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