It takes all kinds: Video game culture's weird identity crisis

Amid discussions in recent weeks about the role of awards and of the games media alike, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander wonders why the discussion is so reductive -- and argues that it takes all kinds.
Amid a variety of heated discussions online in recent weeks about the role of awards and of the games media alike, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander wonders why the discussion is so reductive -- and argues that it takes all kinds. The GameCity festival is on this week in Nottingham, and Journey took home the big prize. Unlike many game awards this one's not selected by industry insiders, but instead is determined by a jury of people not traditionally acquainted with games. The jury's chaired by Lord Puttnam, and includes juror Lucy Kellaway, who wrote in the Financial Times about how she dug into some video games for just about the first time ever. Disinterested generally in game conversation but curious to connect with her son, she gamely investigated a medium that had previously been foreign to her. Jurors convened in London to play Johann Sebastian Joust together (except for Lord Puttnam, for whom, as a chairman, the highly physical game would have been undignified). Her feedback on many of the games was surprising to gamers, who bristled to hear Mass Effect 3 called "boring sci-fi tosh," or that her view of the relatively-complex Fez was generally limited to an appreciation of the music and colors. Kellaway struggled to make progress in Mario 3D Land, a game that focuses on being quite forgiving to beginners, and could hardly even move her hero in Mass Effect 3. How can someone who doesn't play games award a prize? Even those who accept the basic idea that it's valuable to have games judged on how they appeal to new audiences -- especially alongside countless other awards from reviewers, designers and indies alike -- feel a little skeptical. One designer whose work was also in consideration for the prize suggested you wouldn't have a literature prize awarded by people who are unable to read. Analogies between games and other media don't generally hold up. Still, it's interesting to think of games as requiring "literacy", and about what that literacy might look like. The insularity of games in general is a threat to their economic health and cultural relevance, and it's hard to argue that art and industry alike could benefit from the inclusion of new kinds of players -- who in turn help form the next wave of new creation, ideally. At the same time, a specialist culture -- multiple molecules of specialty, even -- is not only valid but equally essential to art. Maybe we can't force a middle-aged mother who struggles with games to enjoy Mass Effect 3, but that doesn't detract from the value of BioWare's work and the massive community of fans it creates. The culture of appreciating games has a strange and pervasive problem: This idea that only one sort of thing can exist.

Why are we like this?

Like the goal of making some kinds of games more accessible will necessarily eliminate all complex and specific niches; like a prize awarded by non-gamers can't exist equally alongside prizes selected by game developers or critics. As if one way of looking at games somehow threatens or invalidates other games. Like we need to choose between ambassadorship or insularity, like it's impossible to have both. Part of this probably comes from the early shape of game consumer culture, which had a much narrower range of products specifically targeted toward only one major demographic. Magazines existed to rate these products by the numbers in crude categories and numeric scales, and enjoyed a close advertising-oriented relationship with the industry. Media on games has long straddled an uneasy line between "product guide" and "fan culture," and the idea of journalism in games surfaced relatively more recently, with the idea of proper "criticism" even newer in the past decade. We struggle with how to move on from that past, when there was no game that couldn't be viewed as a simple commercial entertainment product to dissect only in basic terms. A complex cultural environment has since spawned around games in a fashion that's only accelerated rapidly alongside online and social media, digital content and platforms for casual games. Game developers have negotiated this seismic shift admirably -- media, marketers and fans less so.

Why are we so bad at this?

The game industry has grown faster than our understanding of it, and most people who do any stripe of writing on games often wear many hats -- a reviewer stretches to cover industry events, a fan blogger feels obligated to wear the mantle of "journalism," and roles and definitions are frequently in dispute. Marketers are little help, still keeping an incredibly close relationship with those on the frontlines of consumer writing so that many game blogs still act as participants in the preview-review-sales cycle even as they struggle to present a front of objective coverage to their persnickety, passionate readers. Games journalists most frequently "retire" to community management roles because it's not that much of a stretch. And even though the game industry has diversified, rich with festival and indie culture, art games, experiments, social games and an entire industry of so-called "casual" titles that appeal to everyone, the traditional commercial industry still exists, of course. In fact, it's doubled down on blockbuster commercialism, and is viewed with increasing unease even by people who've been gaming fans since childhood. Can a writer who's a fan of a commercial franchise and fervently evangelizes it be trusted as an objective source of information? Moreover, do they need to? Can a reviewer whose job is to score games also be qualified to publish investigative, objective work on the company that makes those games? These are the kinds of questions we wrestle with -- and just like the discussion around the GameCity prize, the discussion is reductive. Like one must be all or nothing, like gradients can't exist, like the work of a fansite somehow owes an explanation to game criticism or trade writing.

It happens in the media, too

The early game industry itself has trained us to be reductive, to look at any problem and ask how you "win," or what score it gets out of five, whether it was worth our money or not. The attitude of the media shapes the outlook of its readership and vice versa, in an ongoing struggle to comprehend the simple idea that it takes all kinds.
A picture's been circulating of a bleak-faced Geoff Keighley sitting among Mountain Dew and Doritos advertisements to discuss Halo 4. It kicked off discussion on the face of games writing and whether some of us have become glorified shills, too close to the marketers that soothe our desire to be treated as important voices. I myself wrote in Edge about how a professional press corps should be more circumspect and maintain better distance from marketing's preview-review-sales cycle -- should grow up, if you will. Now in Eurogamer, Rob Florence critiqued the UK's Games Media Awards as a display of cronyism and amateurishness, and he was not necessarily wrong. At the GMAs, a minor scandal broke on Twitter when so called "professional" media were encouraged to try to win a PlayStation 3 by tweeting some corporate hashtag -- and like a bunch of fanboys, some did.

Let something be what it is

However, the problem isn't that the kind of writers he discussed are unethical; it's that they're trying to be something they aren't, and failing to reconcile that with what they are. Games writing has terrible self esteem. Instead of trying to crown enthusiast writers as "professional journalists" worthy of awards for some unknown purpose, it would be better if it were somehow possible to accept the validity of the work they do even if it's different from reporting, or trend writing, or games criticism or whatever one's definition of "journalism" is. Whether awarding games or looking at our press, why do we still feel the need to be all things to all people? Geoff Keighley's work on Spike is mainstream pop culture in the most basic sense, but that doesn't mean it can't exist alongside other approaches to covering the game industry, other perspectives thereupon. It's when we start trying to hold an incredibly diverse game industry and an incredibly diverse array of voices to the same uncompromising standards we run into problems -- especially, as Florence points out, because the standards are still relatively little-understood in a rapidly-changing landscape. According to the GameCity prize, Journey was the game that non-gamers best understood, an admirable achievement; Fez was the game most-acclaimed by the Independent Games Festival at the Game Developers Conference. Neither is "correct" nor excludes the other. A fan writer who's always the first to post screenshots of her favorite game does not do the same work as a trade reporter, but neither discipline is mutually exclusive. Writers shouldn't struggle with mixed success to wear a mantle of "professionalism" or "objectivity" if it doesn't suit them -- if they could just admit they're cultural enthusiasts and that such work doesn't need to be explained, defended or elevated, it'd be healthier for everyone. The game industry offers something for everyone now, and it's time the rest of us caught up.

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