Like most who are arrogant, insecure and in possession of an inferiority complex, we in games don’t react well to criticism – especially when we know deep down that it’s valid. And by “we” here, I’m including not just those involved in the development and production of games, but the press and the consumers as well – all of us who have a vested interest in seeing gaming continue.
Last month, our gaming panties were bunched by the British government’s suggestion that too much sitting on the couch playing videogames might just be linked to the alarming rises in childhood obesity being seen across the Western world (a reaction that was enjoyably taken to school by Heather Chaplin at GDC that games are made by a bunch of “adolescents” -“a bunch of f***ing adolescents,” to be precise.
The general reaction to this has, ironically, gone a long way to prove Chaplin’s points, not looking out of place in a schoolyard . In an attempt to prove how cool and totally not adolescent gaming is, the whole argument seems to have become one of jocks versus nerds, with gamers inexplicably attempting to place themselves in the “jock” section. Any attempts such as Chaplin’s to criticize the juvenile content of many modern games is ” title=”” target=”_blank”>made the argument that because he is a father and founder of a company, he could not possibly be adolescent. “GEARS OF WAR 2’s theme is generic, 14 year old boy/Heavy Metal magazine power fantasy turned up to 11,” Jaffe notes. “And NOTHING IS WRONG WITH THAT. If I am in the right mood, I LOVE that stuff.”
Again, this argument arrives at the bus stop several minutes after the point has already departed. Of course there’s nothing wrong with it, for us. Right there on Jaffe’s blog you can see a nice segment of other media he enjoys – Dawn of the Dead, Marvel Comics, The Fast and the Furious. The stuff that appeals to the teenager in all of us. And as a man who from time to time enjoys such fluff as James Bond, Heroes and (whisper it) Naruto, I have no problem with that whatsoever.
The problem is that this is the total sum of all our medium offers. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a little escapism but is that all games can aspire to be? We have pigeonholed gaming into a situation where now the starting point for every new IP is, how do we make it more like Gears of War? What do 13 year old kids think is cool? Worse still, the “mature” product that we do make, the things that are in many places illegal to sell to minors, is still made with those same 13-year-old’s values in mind.
I’ve talked to people in this industry who legitimately think that peppering a conversation with f***s makes it more “mature”. I’ve genuinely heard someone say “we added some explosions to make it cooler”. There really are people out there who think like that, and these are the reasons you get those ridiculous slow-motion bullet-time sequences in cut-scenes, or female characters with breasts that have their own gravity fields, or tiresome industry figures who think the best way to impress the audience is to pepper their quotes with swear words. Isn’t anyone tired of that? Isn’t anyone sick of our medium having all the cultural impact and intelligence of Limp Bizkit?
Why are we still so eager and willing to overlook the fact that the general public still looks at our product – all of our product – with disdain? Could it have something to do with the fact that there’s barely a single game available in which you play a realistic human character and do not resort to violence or killing to progress through the game? Could it be that the top selling games of 2009, other than those that let us live out that other favorite teenage fantasy, becoming a sports hero, all involve these same themes?
Grand Theft Auto 4, a game that lets you do whatever you want while sticking it to the man (what could possibly be any more adolescent?). Call of Duty: World at War, a game whose most popular mode revolves around Nazi zombies, for the love of God. Gears of War 2, the post-modern equivalent of Boy’s Own.
Escapism? Yes. Wish fulfillment? Certainly. But are violence, sports and sex the only wishes we want to fulfill? There’s nothing wrong individually with any of these games – it’s that this is all we have to offer.
We are still content to play amongst ourselves. We make things that appeal to gamers like ourselves. Not only do we do nothing to expand the love and acceptance of our chosen medium, but we explicitly reject newcomers by branding them as “casuals” and writing off Wii and DS games as “shovelware”.
The whole thing becomes a vicious circle, as whenever somebody tries to break the mold, it is rejected by those holding the purse strings because it won’t sell to our market. And to see the reaction to Chaplin’s comments in most sections of the internet – hell, they’d be right. As dev budgets get more and more expensive, all we can do is reduce risk and make stuff is guaranteed to sell. And guess what kids, that means more guns, more tits, more swearing. Right now, we don’t deserve anything else.
It’s fine to have a little macho comic-book escapism, and it’s fine to think that gaming is OK the way it is. But it could aspire to be so much more. Our industry is in danger of going down the same path worn by comic books before it, where we cater just to the same group of fans who demand similar of content over and over, making product just for ourselves even as the number of people interested dwindle. Just as comics had Watchmen and Sandman and other occasional works of sheer brilliance that showed what much more the medium can offer, so too does gaming – but the existence of titles like Beyond Good & Evil or Silent Hill 2 does not disprove anything. For comics, they came too late, and the medium never overcame that stigma, never broke out of the superhero-book mold they cast themselves in.
Is that really what we want to happen to gaming?
Being an adult means being able to recognize our flaws. Let’s be adults, and not stick our fingers in our ears and pretend that Chaplin doesn’t have a point.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and would really rather be a comfortably plump Corgi than either a Chihuahua or a wolf.