It's been close to two years now since I made a provocative wager on this blog. Most commenters at the time took me up on it. Recently, the underlying question seems to be on some people's minds.
Chris Hecker's recent IGDA keynote fretted about how video games might avoid ending up in the "cultural ghetto" along with comic books; Matt Burns wrote a piece, seemingly at least partly inspired by the keynote, on video games and cultural legitimacy. Harvey Smith (on twitter and facebook) took issue with games industry people for their tendency to denigrate the achievements of comics as a shorthand for highlighting video games' failings.
But the more I've thought about it, the more I wonder: what if this cultural ghetto isn't so bad after all?
There's danger in putting too much emphasis on an analogy. And while much is analogous between the history and state of video games and comics, people tend to get lost in the specifics, and wrapped up in the emotional investment they have in each medium. The point isn't to argue for the merits of either, but to recognize that most people just don't care.
And then I start to wonder, seriously, why do we care if the world at large cares about us? Why do we need the cultural legitimacy merit badge? And I start to wonder if it's not all just insecurity on our part. And if maybe we're not seeing the value and beauty of the space we're in because we're too busy looking over the fence at Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles.
I'll reiterate that, despite my original argument's oversaturation of bile and dissatisfaction, I still stand behind the wager. Video games will not achieve the same cultural stature as film, television or the novel in our time. But I regret that everyone got too wrapped up in defending comics to note the more useful and relevant section of the argument: on investment versus passivity, and how video games' nature and inherent strength is also, in the quest for mass acceptance, their major weakness.
Passivity and disposability are the currency of popular media. Experientially, the value of film or television for most viewers is the ability to sit back, turn off, and consume. The most popular entertainment is the work that requires the least foreknowledge, the shortest attention span, that supplies the most instant gratification-- the entertainment that requires the lowest investment. This all translates to accessibility, which is the key to wide appeal: anyone-- ANYone-- can simply place themselves in front of the screen and watch. Great art may take mental investment to appreciate, but a film doesn't simply stop if you don't "get" it. Hence, the potential audience for any kind of expression in that medium is near-infinite, all viewers being equal in the watching of the thing.
Whereas games require comparatively enormous individual investment. The chosen input device (and there are many) must be learned and become natural to use. The inputs for the individual game you're playing must then be mentally mapped to the input device. The rules of each individual game must then be learned and internalized. And then, while the entertainment experience is ongoing, each player is actively judged for their performance: did you make that jump? Did you hit that note? Did you kill your enemy? Did you clear that map? Video games are the only popular entertainment that you can actually fail at. And so many potential players ask, what's the point? Why do I care whether I'm good enough to be entertained? And games have lost them.
The other issues of technical requirements, exorbitant prices, embarrassing content, weak public image and such do contribute, but distract from the core of the issue: that interactivity is itself a barrier to entry. And games are interactivity. The human mind will never change so much as to favor our work on the whole over the allure of the passive. Video games present interactivity as a language with the potential to say great, meaningful, important, timeless things. And it's a language many people simply aren't interested to learn.
This leaves us, then, as something of a middle child. I'd wager that we already mean more to more people than comics do (and if we don't, who cares?) and that conversely we'll never be a behemoth to match truly passive media. And maybe this is the best of both worlds. An audience that, having crossed the barriers to entry, is by its nature more invested in our work; a public profile by which we have the means to occasionally reach into the mass consciousness, but which affords us the freedom to continue experimenting with subject, form, and style; an industry which is truly international; which is capable of producing both multi-million dollar blockbusters and single-creator labors of love (and releasing both on the same platform); which manages to be neither too big nor too small, and is the more vital, unique and exhilarating for it. We are a medium for us, and while there are more and more of us every day, we'll never be for everyone. In a way, it's liberating: freedom to make incredible things, without being everything to everyone. It's why I still stand behind my wager that we won't be the next film, books, or TV. But I no longer look at it in terms of the qualitative. It's simply true. And possibly reason for celebration.
The urge to outgrow what is already our little brother is only a sign of insecurity; the urge to overtake our big brother, to destroy and subsume passive media, is vanity. The assumption of inherent value--that to be the biggest, the most dominant, the one new medium of the century, is in fact desirable at all--is perhaps natural, but also seems a fairly limited interpretation of the media landscape and our own role in it. We should be proud if anything that we are marginalized for the very thing that makes us great; that we are not less than what the mass audience wants, but different. In acknowledging the strengths of the lot we occupy, we might strive to accomplish those great, meaningful, important, timeless things within it, instead of looking always for a way out.
To be at peace with our identity as the middle child is to be comfortable in our skin, secure in our nature, and hopefully to one day fulfill our own potential, not anyone else's. We are what we are, and what we can be no one else can. If we make the most of it, we'll hopefully someday lose the urge to talk about ourselves in terms of what we aren't.
[This post continues in the comments below, wherein Chris Hecker helps me expand my thinking on the issue.]