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Monday, May 28, 2007

Not Everyone's a Critic


So I've not written much for awhile, but that's not halted the games playing or conversational predicaments we as gamers find ourselves hoisted inexorably towards. I live in a household of five lads who are each receptive to the value of games (at least for entertainment, if not for any significant 'gaming cause' (note to self: must write something about the gaming cause)). My housemates' sympathetic outlook therefore contributed to my surprise when Ged (last seen laughing at the plight of Okami's villagers) challenged me, stating that we'd grow out of gaming eventually. "They're for kids, aren't they", he furthered. I explained to him the belief I hold - that games deserve to be recognised as a meaningful creative medium, that there isn't any specific age synonymous with a love of games, just as there isn't with books or film - but I don't think my impassioned words made a dent on his shiny chrome belief, which got me thinking.

Ged's not alone. Although I'm not privy to any reliable statistics, I'd assume he's a holder of the majority's viewpoint. As an advocate of gaming, I'm intrigued as to why games continue to be regarded as a hobby to grow out of. I think perhaps the truth lies partially in that last sentence - 'continues' - the 'games are childish' viewpoint is as well established as the games themselves. Not only have the players of games historically been teenagers but also their playing has been based in a external position relative to the household - in the arcade. The arcade thus became a point of contention between parent and child. The pocket money granted to Horace Jnr. ("Perhaps you'll save that money for college, Horace dear?) mysteriously frittered away on a new fad, a habit rather than a hobby - self-destructive and unproductive. These early arcade games set a precedent, their influence reverberating into the present.

At the centre of the problem is the notable failure of a certain ilk of games developers, unable to comprehend a gaming conciousness extending well beyond the reach of their particular game and into the lives of many people. Other creative industries were fortunate to not experience the glut of essentially similar products as those proffered by the early days of gaming. Spacewar! was the target of such an incredible intensity of cloning it's a wonder there wasn't some unforeseen mutation, and with such direct plagiarism as Atari's Computer Space or the later Asteroids, perhaps a mutation would have been beneficial to the fetidness of the average gamer's diet. There was an atrocious degree of 'inspiration' which reeked of Pong shortly after its release in 1972. Some would argue that memory constraints were the limitation that necessitated the similarity of early games, yet this weakness persists in 2007. Now is a time when the cliché should be true - the only limit to our industry could be our imagination - yet Kuma War (standard FPS attempts controversiality for sales), yet LOTR Online (the single distinguishing feature : it's Tolkien), yet Fifa, yet every Sims expansion, yet more. I propose this too is due to precedent and driven by an uncritical audience. Because early games set a trend for the gradual evolution of gameplay through the mimicking of predecessors, today's industry finds no fault in doing so either. Many gamers aren't discerning, and thus publishers are not left smarting through the punishment of few sales because we keep buying drivel. Ironically the section of society that views gaming critically is the non-gamers who have observed gaming's (attempt at) progression and decided their time would be best spent elsewhere.

I propose that the 'games are for kids' belief originates from non-gamers, that it began with parents' fear for their children's failure to mature, became rational with the stagnancy of our industry in the 70's, and entered mainstream conciousness as 70's children became parents and began to worry about their own children as they perceived our industry's failure to find inspiration beyond profit.

This is all rather pessimistic. I should mention that there are various sub-groups wallowing below the mainstream, people that care about gaming, that participate, discuss and contribute to gaming and the various media associated with gaming. These are the critical gamers, and these people are important because they are informed enough to know that games aren't simply for kids. These people have vitally engaged with the mechanics of game production; they are journalists that act in their readers' interests, spurning publishers on to make an effort for originality, they are modders that critically engage with the heart of the game in order that something better might arise, and they are developers and the students of game development that consider their jobs an augmentation to their identity as gamers.

Despite my harsh words, I believe that the future of gaming will be awesome. Thanks to the efforts of the people mentioned above, our medium has become self-aware - embodied by the scathing truthfulness of Progress Quest to the wondrous shock upon learning that Ubisoft are willing to smash all the test tubes and concoct a new formula for their guaranteed money-earner Splinter Cell, in which Sam Fisher (the protagonist and super-spy of the series) becomes protagonist and emphatically-human.

Depressing? Too long? Utterly bollocks? Your criticism is welcome.

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