No games writing sticks in my craw worse than the assertion that the medium is somehow “still in its infancy.” You probably have encountered one or more of its incarnations. Sometimes videogames are described as a disenfranchised teen, just waiting for that final growth spurt to mingle with the older kids – media like movies and literature that are old enough to borrow their parents’ car keys without having to ask. Sometimes videogames are compared to the starry-eyed optimism of its youngest players, full of plucky spirit and bright-eyed optimism, ready to storm the castle and save the princess. And then sometimes you have the ultimate embarrassment of gaming thought of as still in utero, with interested parties speculating on what it will be when its born, a practice that has always given me an image of strangers rubbing a pregnant woman’s belly like a magic 8-ball, eager to divine its contents. “Oh, feel him kick! Maybe he’ll be a FIFA game!”
I understand that this age-game serves a purpose, often working as a well-meaning promise of untold potential, but as a metaphor, it’s entirely disingenuous. Worse, it’s nothing that hasn’t already been used with that other pop culture fixture, the lowly comic book. During the “growing up” of comics of the 80s and 90s, which saw a talented roster of ambitious artists and writers challenging the fundamentals of their medium, we were treated to a slew of writing trying to align this mature tack against the chrome tackiness of earlier fare. The result was two generations-worth of headlines reading “Bang! Zoom! Comics Aren’t For Kids Anymore!” which really is actually an odd way to announce something as adult, if you think about it. You don’t see a lot of “Wham! Smash! Remember to Fill Out Your Census Form! Kaplowie!” The lengths that articles of this stripe go to differentiate the bad old stuff from the good new stuff is staggering. I’ll always remember one zealous article in a student newspaper that put Captain America’s classic “Hitler-Punching” cover side by side with a vision of concentration camp horror from Art Spiegelman’s Maus, as if to imply “See? In our comics, the Nazis win!”
I’m inclined to find these types of endless age analogies already a little past their prime, and more than a little silly. Is gaming stuck in childhood, or in pimpled adolescence? Has it started thinking about girls, and growing hair in funny places? All this baby talk does is remind me that “baby” is also a verb. The better question might be, “When will gaming stop being babied?”
For all our quibbling about the figurative age of videogames, it’s easy to forget that aging doesn’t work that way. We don’t “crysalize” and emerge as beautiful butterflies. Rather, age finds us, at our most unguarded, and at our least expected. One day we’re doing our homework; one day we’re doing our taxes. It happens in the margins, and in the corners of our eyes. Maybe after one summer you return to school and find you’re a head taller than everyone else. Maybe one day you doff your cap and feel your fingers brush the first wispy hints of a bald spot. Seen this way, we can be reminded of two fundamental facts of age: It is inevitable. And it is natural.
And so too has gaming changed, inevitably and naturally. Looking on the primordial bleeps and bloops of the earliest videogames, it would be difficult to imagine a gaming environment that could give us Portal, BioShock and Braid – treasures in their own right, but also deconstructions of the form and function of the medium itself, from how they tell stories to how they involve us as players. (If anything, this puts gaming’s “age” firmly within the bounds of “know-it-all university student.”) There might be a hesitance, looking at this explosion of content, to sit back and reserve judgment on how and when the medium will “mature.”
But though there’s a temptation to sit on our hands and wait, this type of thinking is a fallacy: specifically, an “Argument To The Future.” On the one hand, this is clearly the coolest-named argument out there, specifically if you say it like the title of an old Flash Gordon episode: “Argument … to the FUTURE!” But on the other hand, it serves to defer discussion, moving the point of contention beyond the scope of the known. Because who’s to say that the people of the future will even care? They might be too busy riding their hoverboards to pay attention to great-grandpa and his dingy old PlayStation Nine. There may be new debates: Are the psychodramas broadcast directly into our mind by the Overhive a new artform, or just a tool to enslave us as mindless drones? And what of Psychoball: dangerous bloodbath, or new national sport?
But, of course, we don’t have DeLoreans, or Hot Tub Time Machines. We only have right now. And from where I’m sitting, right now looks pretty okay. We have cutting-edge systems that offer full scale boffo spectacle. We have a thriving independent scene. We have the precision and formalism of retro gaming, and we have more and better venues to port and emulate the games of decades past. What more do we want? What more are we waiting for?
I don’t buy the goo-goo arguments that the medium is still in diapers. I’m unconvinced by the depiction of gaming as lurking in a basement apartment, swilling Cheetos and Mountain Dew. Don’t get me wrong; I love Cheetos, and Mountain Dew is a vast improvement from regular dew. But we know that the medium is more than that – we’ve seen it for ourselves. We know that it means different things to different people, and we know that it is capable of change.
Perhaps there is a hesitance to bandy around the word “adult” or “mature,” which so often refers to the tacky trappings of blood and guts, or T & A. Taking a mature game at face value is, of course, not always the best indicator. If Bayonetta is to be believed, “mature” means fighting angel-demons with shoes that are also guns, hair that is also clothes, and oodles of “leg-core” pornography. See the things you miss when you skip out on one Health class?
Perhaps there is some hesitance to peg us down – we may prefer the limitless plasticity of youth to the funereal obligations of age, summed up by the certainty of death and taxes. But I don’t see it that way. Adulthood also means authority and independence. It means there’s a whole world out there, a thousand times bigger and brighter than a dorm room or a basement apartment. If we’re married to this age metaphor, and we’re hard pressed to anthropomorphize our pastime, let us be honest. Gaming is adult.
What does that mean? Certainly not that you have to be an adult to play games, or even that games are “really” for adults, like some Trix Cereal in Bizarro World. It doesn’t mean that there’s nowhere left for games to go, or that the medium, as a whole, traded its ripped jeans for a suit and tie and got a job as a low-level office grunt. To my mind, in this context, it means that we’re here. It means that we’re doing our thing, and it means that we have choices: What games will we make? What games will we play? We get to decide how to take them with us as we grow, and how they will inform our lives. We get that choice. It may be small, but it means something.
On the topic of play, and of age, and of how we grow, I’m often brought back to a simple, silly, and oddly touching comic in Randall Munroe’s minimalist strip xkcd. The particular comic is called “Grownups,” which to me is a wonderful word, describing adulthood in a play-pretend language of childhood. It’s all very simple – a stick figure man drops by on a stick figure woman, and finds she’s filled her entire apartment with playpen balls – those same balls that you might have waded through, hip-deep, when you were little. The art is simple as well, but there are visual hints towards the significance of the act: The world of xkcd is mostly of black lines on white paper, but each ball that spills out into the hallway is brightly colored. When asked why she did it, the woman says, “Because we’re grown-ups now, and it’s our turn to decide what that means.”
The strip speaks to adulthood, and how we choose to face it, but I’ve always taken it as a lesson about games. We see a life, transformed by play, into something wondrous. And though it reminds me, most of all, of the medium of games, I find another word on the tip of my tongue. Another medium, an old one, perhaps the oldest – poetry.
So. Gaming is adult. And it’s our turn to decide what that means.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where “Psychoball” is actually pretty tame compared to hockey. When not obsessively checking his bald spot, he blogs at www.kingandrook.com.