball leaving one or the other side of the screen. So, you move your paddles to affect the ball, which affects the score. Fast forward to a popular contemporary game like Grand Theft Auto 3, Halo, or The Sims. The number of systems in constant interplay is countless. One must be systems-literate enough to process the outputs and required inputs of these webs of interactivity to gain any benefit from the experience. Compared to film, television and books, which all use plain talk and linear plot to express their meaning, video games speak to the audience in a completely different language. They are not an extension of normal everyday experience the way that popular, passive media is; the interactive system wields its own unique semiotic vocabulary and grammar. It is alien, unfamiliar, other. This isn't to say that film doesn't have its own grammar; but it's a grammar used for viewing the familiar and dramatic through a specific lens. Receiving meaning through personal dialogue with an interactive system is an altogether different beast.

This is one way in which comics are similar to video games. Comics speak to the viewer through their own complex set of symbols and conventions, born of a marriage between graphic design, illustration, and prose. At their best, comics exploit this mode of communication to its fullest, best demonstrated probably in the work of Chris Ware. He uses his incredibly deep understanding of the language of comics to express human experience in a way that no other medium could, instead of fighting against the constraints of the page. One could similarly say that games are at their best when they demonstrate a deep understanding of how interactive systems communicate with the player, and convey human experience in ways that no other medium could. Also like video games, Wares' comics require physical and mental investment by the reader: one often has to turn the entire book round in circles to view images or text that are oriented at 90 degree angles to one another, track panels that wind around and underneath one another, or lean into a page to decipher minuscule drawings and text.

But comics and video games are alike in another way: they both remain marginalized, infantilized media, where the Wares are the rarest exception and the medium in general holds little to no value outside of very specific circles. The highest ideal of the vast majority of creators is to force the medium into being something it's not, and the largest segment of the audience consists of juveniles, in age or mindset, who haven't "graduated" to more respected forms of entertainment.

Browse the racks of a standard comic shop, and the books on the mainstream shelves will be filled with flashy illustrations depicting laughable actions stories, absurdly-proportioned women, and superheroes. Likewise, browse the racks of an Electronics Boutique and you're bound to find mostly sports stars, Japanese children's cartoons, burly men with guns, and women in shameless, implausible dress. The medium infantalizes itself through its chosen subject matter. Based on surface alone, I can't blame the outside viewer for thinking little of the medium at large.

But content aside, the majority of both comics and games aim squarely at being something they're not-- movies-- and become less compelling experiences for the effort. Mainstream comics feature vaguely lifelike renderings of idealized humans in action-packed situations (sound familiar?); they are drawings of movies, instead of being comics for comics' sake. Clearly the same applies to mainstream games, aiming for "realism" in visuals and juvenile coolness in character and story, trying to be "cinematic" without understanding that the real value of a video game comes from being uncinematic, unrealistic; from embracing the otherness of the form and expressing human experience in ways that a movie never could.

Film and novels never had to overcome the stigma of starting out as children's distractions. They may not always have been respected artforms, but they were at least always seen as entertainment, if low-brow, aimed at adults. But like comics, video games are never going to grow up. Some sixty years after the wartime comic book boom, the vast majority of comics are still male wish fulfillment trash sold to children, poor drawings of stills from movies that no one would want to fund or film. A small subset, represented by the catalogues of publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, is mature and thoughtful, looking to express relateable human experience in a way unique to the medium, aimed at readers who have an appreciation for the form. And an even tinier sliver, zines and underground publications, embraces the experimental and avant garde, attempting to push the boundaries of the medium and catering only to those most passionate and inquisitive as to what the future of comics might be.

Likewise, the overwhelming majority of video games, the big 99 percent, are adolescent male fantasy or cheap cash-ins: army men, sports cars, cartoons and zombies and superheroes, trying (and failing) to reproduce the realistic rendering of film, trying (and failing) to be "cinematic" by inserting frail little fake movies throughout the experience; a small subset tries to exploit the medium in thoughtful ways and express something unique or meaningful through interactive systems-- maybe the The Sims systemically mirroring everyday life, or Ico expressing a tender relationship without words. And there's that tiny, marginalized sliver of experimentalism represented by The Marriage, Passage, or any number of other no-budget independent projects that toil in obscurity, trying to expand what games can be. And at this rate, that's all there will ever be.

As they are now, games will remain marginalized and juvenile like comics. I believe that only the rarest developers will be able to exploit what makes games unique and powerful, and the rest will remain flashy male power fantasies, selling but lacking significance. The development and publishing community at large are not trying to change this, and the audience does not seem to want it. Without addressing serious barriers to entry and core design philosophy issues, I do not believe that games will be accepted and respected as a valid medium of expression, ever. Video games have the potential to say great things, but they currently do not have the means to say them to very many.

The odds are stacked. I say games are never going to grow up. Care to make a wager?




[ADDENDUM: After receiving some comments, I expanded my point a bit. Below, I clarify a few issues.]

I'd like to clarify that I'm not talking about the ratio of good vs. crap product, or the ratio of "art" versus "non-art." I'm not talking about quality or artfulness at all. I'm talking about broad cultural relevance to the lives of the general population.

90% of all creative endeavor is crap, but at least with film, television or books it's culturally relevant crap. And the good stuff is rightly respected, because it can speak to anyone who might take it in.

The good 10% of comics and games are lost because the medium itself isn't relevant to the viewership at large. Even the games that are great, the ones that I can read as being valuable, are almost always hidden under the juvenile veneer of big guns, tanks, zombies, robots and so forth. Much like The Watchmen is a legitimately great comic, it's inaccessible to people outside the limited group that understand how it reworks the popular superhero context. To anyone outside the fanship, it's just a comic about guys in tights, just like Half-Life 2 is simply another game about shooting monsters.

Games could lower their barrier to entry: we've seen it in The Sims, where the only required input is clicking and then choosing an action. No memorization of keybinds, no reflex-based gameplay or required facility with a gamepad. Accessibility of interface doesn't translate to simplification of the range of expressable interactions. Why has no one taken the lessons from the Sims-- the ones that have made it one of the most successful and enduring franchises in video game history-- and applied them to other types of games? Direct input-- having a "jump button" and "shoot button," etc.-- limits accessibility.

Filling a game with explicit failure states requiring replay of level segments upon death limits accessibility. Why are the games we focus on so concerned with life-or-death situations? Why is violence the only kind of conflict we've refined to such a level of fidelity? It's easy and it sells to the established market. The situations and conflicts expressed in games don't relate to most people's lives. Games don't pursue the kinds of headings you see in a video rental store-- romance, drama, comedy. Our designs still hinge on simple actions-- "shoot gun," "drive car," "solve puzzle."

Suits and investors need to be concerned with this shit. Who do you want to be backing further down the line: an insular, stunted medium like comics, or a full-grown, culturally-relevant, and hey, PROFITABLE, medium like film? We aren't going to reach that point by catering to the current hardcore. And we're not doing ourselves any good by assaulting the casual gamer with the deluge of crap that's been thrown at the Wii audience so far. We're going to expand our customer base by trying to give them new, subtle, interesting approaches to interactive experiences that are universal and human. We need to give them access to this form that we already know is so great, and fill it with content that they can identify with, get something enriching out of.

I don't know if that's going to happen. My bet still stands.


[NOTE: On manga: After receiving a number of comments, I feel I should address this aspect.]

I am familiar with the cultural relevance of manga in Japan. It's a wonderful medium that grew up with Japan's baby boom following WW2, and has blossomed into an element of everyday life there. The variety of art styles and subject matter is unprecedented, depicting everything from young boys' adventure stories to soap opera-style dramas for housewives and niche volumes on playing the flute or cooking pasta, and everything in between. Manga is available at any newsstand in a wide variety of forms, and read by millions on trains, at cafes, and at home.

Which is why I don't say that video games are heading down the path of manga. I could make a post about how games should be more like manga, and in fact I think we're seeing some of that positive influence now, especially coming from, unsurprisingly, Japan: Cooking Mama, Phoenix Wright, Trauma Center, and more tackle interactions that games in the past have hardly touched. It's good.

Overall, the Japanese video game market is receding, and game development at large seems to be driven by the west. Manga is lovely, but this post is not about how games are or aren't like manga.



[NOTE: On box office: Many people have brought up sales numbers for games, and film adaptations]

I'm not arguing that games are going to "die" or that they don't make money; clearly games now make a lot of money. My note about fostering an industry that will be "profitable" is meant in the longterm-- I don't think that games in their current state have created an effective framework for a sustainable industry. If we only cater to the hardcore and the very casual, we create a revolving door when those groups start to lose interest, either by "growing out" of hardcore games or finding nothing interesting past Tetris and Zuma. We would do well to create a lifetime market.

Many have directly equated games' financial success with cultural relevance; someone even went to far as to say that Halo 3's retail release was "covered by every major news outlet," as if that seals the deal: video games must be just as important to people's lives as TV or movies are, right? I seem to remember 'every major news outlet' covering the death of Superman in the early 90's as well. It's a silly leap of logic to make.

The idea that film adaptations of comics being successful means that comics themselves are a "significant form of cultural discourse" is completely misguided. Films are co-opting comics to bolster their own success; movies are the significant form here, not comics. Do all those millions of people who watched Spider-Man the movie also read the comics they're based on, much less consider the broader comic form as something relevant to their everday life?

I'd wager not.

68 comments:

Hoatzin, Man of Mystery said...

-The bottom line is that anything that any, even minor unit of the general population enjoys will somehow inform the cultural discourse.

-Most people don't read good books. Most people don't watch good movies. Most people don't play good games. Most people drink Budweiser rice lager and Folgers dehydrated robusta chemimstry and don't know any better. Most people are not woth wasting good things on.

-Most people are not involved in the creation of culture. Most people are consumers. Really good art really only exists for the benefit and enjoyment of other artists. By and large only designers can appreciate a cleanly laid-out page of text in an inoffensive type. People who cook a lot have a far more thorough appreciation of a finely executed meal. And so on.

-I guess in one breath I am making a populist and an elitist argument; I accept a weird combination of lowbrow and highbrow (comic books, video games, literature, music, etc.) and don't care how great majority of the world sees them.

-So relax, there is nothing to lament or be pessimistic about. There will be very few really good, nuanced games from now on and for ever more, and you will gladly enjoy them all.

Anonymous said...

I won't bet against you, but fuck it, I like that games have an instant filter to keep people who don't know how to think away from them.

When I worked in a drug store there was no "humanity" filter to keep poor, drug-addicted people out. Consequently, I had the pleasure of dealing with the people society cast aside.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the fact that those same people would be tossed on their ass instantly if they showed up at Mercedes dealership and attempted to buy a car with pocket lint and Hot Pockets coupons.

If people can't be bothered to think, solve puzzles, strategize, and scheme to win a game, then they have no business being involved in gaming. We should *NOT* bring games down to the level where we eliminate what makes them challenging just so the general public can participate.

Reggie Fils-Aime may have made VH1 more successful by changing the channel’s content from adult oriented music videos to inane top 10 lists, but that doesn't mean he made it *better*

For our sake as gamers, I hope your wager is right.

-Tom H

Billy King said...

It's complicated to guess how the medium's appeal will change in the coming years and decades, but I have no doubt that it will at least become as accepted as any other art form. Almost all the people that create the negative stigma that's always been attached to games have come from older generations where games weren't a big thing in their childhoods. In twenty years time the world will be in the hands of people who grew up paying games as much as watching films and reading books, and their popularity will only grow and grow as they become more accessible to all types of people (as we're seeing now with the Wii and DS). Already they're accomplishing more than comics could manage (mums and grandparents reading Spiderman by the millions = not happening).

As for the maturity, Hoatzin (above) brought up some good points. The bestselling films are mostly explosive franchise updates and Pixar-styled features, the same as the bestselling games are unoriginal franchise updates and Pixar-styled movie tie-ins. There's a small audience who dwell in the art houses, same as there's a small audience who bought Ico.

I think it’s too complicated to just compare videogame history to comic’s history and film history, and say they’ll play out the same way. Sure, videogames were born into a child/young adult world the same as comics were, but that isn’t any indication that games will stay in the child/young adult world where comics remain today. It’s not that simple, industries change, people change. Film began as a gimmick, got turned into a money making empire, moved into a work of art, and has recently settled down as predominantly entertainment for teenagers with expendable income. Games will no doubt change just as rapidly as the technology that powers it evolves at a similar rate.

Steve gaynor said...

I do hope I'm wrong. But I look at how comics began, why they're difficult for a broad audience to embrace, and how they remain marginalized to this day, and see video games heading down the same path. At this point I don't see how games are going to avoid ending up in the same place.

Things change. If video games do manage to cross over, I wonder if they'll at all resemble the kind of stuff we're playing today.

Michael said...

I'm tempted to take that bet, if for only one reason. It seems to me the parallel you make between video games and comics fails to take into account the formal ways they connect or disconnect from their precursors.

Comic books will always unfairly be considered juvenile because they don't fundamentally change the mode they emerged from. They are short colorful books with pictures. "Respectable" books don't look like that. I can pick a comic off the rack and see by leafing through it that it's weird, stupid, or whatever...and I have successfully marginalized it.

The video game is medium unto itself. Yes, you may play them on your TV, but nothing else I do contains this interactive, avatar-based element. It retains the possibility of emerging as its own thing, unlike comics.

Having said that, we're so mired culturally in the notion of video games as toys for kids and adolescents, that it will surely take awhile. But I have some hope that we can lick this image.

I'm not sure I would bet on it, but I may be slightly more hopeful than you.

Don Pachi said...

I'm no comic book historian or anything, but my understanding is that a big part of what set that medium back for years and years was the Comics Code Authority, established in 1954. It was essentially a strict form of censorship over the content of comic books, which kept them from maturing as a medium.

Will the ESRB and other outside forces likewise suppress the flow of creativity into the games medium? Will the market itself stifle that creativity?

It's easy to get cynical when thinking about these types of questions, though there are some good reasons to be optimistic as well. Look at the success of games like Portal and BioShock, which are "smart" games that take their audiences seriously. They're still clear-cut entertainment products through and through, though.

I don't disagree with your overall assessment. I think games will have their exceptions, just like comics have Watchmen and Maus and so on, but will generally be seen as frivolous entertainment. If there's a problem in that, it seems partly endemic to us all calling them "games" in the first place.

Borut said...

I guess there's no trackback on blogspot?

Anyway, I'll take your bet:
http://www.plushapocalypse.com/borut/?p=93

Steve gaynor said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Borut.

Re: some of the above comments, I'd like to clarify that I'm not talking about the ratio of good vs. bad, or the ratio of "art" versus "non-art." I'm not talking about quality or artfulness at all. I'm talking about cultural relevance to the lives of the general population.

90% of all creative endeavor is crap, but at least with film, television or books it's culturally relevant crap. And the good stuff is rightly respected, because it can speak to anyone who might take it in.

The good 10% of comics and games are lost because the medium itself isn't relevant to the viewership at large. Even the games that are great, the ones that I can read as being valuable, are almost always hidden under juvenile veneer of big guns, tanks, zombies, robots and so forth. Much like The Watchmen is a legitimately great comic, it's inaccessible to people outside the limited group that understand how it reworks the popular superhero context. To anyone outside the fanship, it's just a comic about guys in tights, just like Half-Life 2 is simply another game about shooting monsters.

Games could lower their barrier to entry: we've seen it in The Sims, where the only required input is clicking and then choosing an action. No memorization of keybinds, no reflex-based gameplay or required facility with a gamepad. Accessibility of interface doesn't translate to simplification of the range of expressable interactions. Why has no one taken the lessons from the Sims-- the one that's made it one of the most successful and enduring franchises in video game history-- and applied them to other types of games? Direct input-- having a "jump button" and "shoot button," etc.-- limits accessibility.

Filling a game with explicit failure states requiring replay of level segments upon death limits accessibility. Why are the games we focus on so concerned with life-or-death situations? Why is violence the only kind of conflict we've refined to such a level of fidelity? It's easy and it sells to the established market. The situations and conflicts expressed in games don't relate to most people's lives. Games don't pursue the kinds of headings you see in a video rental store-- romance, drama, comedy. Our designs still hinge on simple actions-- "shoot gun," "drive car," "solve puzzle."

Suits and investors need to be concerned with this shit. Who do you want to be backing down the line: an insular, stunted medium like comics, or a full-grown, culturally-relevant, and hey, PROFITABLE, medium like film? We aren't going to reach that point by catering to the current hardcore. And we're not doing ourselves any good by assaulting the casual gamer with the deluge of crap that's been thrown at the Wii audience so far. We're going to expand our customer base by trying to give them new, subtle, interesting approaches to interactive entertainment that are universal and human. We need to give them access to this form that we already know is so great, and fill it with content that they can identify with, get something enriching out of.

I don't know if that's going to happen. My bet still stands.

Hoatzin, Man of Mystery said...

Like I said, I don't think that the nicheness of games is making them intrinsically any less culturally relevant. Take poetry for example, a very niche artform that few people would deny has cultural merit. Look at Children of Men, it is ultimately a silly story, amazingly filmed, directly inspired by Half-Life-style FPSs.

Another thing to keep in mind (when talking about comic books) is that comics are a lot more accepted and respected cultural artifacts in Europe and Japan. It was a weird 50s paranoia about things rotting our children's minds that clipped their potential in the States. Likely inspired by the moral hysteria that encouraged the red scare, it came entirely from above, from the parents and concerned senator wives. It was clamped down, and the kids that were reading them grew up and out of them since there wasn't a more serious alternative to the cheesiness. So they didn't acquire the kind of cultural voice you are hoping for.

There's always been similar retarded outcry with every new form of media that disturbed the order of things. In the seventeenth century, the forces of moral indignation were concerned that the novel would destroy society and cause an epidemic of hysteria in women. There is no question to the cultural relevance of the novel. Ditto for the radio and the tv. It just took a while.

While the meatheads in spandex and like fascist wish-fulfilment are the initial fire of both media (still simmering, going strong—in both games and comic books), it's probably because people who invented both were dorky omega male outcasts in search of empowerment (the comic book inventors were likely looking at social realism propaganda, and video game inventors were looking at comic books). The Iliad and the Odyssey, the oldest remaining cultural artifacts of the western world are little different, and we've invented a bunch of stuff since.

Anyhow, there is a lot more money in video games than there ever was in comic books (in the States). Chances are that video game suits and entrepreneurs will scout out niches and fill them eventually and soon. A lot of business people are utterly without imagination, but there are people who do get it, who will get us there.

Gwarek said...

Hey Steve. I wrote up a response to your post here: http://www.gameslol.com/2008/02/13/gaming-is-forever-doomed-a-rebuttal/ (I couldn't possibly fit all that in a comment ¬¬). I'm interested to hear your take on it!

Anonymous said...

Time will tell.The only thing iknow is that i play games since my childhood.I'll always play.It is just i want more complicated and based for mature audience games.

Jason A. Quest said...

Anyone who believes (like anonymous up top) that videogames are keeping out "people who don't know how to think" is completely missing the point. The silly little puzzles of videogames aren't keeping people out, it's the apparent utter mindlessness of the shoot-em-up genre itself that discourages people to bother with them. Most people don't even know that some of these games have puzzles, because the subject matter looks like it could only appeal to asocial adolescent asperger's cases.

I'd much sooner admit to acquaintances that I read comics than being a gamer... at least that medium has produced a few titles that command the respect of the public.

Adam said...

I guess I play games and read comics that are considered "trash". I like my Final Fantasies and every Wednesday, I'm at the comic shop picking up the newest Spider-Man issue.

I don't see anything wrong with things that promote "male wish fulfillment". Not everything has to be though-provoking. It's good to give the mind a break once in a while. Mindless Self Indulgence. Comics and Games have their share of art and their share of mindlessness.

There's nothing wrong with that. People just simply need to grow up and stop labeling things. My motto: Enjoy what you enjoy and don't let anyone else change your opinion on it.

Mad Dog said...

While I entirely understand the basic premise of this post, and tend to agree with the basic premise of barriers to entry that currently exist within the video game world, I do disagree with the correlation between video games and comic books, and therefore ultimately with the conclusion.

I would argue that the financials between the industries are substantially different, and as a result the ways in which their paths forward are structured are radically different.

At its peak in the 1990s, the comic book industry was what, in the low single-digit billions of dollars? Then it underwent a massive drop, and is growing again at a very measured rate - around 4%?

By contrast, the video game industry virtually overnight turned into a billion dollar industry, surpassing the $10b mark in rapid time, and certainly isn't slowing to anywhere near 4% growth.

I think the abundance of wealth in the industry, and the speed at which the market is growing, necessitates the video game industry to define itself quite differently than the comic book industry did and does. The focus on expanding markets is not just influencing the video game industry, it is one of the, if not the single most important, driving force.

The people hired for this task may by and large be ignorant and unable to break out of the mindset of sequels, sport's franchises, and bad versions of movies - but the people hired for this task are many, and the money being poured into their consultancy is immense. There are undoubtedly people who have recognized the problem, and who are pushing to change the fundamental way in which games are designed.

I see the barriers for entry for game developers themselves lower, with expanding technology, allowing more and more innovative publishers to flood the market. At the same time I see larger companies beginning to realize the lucrative profits to be had by increasing cultural accessibility of games (the Sims started that awakening, I would say, other games have furthered it, and Spore, if executed correctly, will make it impossible to ignore). As these two things converge, I think we will see a radical restructuring of the game market to being much more of a mass media experience.

We are, by our nature, playful creatures. And rather than being thrilled to be passive consumers, I would say most people yearn to be a part of creating their reality. I would not say television has been passive because that's what people want, I would argue it's because that's what the technology could offer. Even nascent stirrings like calling in for American Idol or what-have-you are strong signs of this to me.

Far from fifty years, I think the game will emerge as a strong cultural form of interaction in the mainstream within ten to twenty years. The ball is rolling now, the money is there to fund it, some new market is desperately needed as development costs rise while payoff does not, and the ideas are not difficult to arrive at.

So, I'll take your wager. Gladly.

Allie Caulfield said...

I will take that wager.
But how much are you willing to bet ?

How much would you bet on your assumption that video games, even though it is a medium strongly rooted in evolving eletronic technologies, is going to follow a path similar, if not identical, to that of american comic books ?

Eventualy, we might just get 2, 3, or more species of interactive electronic media. What we call "video games" might stay pretty much the same, a niche market, fulfilling boyish fantasms. Still, can we deny that it can ever become something more, something else, as well as "just games" ?

"Pessimist" is right, because it predict this constantly changing medium can ONLY stay the same on the aspect of its content. There is no reason to expect this, if not for a very slim analogy to comic books.

As for the increasing complexity of games being offputing for non-gamers, that is a fact. I believe that trend will keep going for a while, "Wii waggling" notwithstanding. Still, i find the simple identification
Non-gamers = lazy,
more then a little offensive. Let me use a little analogy of my own. Learning the rules for the game Monopoly requiers more from the gamer then picking up and playing Halo 3, even if you did not go throught the incremental process of playing Halo 1 and 2, and older FPS before that. Yet, Monopoly is still being sold in hundreds of copies daily, worldwide.

I have no reasons to expect games are going to be better in the futur, more apt at gaining a wider audience acceptance. Yet, there are no reasons either to believe they will only ever be "cheap thrills", considered as such by the mass market, and can never be called "art".

Paul said...

Why on earth does it matter how anything affects human "culture" or becomes "culturally relevant"?

Why is it pessimistic to think what you like will never be liked by EVERYBODY in the world?

Look at it this way: in 100 million years who's going to give a shit about ANY art form created in the last 2 thousand years? The last 10 thousand years?

No one.

And as for comparing video games to film, books, comic books, and the internet, that's just totally outrageous and unnecessary because video games ARE NOT film, books, comic books, or the internet.

Not to mention the claim that comic books/video games remain "juvenile" because they star robots and cyborgs and monsters is just bizarre because those things all appear in revered literature. Let us remember Mary Shelley, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, not to mention how "culturally relevant" the film Aliens was in how it depicted space marines fighting monsters to criticize the cluster fuck that was Vietnam.

Discussions such as this are a waste of human potential. How about, if you're so worried video games won't become culturally relevant, you go out and create one that will be? In fact, it doesn't even have to be a video game, a book, a tv series, a movie, or a comic book, just create something that becomes culturally relevant. I promise it will be a better use of your time than posting a blog about it.

MDN-2001 said...

While the question of whether videogames will ever be accepted as art by the culture at large is still very much an open (and interesting) one, the prospects for “wide acceptance” by the public is not.

World of Warcraft, for example, has over 10,000,000 subscribers worldwide. Time magazine had 4,038,508 copies sold per week in 2005, meaning World of Warcraft sells 2.5 times as many units in a month as one of the most read news magazine in the world. The best selling game of 2007, Halo 3 has sold roughly 8.1 million copies at a minimum per unit price of 59.99. In contrast, the best selling comic book of all time, X-men #1 in 1991, sold 7 million copies at 1.50 per unit. Finally, in 2007, the videogame industry brought in roughly 18 BILLION dollars in the United States alone. For some perspective, that’s slightly more than the Gross Domestic Product of Ecuador. The comic book industry took in a paltry 500 million in the same period.

The economics don’t lie. In the 25 years since the arrival of home consoles on the American market, videogames have secured their seat alongside the movie, television, and music industries as the proverbial Lords of Olympus in the pantheon of American entertainment. Comic books simply have not and will not reach those lofty heights.

CounterParadox said...

Just a few things:

On the whole, I think you're correct. Video Games are not seen as art. Though I dare anyone to sit through Ico or Portal and leave without feeling affected. So there are a few games out there that show what the medium can do, and it's amazing.

Your assessment of Film, however, is a bit off, and it weakens your argument. I plan on going into the film industry as soon as I graduate, so I spend a lot of time examining the industry, and also comparing it to TV and, yes, Video Games.

See, Video Games, last year, made more money than the entire Film Industry. It would thus be hard for you to convince an investor that different forms of video games would make the industry as profitable as that of Film. Video games are already insanely profitable, and, sadly, all investors know is money. They don't care about how something makes a player feel, as long as they buy it. "It was selling? Ok, let's move on and do it again."

Also, your comparison of comics to film is a bit off. Yes, there are certain conventions used in comics that only a reader of comics would understand and interpret appropriately. Thing is, it's the same with Film (and TV). No one ever told you that when a scene fades to black and then fades back in, that means there was either a passage of time, or a change in place, or people. Yet you know it, because you have been trained to see things that way since you were 2. Film, like Comics, has its own language. The difference is that, given our society and culture, everyone watches TV and Movies. Not everyone reads comics. And I think that is because you are right in another part of your assessment: Video Games and Comics (and I'll throw in one you missed: Animation) are seen as a children's medium.

And that is the heart of the issue. These medium have a stigma as being for Children. There are numerous examples showing how incorrect that is, but because the stigma exists, the only clientèle are either children or child-like in their purchases. It's a vicious cycle.

And for someone who appreciates a good story, no matter how it's told, so long as it properly utilizes whatever medium its displayed on, it's a sad, depressing cycle.

Jake Forbes said...

Late to the party, but I thought I'd chime in as I enjoyed the debate.

Is NASCAR a significant form of cultural discourse? Are crossword puzzles? Silly question. Are they derided? Sure, by some, but both are ubiquitous in American culture, as are video games. There’s no longer a hurdle to playing “a” game – just to playing the games that gaming fandom likes to talk about.

I know it’s not the intent of the “wager,” but the original question does strike me as similar to, if more elegantly phrased than, the old “how can I make my girlfriend play Halo?” question. (or “how do I get my Sandman-reading girlfriend to give superheroes a chance?” question popular on comics sites). The majority of video games are rooted in simulation, competition and abstract puzzle play. They can be relevant and enjoyed on their intended level without becoming the subjects of academic debate (not to invalidate debate from those who are interested in gaming on that level). Games that strive for an emotional connection or timeless narratives are relatively few and far between, and are pretty much solely targeting the young male fan mentality. Ico is a brilliant game, and beautiful, but the appeal of a horned boy who speaks in grunts in a dreamlike fantasy realm is niche in any medium. The majority of narrative games are genre fare, and with rare exception, the “mainstream” doesn’t give genre the attention we, the fans, think it deserves, and when they do, they don’t speak about it with the same vocabulary and background that a true fan would.

Ultimately, I think that discussing all video games as if they're all one mega-genre, instead of letting demographics take over, is limiting the broad discussion of video games. We the developers and fans, rightfully proud of amazing products that cater to us, want to share our gems with the world and jump to their defense, but in the process, we are limiting the discussion to the very stereotypes that articles like this try to avoid.

As for the discussion of the craft of game design, I would agree that it doesn’t get the royal treatment that filmmaking and fashion do, but that level of glamour isn’t the substantive attention the wager asks about anyway. But without a doubt, gaming fandom is getting ever more savvy about game design theory, and that trickles down to magazines and blogs, and as a neophyte designer myself, I’m very grateful for the wealth of design discussions and GDC transcripts readily available. Those discussions, on sites like this and lost garden and others, are in no way limited to genre-fare, but such nuts and bolts thinking is also niche. Bottom line, I think gaming discourse is healthy and that the “wager” is really a question perpetuated by a passionate and articulate fandom – a fandom that happens to be smarter than the rest! :P

Anonymous said...

I can understand how shooters seem to be nothing but mindless self indulgence, but you're not taking several facts into account. For one, the FPS really kickstarted the PC gaming genre with the advent of Castle Wolfenstien, then Doom, and finally Half Life. Quite a large percent of the adult gamers play for the challenge of adaptive AI, not for the "big guns" (though yes, that is a plus). Example; Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl is one of those shooters that, while extremely narrow in hardware support, gives the player an open, adult environment (you would not want a child playing this) which they can explore or destroy as they see fit. As for the respectability of gaming, well... I challenge you to walk into a crowded mall for two days. On the first day, loudly declare that you play video games. On the second, loudly declare that you play pencil and paper roleplaying games. Even with the more mature content and design behind PnP games, I garuntee you that the video gamers are much more respected and usually even socially acceptable.

Steve gaynor said...

I wouldn't loudly declare I play pencil and paper RPGs, because I've never played them. What do I look like, some kind of nerd??

Aligheri said...

I have to say I've been more interested in the intelligent discourse in the comments than in the actual article. Everyone seems to be putting up some very good arguments, but I think the most convincing one is the actual sample data of the "average gamer." We've seen a shift now that was unprecedented ten, even five, years ago. The average gamer now is between 21-32, and the percentage of female gamers is growing rapidly. Not only is it a prime age range that has large amounts of disposable income (a fact which was not around in the NES days when systems were more commonly "gifted" then bought) but it is also an age of maturity. The developers and the "suits" know this, and thus we've seen a huge tide of more mature games. Not in the sense of they have more violence or gore (although sometimes they do) but we are seeing games driven by story and plot and character development. Yes, this might by a "mimic" of movies but the developers try to use their ability to immerse the players more effectively. Games are already becoming culturally relevant. We have our own station on cable now, that has to count for something (although I really don't like G4 that much, I preferred Tech TV). But I am positive that while games and gaming becomes more and more relevant the elitist movement will remain. There are still film snobs who see more in a movie than is actually there, and as mentioned earlier poetry can be considered an elitist offshoot of literature: the majority don't get it but for those who do it's very intense. The "original" gamers, those of us who were there for Genesis, Snes, NES, hell even Atari, will always maintain a sense of elitism and superiority to those who never got into gaming until the Halo years or later. I think we already are to the point of significant cultural relevance (Halo 3 lowered box office returns, that is significant) the question is are we, the hardcore, ready to accept that? I think we are reluctant to relinquish our status because of fears of seeing nothing but Madden iterations and sequels instead of beautiful and innovative gaming. We are a force, but is it good or bad? That is what is yet to be determined.

Anonymous said...

Your article assumes that in order for there to be cultural relevance there has to be *participation*, which I disagree with. Yes, movies and books and music are hugely culturally relevant, but you wouldn't have had to have watched/read/listened a lick to have felt their impact upon society and culture.

Look at this political poopstorm video games generate, you don't have to know jack (pun in tended) about video games to feel SOME impact. My great grandmother who's passed away long ago knew and felt the impact of video games, and that was 25 yrs ago! Why? Because she like many other parents had to start chasing us down and keep us from ditching school to go to the local arcade instead. We're talking a small community worth of kids. That's culture forming seeds. You don't need 99% of your population to participate for something to become ingrained into popular culture, for it to become relevant. Superman and Batman movies aren't popular because everyone who saw them is a comic fan. Even my dead great grandmother knew who Superman was, she never read a single comic book in her life. Just as now great grandmothers the world over know exactly what Pokemon/YuGiOh/DigiMon is, they don't have to participate to know, they know (and some know it well) by proxy. That's how culture is usually exchanged, not thru direct participation, but indirect effect.

Trevor said...

I think you are wrong and so I would take the bet.

I am a composer of "Art Music" that is contemporary classical music. As a means of relevant cultural expression it is very small medium of communication, but still quite legitimate. Video Games reach many more people than I do, or nearly any other modern composer does. There are norms developing and even a literature developing in the medium. Those who are "literate" in video games must be familiar with games such as Katamari Damacy and Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid and others. There is also a growing body of intelligent criticism surrounding video games that goes unrecognized, Penny Arcade is a great example.

I perceive a great deal of cultural communication around video games that goes missed, for example 10 million WOW players (of which I am not one) have a created a culture around their experiences with the game, which expands into the everyday world and is very relevant. Think of how many people are familiar with the Mario Theme song or who recognized the image of the triforce etc. Thought it is a developing art form it is developing.

I think the problem you have is that you are missing the culturally relevant aspect of videogames. While a system of interaction with various "systems" is important you ignore two other elements which have their own cultural value: Expression of Narrative, and Virtuosity.

Narrative: One of the Powerful culture connections of video games is the the power to convey narrative outside of linear norms. It is a synthetic art form (that is based on design synthesized with the efforts of the player.) Which has indeed sunk deep into our cultural consciousness. The player becomes a creator, which is a strong drive to pursue the storyline of game. This is why the video game industry is such a powerful money maker. Millions of people are sucked into the medium as creators whereas relatively few people read comics and appreciate the cultural expression of such a medium.

Virtuosity: Is a term used to describe great ability in a given discipline and is most often applied to playing an instrument. Gamers pursue this same goal in videogames. Hence Worldwide rankings in Halo 3, and "no materia challenges" in FFVII, Expert mode in DDR and Guitar Hero. The sense of having surpassing ability, virtuosity is also relevant. Players persist in playing games precisely because it is a form of expression in which they are directly involved. They are performers.

While think your discussion of systems in video games is interesting and relevant in terms of accessibility I believe that your argument is moot based on the breadth of acceptance of the medium. It is already deeply ingrained in our culture, and while it is looked down on in some cases, it is relevant, accepted and important and its influence is growing. Just because most of you do not know who Varese is doesn't mean you have not been affected by his music. It is the same with videogames. Stravinsky was largely unappreciated by his peers, Shostakovich was denounced as juvenile and neurotic, video games are considered childish and silly by some portion of the world, but I view them as someday reaching a deeper more artistic level as they develop further. Perhaps someday becoming an alternative realization o the Wagnerian Gesamptwerk.

The cultural discourse is going on around you and seeps its way into the lives of those who are otherwise involved (think of the Mario theme song from above etc.) The value of medium of expression is not defined by its detractors.

Steve gaynor said...

re: Anonymous, above: my concern isn't exactly whether video games as a whole have an impact on society at large (financially and so forth) but whether content of the medium itself is relevant to, say, your grandmother. Did Battlezone or Centipede speak to her personal experience? A senator villifying video games to get his name on people's lips means that the medium is divisive. It also means that the works themselves are completely irrelevant to the senator as pieces of entertainment or expression, or else he'd be enjoying and defending them.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just me, but I've found myself enjoying games less and less since the more they become mainstream. I HOPE video games never become a widely accepted media form, in fact I hope they RECEDE back into obscurity. Maybe then we'd get games that are actually designed to be fun instead of cash cows again.

Anonymous said...

Not to be a jerk, but you're wrong on quite a few levels. For one, almost all teenagers and children play video games. That represents so many people that video games will never be culturally irrelevant. As they grow older, many of them continue to play video games. With the Wii and DS, older people start playing video games.

Also, most video games aren't ridiculously hard or difficult to learn as you say.

Furthermore, most of your arguments against videogames could be applied to sports. Not anyone can just play sports, but guess what? It is a major part of world culture.

Also, what is your idea of a mainstream game? Wii Sports is going to be the best selling game of this generation. I don't see any sports stars or action heroes on its cover. Super Smash Bros. Brawl is most likely going to outsell Halo 3. It doesn't try to sell itself it as a movie (for the most part at least...) and Mario is hardly a badass who all the adolescent boys wanna play as.

All in all, you're gonna lose the bet.

Anonymous said...

I don't really understand the point you're trying to make.

Do you want games to become more accessible? You're pessimistic because games aren't accessible enough, or culturally mature enough, or what?

I think you need to think about what attracts you to games in the first place. If you really wanted an experience that's more like watching TV or movies, or reading a book, that's what you'd be doing. But you're not, you're playing games, and you're choosing games over those other art forms for a reason. Think about that before you complain that games aren't enough like other media.

Jeff Hollingsworth said...

I'll keep this short, but I believe using the term "culturally relevant" brings in all sorts of problems as well. Think of it this way: just by having this conversation we are proving video games and comic books to be culturally relevant. If they were not, would this discussion even be worth having? I think not. Every game and every comic book has just as much cultural relevance as any book, movie or television show. For example, Captain America's recent death was reported by CNN. The XBox 360 game Lost Odyssey has sections called "A Thousand Years of Dreams" that are mini-novellas written by a Japanese novelist. Also, it's a little hypocritical to say that movies are culturally relevant yet comic books are not. I'm unsure if you noticed, but there are a great deal of movies based off of comic books that do rather well.

Sure, most video games and comic books are infantile, with their grunting, stupid, but really strong men, their big guns, and focus on action, but isn't that an (unfortunate) commentary on modern culture in and of itself? That's what the majority of this subset of our culture enjoys. If you think that's just the gamer in me talking, ask any employee at any store that sells video games. The ones that follow the "infantile" tendencies tend to sell the best (i.e. Halo, Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto) compared to other games that could be considered closer to art (i.e. Lost Odyssey, Ico).

Oh, and there's nothing wrong with Pen and Paper RPGs. And I take your bet.

Anonymous said...

Not anyone can just play sports, but guess what? It is a major part of world culture.

That's true, but pretty much everyone can watch sports. It's all about how many people are able and likely to participate in and enjoy the medium. That's why movies, even if the vast majority are slapped together crap, are still culturally relevant: everyone can get something from them, for nothing more than a few bucks and a couple hours.

The entire problem with video games is that they require a considerable investment of time to get anything out of, all with the threat of punishment for not doing well enough. It's a far more difficult medium to become involved with at all.

Video games can still be very enjoyable, a good time can be had by all, and still not be culturally relevant. What's at issue isn't enjoyment, it's how they stand up to movies and books, which are an undeniable part of the culture. Everyone understands movies, everyone goes to movies.

A senator villifying video games to get his name on people's lips means that the medium is divisive. It also means that the works themselves are completely irrelevant to the senator as pieces of entertainment or expression, or else he'd be enjoying and defending them.

In much the same way a small town pastor villified dancing in the movie "Footloose". What some random person gets out of the medium has no bearing on whether or not it has any value. Unless you'd like to claim that ballet has no cultural acceptance?

And for the record, not all anime is intended for children. While the presentation may be cartoonish, the subject matter often deals with adult issues. It's unfair to list the entirety of anime under "Japanese children's cartoons". Most assuredly a good deal of it belongs there, and even the serious ones often have humorous moments, but there's still a big difference between anime and the cartoons we get here (which are by and large for children, rarely if ever targeted to anyone over age 10).

Anonymous said...

You claim that video games are hard for people to get into - yet for many young people today, a game is easier to play than a book is to read.

"it's still extremely common for games of high quality to be too difficult for a non-gamer to play effectively"

As it is extremely common for books of high quality to be too difficult for a poor reader to understand effectively.

"They want media that will go on without them. They want received experience. Passiveness. They want to relax in front of the television set, doing not much of anything."

Well obviously these people aren't reading either. You can pick up a game controller and get instant feedback, whereas a book requires more thought over a longer period.

"Fast forward to a popular contemporary game like Grand Theft Auto 3, Halo, or The Sims. The number of systems in constant interplay is countless."

There is the "casual games" industry which is huge, and growing - so your argument from complexity is null here.

"A senator villifying video games to get his name on people's lips means that the medium is divisive."

Yet books were certainly villified in the past.

"It also means that the works themselves are completely irrelevant to the senator as pieces of entertainment or expression, or else he'd be enjoying and defending them."

Games are a relatively new medium and he probably never played them when he was younger. Are you really suggesting that this senator is someone whose judgements on culture we should trust implicitly?

Here's my bet: In the future, interactive simulations will help us understand the world and other points of view far more effectively than static books and films could ever do. The user interface to interactive simulations will continue to improve until the effectiveness of games as a medium of cultural discourse will be indiputable.

Anonymous said...

You do realize that in nearly every paragraph, you repeat that the reason people don't play videogames is because they're too lazy to even try to expand their horizons, right?

As to your Watchmen comment, I know many people who've read it, never read a superhero book, and loved it.

Cincinnatus C. said...

I don't understand your thesis. Video games will never be a relevant cultural medium? That implies that video games are not already a relevant cultural medium, which is preposterous. Halo 3 and World of Warcraft are not culturally relevant? Motherfucking Mario is not culturally relevant? Mario is an icon.

Take your average Hollywood celebrity, say, Hugh Jackman. Take an 8x10 glossy photo of Hugh Jackman and an 8x10 photo of Mario around any college campus in the U.S. Recognizability is going to be at least equal.

Now take your average novelist, say, Kafka or Nabokov, or , hell, photos of Kafka, Nabokov, Hemingway and Faulkner all at once, and compare with Mario.

And yet you say video games will never be a relevant cultural medium? Define relevant.

Anonymous said...

That was well written and the opinions presented were valid, but it's still a bit naive.

To assume that games will never become massively popular and thus attain broad cultural relevance is to assume that games will never change, nor will the people who play them.

I think people in general are becoming more technically competent. Many of today's adults aren't going to get into playing videogames for the same reasons they can't work a DVD player or understand their computer. But there's no correlation between those inabilities and adulthood. The '80s and '90s generations and everyone born since are perfectly competent in the medium and can quickly overcome new challenges. They have the right mindset; the inherently unintuitive nature of computers and software has become second nature for them.

So they won't have a big problem adapting to the next major revolution in gaming. It would be foolish to think that we'll never be playing in full virtual reality. Combine that with intuitive game design and you've got something that can be marketed to anyone.

People like being involved in stories. The mind of a person watching an episode of Lost is hardly idle - it's processing social relationships, plot lines, modelling and trying to predict character behavior, and trying to forecast future events. People would love to actually be "in" a compelling story like that. Not just "people" but literally everyone.

As games become more intuitive and more real, they will blur the distinction between entertainment mediums and achieve cultural relevance.

I'd have restrained myself from saying "never" and instead gone with "not for a few years."

Chad said...

While I understand the argument being presented here, I think we need to make some distinctions before we all start placing bets. Right now many of us are grouping various things under the very broad category of "entertainment." This could include film, television, books, music, video games, comics, etc., etc.

So here's the problem: just because each of these things are categorized as "entertainment" does not make them comparable on all levels, or even most levels. Just like the saying goes, even though they're both defined as fruit by a specific set of criteria, it's hard to compare apples and oranges outside of that category.

What you're trying to compare now is the quality of cultural relevance; however, you state that "games are never going to grow up." I'm taking this to mean that the general populace will never respect video games as they are now. Yet you use other forms of entertainment as comparison, when there's hardly much to compare. Just because video games, film, and television all happen on the screen doesn't mean they exist on the same plane of cultural relevance.

Television, film, theater. These three forms of entertainment all involve acting to a large degree, and I'm sure we can all agree that they are very interrelated. On another side, we have literature in prose and poetry. We might be able to compare these with the previous list, since the former mostly rely on written scripts; however, would it be fair, then, to place an episode of "The Simpsons" alongside a poem by Edgar Allen Poe? I would hardly say that Poe is "juvenile," but I can't say that he's as culturally relevant to the majority of today's population as "The Simpsons" is.

Video games are form of active entertainment. They are more like playing a game of cards or even tennis in that respect. But even then, these other types of entertainment are still not comparable because there are more differences than similarities. Video games have the ability to synthesize so many different elements that they can easily be misunderstood as being similar to something that is in all honesty completely different. For example, football provides many people with hours of entertainment, yet not many fans identify on a personal level with the game. We may get emotional during a tough game, but it's not going to make you cry like a movie can. Would you say sports have little cultural relevance?

Here's another analogy. When Mozart was writing his piano concertos during the 18th century, they were by far culturally relevant. They were part of the day's common entertainment. Look ahead to the present, and I doubt the majority of the population could recognize much of Mozart's writing. However, pick a chart off the Top 40 and you would find much greater cultural relevance. These two very different musical forms acted very similarly in their time.

Now look at video games. Since the invention of Pong, the industry has flourished dramatically. Can you really say that there is no cultural relevance there? Video games have their niche, as do the other forms of entertainment. Compare video games with video games, not with movies or books or music. And even then, remember that our cultures around the world are constantly changing, and what we use as entertainment in our current society is part of our cultural definition.

Anonymous said...

To the guy who said GTA is infantile.
That series of games is probably the most culturally relevant and aware game ever made.

Stephen said...

Most adult gamers that I know aren't satisfied with the current state of television or cinema; they desire something more personal, more cerebral. Say what you will, but your average video game is more mentally stimulating than your average television show or movie.

Video games are both niche and transcendent at the same time. They offer far more choices of experiences than the film industry and can deliver more quality content in a day than a single television series will deliver all year.

The cost barrier is also less relevant to gamers. Most of my gamer friends earn better-than-average livings and choose to put their disposable income into game consoles and computers. They also buy television shows by the series on DVD because, and this may be a shocker, they're too busy being social to commit to watching tv the same time every week (but the consensus is that DVR will fix that problem).

I guess my perspective is different, having been born the year the NES went to market, but I can't name anyone younger than me that doesn't enjoy video games. In 25 years half of the U.S. population will be a target for game developers, and the games being made will shift accordingly.

In the last 5 years, there has already been a significant shift in game development. Sports games and violent games like the Grand Theft Auto series are still big sellers, but adult gamers are becoming more picky about what they play. The time investment into a game is almost as important as the monetary investment; investing 20 hours in a subpar game is like reading a poorly written book.

One could argue that fashion or celebrity scandals or Wal-mart are not important, but the simple truth is that every person you come into contact with has been passively influenced by these things (at a minimum). Twenty years from now, video games will be no different. How's that for cultural relevance?

Jeff Hollingsworth said...

"To the guy who said GTA was infantile."

I guess you mean me. I say that because while, yes, GTA is a game of social commentary, it also defines the true man as a guy who kills people, drops the f-bomb and sleeps with prostitutes like nobody's business. By infantile, I mean it relies on overt swearing, coarse joking and violence to portray an entertainment media. I believe GTA to be a valid point in cultural discourse, but not because of the message it displays. I do because it, again, displays the kind of attitude this generation of gamers glorifies.

There are other games/books/movies that give a greater commentary on social issues without having to resort to childish and immature... things.

Giordano Bruno said...

The way I see it, I believe Video Games will become another form of art just like paintings, prose, poetry, music, and movies.
It won't happen overnight, and it will happen because of people who will use the medium outside of the "Game" paradigm that is in now, who will create enduring pieces of art which will speak to the essence of man, and they will be interactive rather than static.
For every Schindler's List there are upteen Scary Movie and chick fliks.
For every Mozart there are thousands of Britney Spears.
For every Shakespeare, there are trillions of "Roses are red, violets are blue."
Etc etc.
Now, think what would a "game" look like if Leonardo da Vinci was involved? Orson Wells? Seneca? Picasso?
I do believe people like them would've been in awe at the potential of harnessing the fourth dimension in their art.

alco said...

You commented a few times about burly mens with guns being a majority of video games, which is simply not true.

The game I have probably spent the most time play, simply because it is ridiculously addicting is N (google it, yes, just 'N'). There are no burly men, no superheros, all there is is a ninja (about 12 px tall) controlled by you, running through a very monotoned level avoiding various enemies and reaching a door.

You also brought up the sims, which is good, but then acted as if such games are a minority. Also not true. I'm willing to bet that Spore will be the best selling video game of 2008 once it releases.
Also in a similar fashion of not having burly men with guns, is Oblivion (or any of the Elder Scrolls series). Oblivion sold 1.7 million copies in the first week after release. This vastly complex game, probably one of the most complex ever made (imagine a 100+ hour game of DnD, in video game form), sold more then Unreal Tournament (a typical burly men with big guns game).

People play video games because it takes more to get into them. They are more stimulating then movies. Plus, for those with decent storylines, its like having a 20 hour movie, that you control the storyline of (to some degree)

Urban Garlic said...

I'm coming in late to this, but I think the original article underestimates novels, in particular, and neglects the a powerful indirect route for cultural impact. What you seem to be saying, if I may rephrase, is that video-game literacy (in the broad sense of being knowledgeable about the genre and its idioms) will never be widespread.

I think you're probably wrong.

Regarding the understimation of novels, it's just not true that really good novels can be fully appreciated in a mode of passive consumption. Classic novels, the ones with serious cultural impact, are rich with symbols and layers of meaning, allusions to other novels and tropes of the culture. Readers who are fluent in novel-culture won't passively consume them, they'll recognize and interpret the analogies and allusions along the way. Readers who are not fluent in novel-culture may well passively consume them, but they won't *get* them.

But, they may not have to, and that's because of the second point -- culture is absorbed by osmosis. We all know about Scrooge, even if we haven't read the original Dickens novel. The cultural impact extends to non-readers.

A recent video-game example -- I've never played "portal", but I follow Jonathan Coulton, so I know about that song at the end of it, it's all over YouTube, and presumably elsewhere. A click here and there, and I can find guys like you blogging about it, and I find descriptions of the "portal" game mechanic, and I learn about the Orange Box, and now I'm part of the cultural impact, even if I don't have the skill level or equipment to play the Orange Box. Video game tropes which are popular or interesting will echo throughout the culture, and those echoes will motivate the curious, lowering the barrier to cultural literacy.

Anonymous said...

Thinking more in the long-term, we're already seeing the products of a generation raised on computer and video games. When I was a lad, video games really were seen as nothing more than a children's distraction. Sure, there were some games that were aimed at older teenagers, but never adults; not in the UK at least. Now the kids have grown up- not all the way, but enough to be wage earners. That's the only reason why games get released with adult ratings, because our parent's attitudes still haven't changed.

As time goes by, our generation (GASP!) will be running the show. Eventually it will be our kids running the show. By that time, gaming will have long since saturated society. None of us can image what life will be like by that time, but I'm fairly certain gaming won't be considered a kid's medium any more. And isn't that what we're talking about here? Whether gaming will ever take itself seriously? Yes, I think that in the long run, it will have to.

shidoni said...

Poor comics. Poor, poor, comics. As someone who actually writes comics, I can say something I've been noticing the more I have been writing... We only create for ourselves. In a perfect world, subjectivity will destroy this "gimme what I want right now I don't want any building up" mentality of the average consumer... That of course, would require reflection, intellegence, and a fucking soul.

Anonymous said...

To Jeff Hollingsworth, who avers that GTA is "infantile" - in the Dr. Freud sort of way: if overt swearing, coarse joking, and (gasp) violence are "infantile" and BY THEMSELVES are enough to write off the entire gaming medium as culturally irrelevant, perhaps you can share your opinion of Lenny Bruce, or Charles Bukowski?

I don't much care for hip-hop or rap, but that doesn't mean I can't recognize a great song when I hear one. I don't much think that GTA accurately depicts the way the world works ... but I can see where all those "childish and immature" behaviors come from, by turning on my TV or just walking down the streets of Watts, or Chicago, or ... you get the picture.

You seem to get the idea that games CAN be a valid source of social commentary, so why are you hating on GTA? ou think we all BELIEVE that the player character is to be emulated, that his actions are meant to reflect the world as it should be? You missed out on the joke, homey!

Anonymous said...

I think your perception may be skewed a bit. Once the current crop of teens / twenty somethings matures over the course of the next couple decades, I would guess BOTH video games and comics becoming more widely accepted cultural pieces. Consider how awkward using a computer is to most people over the age of 40-50 (unless they had a job specifically working with them) yet teens and such now are incredibly comfortable with them, using them for much more than just homework and chatting.

Secondly, consider the Nintendo Wii, how many reports have come out of it appealing to a much broader audience of people who would never think to play games, of elderly people who play Wii bowling, etc. The Wii IS a cultural phenomenon, it has transcended the "gamer niche" that has existed for so long.

Finally, it seems like you werent around for the video games of the late 80s and 90s, or at least werent paying attention to them. You would know that there was a signifigant quantity of games that were released completely without any sort of life / death conflict. Yes, shooting games have always existed. Marathon, Wolfenstein 3D, the original Doom and Quake, Duke Nukem, et cetera. But during the 90s, and even into the early 00's we had Lucas Arts and Sierra releasing some fantastic adventure titles. You still kind of had to know the "rules" to play it, but all in all, the extent of the controls was cursor clicks. Very few, if any had "death" conditions, you were merely stuck until you found your way through, past, or around an obstacle.

The last quick point Im going to make is that you are basing your argument soley on american culture. Japanese culture has already accepted "comics" and videogames to be accepted cultural art forms. Koreans broadcast video game tournaments on TV. Maybe it's just western culture that has something against it, I don't know.

My money would be on 50 years from now comics and video games are "mature" and span the full "range", just like movies and books do now.

-e

Adam said...

Actually, I would have to say that games are already very culturally relevant. I was researching them the other day (waiting for my ps3 to come into the local game store) and I found out that the ps2 system alone sold over 120 million units, and you can still find it on the shelves! Even if you assume that some of those were replacements for lost, stolen or broken consoles, that's still over 100 million consoles. It doesn't matter which games were being sold because I doubt people bought them just to be DVD player when standalone DVD players did a much better job.

As far as the challenge being a barrier, many games today are still based on the old idea of platformers that started in arcades, easy to learn, hard to master. This means that you can pick up a game and easily get into it and figure out how it works, but to truly master it takes much more time. For instance, i doubt people will pick up Halo for the first time and instantly jump into legendary difficulty mode, I didn't and I AM a hardcore gamer that LOVES first-person shooters (I think they are better on the PC but that's a whole different debate all together)

As far as being culturally relevant, the very fact that Jack Thompson thinks it necessary (and profitable) to attack them both confirms and spreads the relevancy of any and all video games (particularly the ones he targets) so that MORE people know about them.

I have more to say but I'm tired enough my brain is starting to shut down and most of it has already been said.

FP said...

I think that the comparison of Books with Movies and Videogames is a best a poor one. I see a constant comparison with entertainment and depiction of a passive audience. It is with this thread that I have to take issue.

Quote:
“And I'll bet you that video games will never become a significant form of cultural discourse the way that novels and film have.”

The thesis of this argument is centred on DISCOURSE. Something that moves us, compels us, and invites discussion.


When considering computer games, I would liken them to sport. Sport is competition, one against another. Sport invites discourse, about sport in its entirety, not in the SINGULAR games played.

I mean this with no disrespect, and understand that the written word can often be interpreted as sarcastic or cutting. This isn’t what I hope to do. These (below) are offered for comedy as I think the parallelisms are funny.

--
Soccer is played on a field with a ball and two nets.
It requires even teams of players who have invested the time in learning the rules.

Counter-Strike is played on a network with computers and an Internet connection.
It requires even teams of players who have invested the time in learning the interface.
--
--
Bowling is a game of skill where one person attempts to knockdown a carefully set up field of pins in order to achieve a high score (arbitrary condition for victory).

Halo is a game of skill where one person attempts to “kill” a carefully set up map of virtual enemies in order to complete the story (arbitrary condition for victory).
--

I suggest that with all the argument that have been made the same can be said about sport. Even on the extremes. For example American football contains beefcake men are scantily buxom women, found in comic books. The comic extreme of this is WWE, who indeed adds plot in an attempt to become like a movie.


Video games have been culturally relevant. The contention that violence in video games promotes violence in youth is the most recent extension to an ageless debate on censorship. I agree with you that individual games have been passed over (at least in North America), but this seems reasonable as we are only starting to master the technology of computer games.

I do however think that we will see the arrival of games that impact culture. Final Fantasy 7 has done the unthinkable in Japan. It is more of a household name than Coke-a-Cola and those that know of it, despite never having played it, is overwhelming. The phenomena of FF7 is however only starting. With the release of it’s prequel and a strong demand for its re-release it is swiftly becoming an icon (but only in Japan). Just like popular novels, people are demanding it.

There are some excellent points about the obstacles of obtaining and enjoying video games, but I would contain such obstacles to the realm age and maturity. Chinese woodblock prints are over 1000 years old, the Gutenberg printing press came to fruition in the 1400’s, The motion picture camera saw its infancy in the late 1800’s and the introduction of all these forms of mass production are intolerably short periods of time when one considering the age of the written or spoken word. The earliest theatre (great grandfather of the movie) saw its origins nearly 4000 years ago.
Compare how much these forms have grown over their histories and reflect on the fact personal computers arrived only in the 1970’s. While computation is far older (seen in looms and the Babbage machine) advanced algorithms (used for games) are undeniably recent. For example the term A.I. was coined in 1956. Unlike all other forms of media that has been mentioned, computer games are the only ones whose ENTIRE history may be found in living memory. To expect cultural relevance from such a thing seems to me as to expect profundity from infants.

I think that the largest argument to be made against computer games is that they are not timeless. Arguably the most timeless of videogames is Pac Man (with pong as a close second). The yellow gnashing semicircle is easily recognized and the game play remains challenging. Even with age its art retains an amount of appeal. Even Mario received a facelift when Pac Man did not.

The infancy of computer games it their challenge. The math for throwing shapes on a screen is as ancient as the printed word. The algorithms for intelligent opponents and the networks for connected play are coming.

Movies don’t lag. Books don’t have minimum installation requirements. But at one time they did. The Tale of Genji is an important piece of Japanese literature that (I think) illustrates the technological hurdles that writing faced. It precedes the printing press and woodblock by hundreds of years but is often considered definitive of elements f Japanese culture.

I am not impressed by a sequence of words copied onto a page, once written by a person some hundreds of years ago. Neither am I impressed be a sequence of images flashing on a screen that yields the illusion of motion.

I know you’re not a betting man, but still I offer you this:
I bet that when Graphics is removed as a rating category for computer games, when the awe and wonder of the technology is lost, their cultural significance will begin.

Anonymous said...

Two years ago I was in a mall in Portland, wearing a WOW Horde T-shirt. A teenager saw me and yelled out "For the Horde!" The businessman on the escalator responded the same. Several responded for the alliance, including a mother with her kids.

A couple of us shared a coffee, and I still raid to this day with the mother who just happened to be on my server.

I guess it could just be a small world; or it could be that the cultural impact is more ingrained than can be seen from a broadview.

megalanzero said...

One thing you're not taking into account is that books are increasingly being marginalized themselves. Literacy rates are high, but actual reading is also down.
Yes, the people can read, but they don't want to. At least among my generation, it feels like it's going to be a group that vegs out in front of the TV when they get home, just watching hours and hours of television rather than trying to truly exercise their mind in a way that truly great video games, books, or even comics can.
Even taking the time to imagine voices, between-panel movements, or even just thinking about what the characters within a book might look like are too active for a passive consumer society. Now that the cultural phenomenon of Harry Potter is over, you'll probably see a drop in the amount of reading our children do.

Keelie said...

I'm quite disheartened to say that I agree with a lot of what you've written here. Video games do suffer under the veneer of adolescent male fantasy - even when they do accomplish something in terms of gameplay and interactivity that is more meaningful than "shoot", "drive", and "solve puzzle".

I will say this - video games are NOT an intrinsically more complex form of cultural communication than novels or movies. They are not more difficult to breach than an understanding of the English language, or an understanding of the visual imagery and representations portrayed on a movie screen. It's just that video games are not something everyone learns while growing up - interacting with video games is not an essential part of life - learning to read is, learning to interpret symbolism is.

Being someone who has grown up on video games, I see my friends who have also grown up on video games - and you can place us in front of any video game, regardless of console/platform, game-style, complexity of input or work/reward mechanic and we'll master it quite quickly. Compare that to our girlfriends or those who have not grown up around video games, and they often cannot for the life of them, work two analog sticks at the same time to control their characters, much less an ASDW+mouse motion. That's not to say that girls are less skilled gamers, but they are less likely to be gamers.

I think computers, electronics, and the forms of interaction they require will become more and more relevant over the next 50 years. Acquiring proficiency with a computer will become a necessary skill (if it isn't already), and with that, I think gaming will flourish.

The barrier to entry is rapidly diminishing - and I strongly believe that it will be negligible in the near future, at least in North America and much of Europe.

With a larger audience, game developers will begin to realize they cannot pander only to a young, male demographic and will begin to explore the limits of the medium. That's not to say they still won't exploit crappy ideas just to sell video games, but those ideas won't always be big boobs, big guns, robots, zombies and wizards.

I believe that GOOD writing and film (and art) is an interactive experience. Both of those mediums will create a dialogue with the audience - they will challenge you from line to line, lead your thoughts and take you places and you will experience things through them.

Good books engage in a dialogue with each individual reader. They ask you to invest yourself in the experience, to explore and understand the logic of their worlds - and therein lies the experience - this is true for film as well.

90% of books and film are passive entertainment - requiring little to no exertion on the part of the reader or viewer - 90% of video games are passive entertainment to a gamer - those who sit around and mindlessly play Halo or any other video game - the input demand is not nearly as high as you seem to claim it is.

Granted, that is only for that subset of us who might be gamers, but as I said before, I think the skills to turn gaming into a near-passive experience are becoming more and more widespread and one day will be as common as reading and writing. I think that it's a negative that video games are often taken as a passive experience, as their literal interactivity is their strength and that which only the medium of games can utilize.

Video games may be a long ways off from being a form of cultural discourse, but I'd be hesitant to call most books or movies cultural discourse, either. There is no message, no dialogue in most of today's film and reading (and music) - they are hardly a relevant cultural medium, either.

I'm not entirely sure about the birth of writing, but both film and video games were created as entertainment. Perhaps the very first film was the result of an artistic endeavor, but it was quickly co-opted for entertainment purposes. I hate to harp on this fact, but I can't see how film, TV and literature are culturally relevant and thus by extension, video games are not.

You say the good 10% of comics and games are lost, because the medium isn't relevant to the viewership at large - but again, the same is true of film and book. The "good" books are not something that the general audience reads - the "good" movies are not something a general audience goes to the theater and sees. Many good books and films aren't relevant for the same reason that you say video games are lost on the viewership - they speak to anyone who might take it in. Most people aren't going to take in good film and literature, so how is a barrier to entry that is simple disinterest and apathy any different from a barrier which is disinterest, condescension and inability?

In today's culture, good film and literature is in nearly as much obscurity as good video games. The mass media itself panders to a seemingly adolescent male viewership and everything on the airwaves is car crashes and explosions, life or death situations. Subtlety is often boring to the mainstream and is not as easily fulfilling as a life-or-death situation, filled with gunfire.

To take video games one step further, I think one day, e-sports will be as accepted as sports are today. In their infancy, many sports were just child's games, but as the generations who played them as children grew up, they became serious. I think as the generations who play video games seriously as children grow up and become adults, they will take those habits with them, and suddenly, video games are not just for children anymore.

Anonymous said...

I will first admit that I am already repeating a bit of megalanzero has said but he is correct on this point.
Books are quietly leaving the cultural scene. Furthermore, the movie going experience is also changing. Movie theaters are also becoming an obsolete part of our cultural experience. All this leads up to the inevitability of home electronic entertainment dominating our cultural experience. As such, when home entertainment becomes the norm the cost of gaming will and is quickly becoming a marginal deterrent to its expansion. The skills required for games may currently leave large portions of society untouched by gaming. Yet as the training for these games most often occurs in the years of childhood, the percentage of society that is proficient at gaming can only increase with time.

These two issues directly challenge your basic assumptions about gaming's future. Yet it is amusing that you consider gaming to be doomed to obscurity when you have just lived through the decade during which it rose into the mainstream.

Drew said...

I strongly agree with what FP said, and would like to add a point of my own.

The comparison to a sport is accurate. This can be most easily seen in Korea, where Starcraft teams train mercilessly, but there are many examples. Fatal1ty is well-known in the world of first-person shooters. There are Counter-Strike tournaments, Halo tournaments, and now a World of Warcraft Arena league forming. There is a lot of investing going into making video games a spectator sport. I expect to see this mainstream in the next 20 years (if not as widely viewed as, say, football).

However, the medium is not just about sport and competition. As FP pointed out, Final Fantasy VII is a household name in Japan, and very well-known in the rest of the world. It is not a competitive game. It is a very compelling story, told through a medium that has you invest yourself in the story. I've always likened the Final Fantasy series to an interactive play, one that draws you into truly caring about the characters. Play through all of Final Fantasy X and see if you can honestly tell me you didn't tear up (or outright cry) at the ending. Play through Final Fantasy VII and see if you can honestly tell me that you don't get PISSED when Sephiroth... well, yeah, you know.

Any medium with the ability to be that level of competitive and the power to be that level of compelling is going to go mainstream, and in a big way.

Drew


P.S. I fully agree with the accessibility points. Video games really need a dose of simple-but-good, a la the old Marios and Zeldas.

Michael said...

Games cannot be taken seriously (and therefore cannot become a "significant form of cultural discourse") by anyone who has not been raised to have what I would call "gaming literacy."

To make a simple analogy, novels wouldn't exactly be popular (or significant) to anyone who was not literate. To attempt to convince an illiterate person of the joys of reading a good novel is likely an exercise in futility.

The "solution" to this is really just to sit around and wait as more and more children come about who are gaming literate. As gaming literacy spreads, the demand for nontraditional gaming content will grow.

To put it another way, why would anyone bother making games with content to appeal to people, who as of right now, do not possess gaming literacy? (E.G. Why write a book for women if the only people who could read were men?)

Gaming literacy is also far more easily obtained that actual literacy, it just needs to be introduced at a young age in order for people to take the idea of being able to play video games (and consequently games themselves) seriously.

I really don't think the issue with games is that the content is infantilized, it's that people who can't/don't already play games are unable to understand the value of them ("I don't play video games therefore they are dumb"). Very few people expect (with regards to any medium) that the content be mature and profound, because:

1) Most people are simply incapable of producing anything mature and profound

2) Most people just want to be entertained

The significance of entertainment value really cannot be overemphasized. If you can get people to recognize that a given medium can be extremely entertaining (which as I discussed, is only a matter of time for video games), then it's meaningfulness to the culture at large is essentially guaranteed.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, not sure whether to take your bet or not. As things currently stand, I think your assesment of games and comics is pretty much spot on, although as others have pointed out, you're looking at things from a very US-centric perspective (particularly in relation to comics). However, does where something has come from dictate where it's going to go? I'm not so sure.

First of all, there's the changing nature of "culture". Here in the UK, which, to be honest is culturally closer to the US than Europe in many ways (certainly in terms of media consumption), comics have gained cultural significance in recent years, to the extent that good comics are reviewed by the BBC and The Times in the same way as the latest Booker prize novels. There is a still a "kids stuff" label attached (rightly) to most comics, but no-one says that about say, Alan Moore.

Games aren't quite at that stage yet; but at the same time no-one denies their cultural significance even if they're not considered high art by the vast majority. However, as the the population continues to play games as they age, and here's the important bit, as the ongoing process of adults remaining infantalized continues, then there will be a meeting between more mature games and a less mature audience.

Before WWII "culture" was definitively elitist and exclusive, that is no-longer the case and becomes less so with every passing year.

Anonymous said...

Just to throw my 2 cents in the wishing well here (and apologies if this has been said before)... Throughout reading the article and its ensuing discussion, one particular thing stood out to me. And that is that measuring video games' "cultural relevance" on the same scales as you would books/comics/movies/
music/what-have-you is hardly a fair comparison. Video games are a whole new form of media, in that you are *participating* in the action as opposed to absorbing it as you would in most other forms. It's hard to say people relate to video games when they are wholly involved in the social interaction/RPG-action.

Looking at it from that perspective, I can agree I don't see much "cultural relevance" to video games. But that is because I'm not relating to them, but they are informing me. Which is wholly different than the passive relation that people might have to soap operas, for example. (Though there is some, regrettable, amount of informing there as well. (Which is one reason why diamonds sell so well.))

And in today's increasingly tech-y world, video games are the next cool medium because so much can be said about them. Sure you could discuss movies/books, but there aren't (necessarily) a lot of innovations/new dynamics being carried off in those mediums that would interest the new generations. (People are already struggling with the relevance the book industry has in today's more digital world... The traditional forms are starting to lose credibility with the younger generations, who will, in turn, need a replacement.)

Really, video games will probably never be as "relevant" as movies, because that's really all most movies are. In order to make a big profit, producers pick out a target audience and fill in what they think will be relevant. What are chick flicks if not "every woman's dream come true"? Or action movies (with their hot, hot female love-interests)? Or, hell, even the indie films that pretentious college-goers masturbate their egos to? Hit movies are all solely designed to bring people in because they relate, not because they enjoy. Not because they think. In that sense, video games are "doomed to fail."

But in the end, there will always be The Sims/Second Life. There will always be WoW/EQ. There will always be Mario/Zelda. There will always be shoot-em-up, run-em-over, chainsaw-their-heads-off games. And there will always be an echelon that will try to involve you by appealing to everything -- desires, dreams, hopes... curiosity, intelligence, mystery. And while that may not be "culturally relevant" by some definition, it will be by another, newer one.

Anonymous said...

In My mind you have already lost your bet. Brain Age games have created more commentary across a wide range of media than most movies. They have implemented the use of it at elder care facilities to jog the mind and improve wellness. It may be a needle in a haystack, but it is only recently that gaming has become mainstream. Movies have been mainstream now for well over 75 years. I would say Gaming has only come into this fold about 5 years ago. Given another 45 years I have no doubt that gaming will be a cuturally discussed medium of entertainment since the majority of people that will be alive in 45 years will be active gaming consumers. All the gaming luddites of the world will have passed on by then. The only people left will be those that do game, and those that are too dull minded to worry about games.

James said...

I think this is a bit silly to try and base an argument off of stuff you state as fact.

you cant possibly tell me that the barrier of entry is too high.

years ago, way way back when nes was king, and snes was on its way, my mother and i used to play othello fairly regularly. she never touched my nintendo, assuming it was just a kids toy.

then she noticed othello for the nes in the store, and bought it. she would play against the computer when i wasnt around, and against me when i was. even though we had the board game still, we used the nes because it has no setup/cleanup time.

anyways, one day she decided to try tetris. and then duck hunt, and super mario bros. i would sometimes have to grumble and kick her off my nes because i wanted to play.

this might seem like a longwinded post, but the point is, the barrier of entry argument is seriously flawed. all you have to do is hook them in with something familiar, they will naturally try other games once they realize that video games arent simply kids toys. back then she branched out initially to the other games i already owned because they were already sitting there. granted a couple games like ninja gaiden (which had some insanely difficult parts even for me and i had a love/hate for it) she did not enjoy at all, so she moved onto the next game. nowadays, we have places like yahoo games and such. sure the games hosted there are almost all card or board games, but thats the point. how many parents and grandparents fart around on yahoo games? tons because its already a familiar game to them. now you get some advertising banners for other games and or even little articles about new games and voila its only a click away from them at least looking at a new game.

msn messenger has games built into it now, as do most computer os'. the barrier of entry is not nearly as high as you think. its a matter of people gently prodding them to GAMES THEY ARE FAMILIAR WITH ALREADY. i know caps lock is frowned upon but that really needs to be drilled home to you apparently. you dont plunk them down with halo 3 or counterstrike in a clan's private practice server. of course they will be overwhelmed and be turned off from gaming. use your damned heads, seriously, this is just common sense, if you are trying to sell an idea or product to someone you try and ease them into it with familiarity first.

sorry for the agressiveness, but its really dissappointing when people with some apparent intelligence writes large articles making bold statements and makes such glaring oversights in the process. i could rip into other points in your article, but that was the most glaring and seems to be your main point.

Steve gaynor said...

re: James: does your mother still play video games now?

Iain said...

Whilst I approve of the debate that this article has stirred up, I can't agree with the argument posited by Mister Gaynor.

In terms of accessibility I refuse to believe that, for example, modern art is more accessible than video games. The training required to understand the concepts that inform the creation of modern art reduces it to an esoteric circle jerk - without the education to decrypt the symbolism, you're left looking at a shark sticking out of a roof or a tin full of feces and shrugging.

But the real question is not whether games can be art but whether they can become culturally important.

Modern Art touches a fraction of the population directly, but some of those it touches are more mainstream artists and thus it affects the art that DOES reach the rest of us. Content can gather cultural momentum as it translates from medium to medium.

Games are beginning to influence television, film, music and art. 15 years ago, my Computer Sciences teacher lectured me most sternly for wanting to explore the Games Industry as part of my curriculum - his statement, that games were utterly insignificant - making no money and providing no jobs - would seem laughable now and yet it was handed down to me as if it were graven in tablets of stone that games would never amount to anything.

Perhaps his vision was just a little clouded by current affairs or his cultural origins.

If I can strip away your corroborating example before I move on to games again, let me prove the cultural relevance of comics.

Japanese Manga. You might argue that monster tentacle schoolgirl rape isn't culturally significant, but there have been forms of Manga since the 17th century. If you want to define comics as stylised linear narrative through images, then Egypts primary religions were communicated through the use of comics.

Games as we know them suffer from limitations that affect their cultural impact, true, but it may well be that we are standing in the wrong place, looking at the wrong media and simply in the wrong time to see when and where they will have their effects.

Steve gaynor said...

re: manga: Yes, I am familiar with the cultural relevance of manga in Japan. It's a wonderful medium that grew up with Japan's baby boom following WW2, and has blossomed into an element of everyday life there. The variety of art styles and subject matter is unprecedented, depicting everything from young boys' adventure stories to soap opera-style dramas for housewives and niche volumes on playing the flute or cooking pasta, and everything in between. Manga is available at any newsstand in a wide variety of forms, and read by millions on trains, at cafes, and at home.

Which is why I don't say that video games are heading down the path of manga. I could make a post about how games should be more like manga, and in fact I think we're seeing some of that positive influence now, especially coming from, unsurprisingly, Japan: Cooking Mama, Phoenix Wright, Trauma Center, and more tackle interactions that games in the past have hardly touched. It's good.

Overall, the Japanese video game market is receding, and game development at large seems to be driven by the west. Manga is lovely, but this post is not about how games are or aren't like manga.

Justin said...

To assume that video games don't at least have the potential to become pop-culture icons is absurd. Super Mario brothers was a pop-culture icon 15 years ago, Halo is a pop culture icon now. Hell, we've had games that are far, far less accessible than Halo 3 end up as pop culture icons. Dungeons and Dragons, poker, the rubix cube, solitaire, hearts, chess, checkers...

The beauty of a culture is that it is made up of a incalculably huge variety of individuals, and these individuals -interact with one another-. Ideas, concepts, cultural interpretations or philosophies, these sorts of things can spread like wildfire even amongst those people who have not experienced the engendering media.

The reality of it is that to have a wide spread effect on culture, media does not have to have an effect on a large number of people. It just has to have a large effect. If you reach one person with 'inaccessible' media, and you reach them in such a way that calls into question some part of their life that they took for granted, or gives them ma key to a problem that has plagued them for years, or even just introduce something they found nifty, that individual will share that with as many people as he can in whatever way he can find to do so.

I doubt the assertion that video games will never be consumed 'en mass.' I think this has already come to pass. Furthermore I think it is madness and willful ignorance to think that culture consumed by a minority does not have a profound and meaningful effect on the culture as a whole.

Quality art will out. The issue is in the hands of the game developers now.

Anonymous said...

The mode of expression in literature is an interactive system too: readers bring to a work of literature their own socio-historical associations of words that are in constant dialogue with the words in the text and how they are used in relationship to one another.

"Wares comics require physical and mental investment by the reader: one has to turn the entire book round in circles to view images of texts that are oriented at 90 degree angles to one another..."

This made me LOL. Pick up "The Cantos" and tell me again that reading Ware's comics require mental investment.

hitnrun said...

"Halo 3 and World of Warcraft are not culturally relevant? Motherfucking Mario is not culturally relevant? Mario is an icon."

Motherfucking Mario is less of an icon than motherfucking Spiderman. And nobody cares about motherfucking Spiderman except when they make a motherfucking movie out of him.

And please, people, don't go down the road of 'arent we talking about it now LOL'. This is a video game designer's blog, and most people were linked here from video game related sites. We're all enthusiasts, clearly. The question is, will people having this discussion in 40 years be large-titted middle-aged men and greasy teenagers in sparsely populated specialist shops, or will all cross-sections of age, gender, and race/ethnicity be accessing the medium at the same level, as they do with TV and the printed word?

Remember, saying "The Sims!" or "Wii!" or "Monkey Island!" only emphasizes the point that those sorts of offerings are still rare. The money in the industry still is wholly sumbsumed by swords and guns swung indiscriminately.

This is a very good essay, Steve. I hadn't really thought about a lot of these issues in this way before I read it. We often think of games as slowly opening up to a broader market, but when you think about it in terms of sitcoms, nightly news, comedy, best sellers, opinion columns, and the like, it isn't even close. Even so-called "pulp" or "trash" fiction has character development in a way that only the best games touch.

Anonymous said...

From what comic is that panel graphic taken from? (The one with the boy and the landlord's daughter--I have to find out the ending!)

~e

Steve gaynor said...

re: e: it's a page from Acme Novelty Library #18, by Chris Ware.

Anonymous said...

Novels entirely had to overcome that barrier. All throughout the Victorian era there were people freaking out when people walked in on them reading, and trying to sell whatever-it-was as a valid, scholarly tome, because nobody wanted to be caught reading a Novel, because Novels were for women and those of feeble intellect.

It may take more than fifty years before anyone starts getting doctorates in Computer Game as Literature and Cultural Property, but I doubt it.

John said...

I'd love to take your wager, but I don't think you're actually making one. You claim that video games won't become culturally relevant, and then in three addendums to your wager, you explain why valid arguments that video games do speak to the culture are not related to your original premise.

Video games, by their nature, are games. Games are either leisure activities (usually) or exercises to practice something (like the military concept of wargames). Books and movies are *means by which an idea is conveyed*. The two are unrelated except by happenstance. One is an interaction. One is a monologue.

So it's a lot like me posting a wager that cars will never take the place of homes, even though people have been spending more and more time in them over the last century. It's probably true, probably a tautology, and probably not much of a wager at all.

But I wager you have not played World of Warcraft, and been one of the eleven million, including the grandmothers, aunts, disabled veterans, schoolchildren, teens, adults, and professional athletes who meet and socialize and *play* in the largest MMO at this time.

I'll wager you don't consider The Sims, selling over 100 million copies in aggregate, to be appealing to the social collective, despite the wildly diverse demographics of players.

And I'll wager you don't see the GameBoy DS and the Nintendo Wii as successful revolutionaries in attracting a less experienced video game customer, opening up the market ever further.

And let's not get started on the evolution of the interactive Internet, shall we?

So I'll take your bet, if you are in fact making one.

-john

Anonymous said...

I think it is important to point out that people are changing.

100 years ago virtually no one was literate. now, even outside of the first world the vast majority of us are.

50 years ago virtually no one could type well. now, even outside of the first world the vast majority are at least comfortable sitting at a keyboard, and many of us have attained a skill level above that of yesteryear's professionals.

Given that the gaming experience is nearly ubiquitous now in childhood (in the first world at least, so too will the skills both physical button pushing and the abstract ability to manipulate objects in a virtual space become ubiquitous throughout the world population in the next 50 years or so.

There are still some absurd notions out there regarding putting away childish things.

Personally I have more respect for the adult that has a level 80 character in WoW, or an officer rank in Halo, than I do the adult that knows who won the superbowl...

Though if they are 30 unemployed and live in their parent's basement rent free, they are losers either way... In fact they would STILL be losers even if they spent their unlimited free time reading from Shakespeare.

I think the top notch players and developers should continue to be elitists, after all, I don't see the folks attending the local ballet, opera, symphony, painting/sculpture gallery, etc drinking Budweiser and wearing baggy pants.

Though those mediums could also be said to lack any cultural relevance for "the masses" but honestly screw them, I'd rather be involved in something comparable to the fine arts than something comparable to whatever the hell is on MTV.