27 July 2015

I’ve been a gamer for most of my life. It all started with Super Mario Bros. and it never stopped. My gaming carreer has spanned more than a decade and a half, and I have played hundreds of games on so many different platforms, across so many genres. Games like EarthBound and Majora’s Mask and Bastion have managed to reach me in a way no other piece of work has, to the point that most of my life revolves around video games. When I’m not playing them, I’m thinking or talking about them, and when I am, I’m anlyzing them and deconstructing them. And maybe, one day, after I get off my sorry ass, I’ll even make them so that people can also start shitting on my work just like I shit on theirs. It’s the circle of criticism.

That might seem a bit obsessive, yes. But then again many people feel the same about books, or films, or music, and in their case nobody’s really upset about it. We call that “being passionate”. But for video games? There’s some resistance, as if games were not allowed to be relevant or significant or important. And I’m a little bit miffed by that.

Video games are strange things. Their innate interactivity means they are unlike any other expressive medium. They can be either a form of mass media entertainment, an artistic medium, a sports activity, or a tool for learning, amongst many other things. And yet, most people consider them to be a waste of time. Most people do not seem to get what games are. And it’s not really their fault, it’s on everyone. Let me explain.

Market dominance

I usually consider the turning point for games in the West to be the release of Super Mario Bros., in 1985. That would mean games have been mainstream for almost 30 years now. And despite being a fairly young medium, it’s growing fast, both in terms of people and market share. In the US, it already has a larger revenue than cinema, and one in two Americans play video games regularly. As a spectator sport, gaming is becoming increasingly popular, especially in Asia, and Twitch’s popularity shows how much people like watching others play.

Basically, games are no longer a niche. They’re mainstream, and they have been for a while. And yet, for the media at large, they’re still treated as this weird unassuming hobby that’s enjoyed by a few basement dwellers.

My first thought was that it was because traditional media outlets target older audiences, for which gaming is the above stereotype. And if it were only that, it wouldn’t really be an issue considering they’re all going to be dead within 30 to 50 years. But it’s not just that, as I don’t really see any real coverage for video games in outlets aimed at younger markets. Or, well, I see some of it, but not much, and in the wrong place.

For you see, for the media, games are a technological product, not a cultural one, which means that they’ll shove an Assassin’s Creed review next to a review of the new iPhone rather than one about a Foo Fighters concert. And because technology in general gets little to no coverage out of some misguided notion that only geeks like to talk about it, then you won’t see lot of gaming coverage either, unless it’s financial news about a game developer or publisher. Hell, when Iwata died the media at large didn’t give any shit. And this is really unnaceptable. Games are far more than the hardware they run on: they are full fledged creative experiences. If this standard held everywhere, you’d get articles about television screens right next to film critiques.

General disinterest

And really, I don’t get it. These outlets have marketing departments. They know their audience. I’m sure there’s more than enough people who play games even occasionally to make it financially interesting. To me, this all sounds like some weird self-fulfilling prophecy: we do not talk about games, therefore we do not talk about games. Although, to be fair for them, it’s not like they’re really wrong, since many people of my generation are not interested in games either. If I go to a party featuring mostly people I don’t know, I can reasonably expect everyone to be able to hold a conversation about, say, Game of Thrones or Mad Max: Fury Road, even though they both belong to genres that are supposed to be a niche market (respectively, fantasy and sci-fi). But a video game? If you do that, even if it’s something as hugely successful as Call of Duty, you run the risk of excluding people from the discussion. But nobody will get to learn about games if we never at talk even a little bit about them. Again, we do not talk about games, therefore we do not talk about games.

As for the news outlet specialized in gaming news, they all seem to expand towards non-gaming related content, although it only seems to be about so called “geek” culture. Which means that when they’re not talking about games, they’re talking about sci-fi, fantasy, science and technology. I mean, I like sci-fi, but by that I mean that I like sci-fi litterature, cinema, television, imagery, and futurist and cyberpunk themes and ideas. Culture is large, and arbitrarily restricting it to a stereotypical view of a subculture is a bit wrong headed in my opinion.

So from outside the gaming world, you have this self-perpetuating reputation of gaming as an activity for geeks, where “geek” is the imaginary person that buys stuff on ThinkGeek, and nobody ever seems to try and bridge the gap. But it’s not entirely their fault. The gamers are also to blame.

Barriers to entry

Video games are not what you would call a very accessible activity. First off, they’re incredibly expensive to get in: you need to fork several hundred dollars to get a console, a smartphone or a decent PC, and then you need to buy the games themselves. Big budget games run anywhere between 50$ and 70$, and if you’re on PC you might get lucky in a Steam sale and get them half off. And if you decide to stick to free-to-play games, well, many of them are only free in name. Games are expensive to make, and so they’re expensive to consume.

Games are also time consuming. If a game takes you less than ten hours to complete, we call it “short”. Comparatively, a feature length film running for more than two hours is “long”. Games get “okay” at thirty hours in, and that’s not counting games with procedurally generated content, or those with multiplayer components, which can offer a theoretically infinite amount of gameplay time. And you’ll suck at first. Oh boy will you suck.

Oh, and you’ll want to get good at the games first. You see, if you go see a film for the first time in your life, you can just sit down and watch it. You probably won’t be able to get the subtleties, but at least you’ll go through. With a game? Forget it. Most games assumed you’ve played similar games before. To keep the comparison with cinema, imagine if every 10 minutes, someone paused the film to ask you a question and rewind if you fail to answer it. That’s how games work. Games are the only expressive medium to actively deny progress if you do not show a sufficient level of skill. And we’re not even talking about the inherently toxic atmosphere of competitive games. Hope you like getting thrash talked at.

It’s become so bad that there’s an entire genre devoted to games that do not assume prior experience: the casual gaming genre.

I have no issue understanding why someone with no gaming experience would try and start playing. If you’ve never played a game before, you might not understand the benefits, or what makes them so special. Why spend so much time and money on something that might be at best uninteresting and at worst psychologically damaging? Maybe that’s why most people will never go further in the gaming world than Candy Crush. The bottom line is, if you weren’t born with a controller in your hands, you’ll never pick up the hobby.

On the need for ambassadors

But here’s the thing: games are special. As interactive pieces, they can influence and reach the player in ways no other work can. They can offer anything tightly crafter experiences to infinitely replayable iterations. They can be used to entertain, to challenge, to teach, to question, to create and to upset. But, again, from the outside, it can be incredibly difficult to see all that.

And I’m not saying everyone should be a gamer. My passion for video games are a very personnal thing, and I do not expect others to have the same. It is fully possible for someone to try it and then not like it., and that’s fine. This is not what this is about. No, this is about how video games should become part of the conversation more often. Everyone would benefit from it. More people would discover the joy of gaming. The industry would get to reach a larger market. More players would also mean less popular titles or genres would get a better chance at viability.

If you play games, and you have people close to you who don’t, be their guide! The world of video games is a large and frightening one. If you’re in the opposite situation, keep an open mind. Maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t, but you won’t know until you try. As for the media in general, maybe start hiring writers who know about games, and stop treating that subject as a some piece of tech for geeks to consume. I would love to see news about video games when I flip over to the “cultures and entertainment” of a newspaper, and to see hipsters get excited about a game release, and to hear people who don’t really play games still be able to recognize gaming’s historical icons even though they don’t know much about them. If the cycle is “we do not talk about games, therefore we do not talk about games”, then someone will need to break it at one point.

Not everyone should be a gamer, but everyone should at least know a bit about games. Because video games are culturally significant, and I think it’s time for the rest of human culture to notice.