What is an acceptable standard in games? Much is made on this site, and many other blogs and forums applying a high-end analysis to games, of the need for increased artistic value and different themes in games. A recent example of this rallying cry is Heather Chaplin’s talk at GDC last Friday. Let me lead off with this: I read Smartbomb. It’s a wonderful book that I’ve recommended a lot of my friends, gamers and non-gamers alike, to read. She’s smart, keenly observational, and an incredibly engaging writer. Which is why I’m convinced the real Heather Chaplin is duct-taped in a custodial closet somewhere.
I’m not sure who the doppelganger who gave that talk was, but the myopic view of games and the naked attempt to push a narrowly defined code of values and morality seemed quite unlike the witty, open-minded writing I’ve seen in the past. But I don’t want to pick on Chaplin, because she’s by no means the only source of this criticism. Many of the same criticisms can be leveled at Gamasutra’s recent feature, and in much of the user commentary around the site.
Please don’t construe this writing as an attack on art games, or the desire to create games that move away from traditional genres and designs. These sorts of games are vital and necessary to the industry, and indeed will help to push games towards wider public acceptance and participation. Moving away from violence and male-centric themes in some games has to happen in order for the industry to grow.
Games such as Braid, Little Big Planet and World of Goo make it clear that there’s a market for innovative titles not steeped in ultraviolence or “power fantasy”, that contain unique and unconventional design. It would be tragic for the progress of games, both as art and as a commercial enterprise, if developers, and even commentators and critics, such as us on these blogs, stopped pushing for games to expand into new genres and themes. Encouraging innovation and opening the joy of gaming to entire new sectors of the population is a mission both noble and essential.
That said, I really wish it could be done without so much condescension. Sometimes I just think it’s because advocates of art and indie games have forgotten the most essential element to a game. It needs to be fun. Above I name checked Braid, and I still maintain it’s a great, revolutionary game. That said, is it my favorite Arcade title? Hardly. That honor goes to Castle Crashers. I want to love Braid. I really, really do. The intellectual in me realizes the game is a tremendous achievement, tells a moving story, and accomplishes all of this without any real gore or any of the other traditional criticisms leveled by the mainstream against games. I really, really want to like it more.
But I’m going to level with you. I think the gameplay gets boring after awhile, and poignant seems to be just another buzzword for sappy. I’d rather call up a few friends, take some PBR (I’m cheap, ok?) out of the fridge, order a pizza, and fight evil on the back of a feces-propelled deer. And why? Because in doing all this, I’m having one hell of a good time! There shouldn’t be anything wrong with admitting that. So Castle Crashers isn’t a serious, high concept game. In fact, the developers have publicly begged people to not take it seriously. But who cares if the game has gravitas? If it’s fun, it shouldn’t matter.
My point is essentially this: It’s a big tent, ladies and gentlemen. Games are a twenty billion dollar industry, on pace to soon overtake film. The needs of the market to expand into new genres and ways of play, as well as generational change, are largely going to solve the problem of mainstream acceptance. Braid has made it clear that non-traditional games are commercially viable, to put it mildly.
But games are still, for as long as I can foresee, going to have a core demographic: Young men, and increasingly, those of us who are aging, but still want to stay tapped into our favorite hobby. There are certain themes, certain brands of humor, that appeal to wide swaths (though certainly not all, as Chaplin mentioned) of this demographic. To call those millions of people “stunted” and to accuse designers of neoteny is crassly insulting. Sure, maybe fart jokes and chainsaws don’t play on NPR, but a lot of developers don’t want to make the game Terry Gross would want to play. I sure wouldn’t want to play it.
Imagine if a male game journalist jumped on stage and declared that games not featuring “violence, weaponplay, alcohol or fart jokes”, or worse “highlighting themes of femininity” were “for pussies”. This would, rightly so, cause an uproar. No demographic deserves to get talked down to in that sort of form. Young men in this demographic don’t have some magic badge upon them that suddenly makes blatant stereotyping and oversimplification acceptable. I really expected something better from someone like Heather Chaplin.
There’s plenty of room for games of all types, and we, as writers, developers, and other roles in the industry, ought to spend time promoting and developing those parts of the industry that speak to us personally. But by the same token, we ought not be using our time to marginalize and condescend to the other sectors of the industry we may not see eye to eye with.
So not everyone likes your new experimental game idea about maintaining a celestial garden with a poignant story about life, death and creation, and would rather blast hordes of aliens or chase after the citizens of Liberty City with chainsaws. That does not make them dumb. That does not make them inferior to you. And it certainly does not relegate them to some “ghetto” of power fantasy. Some people are simply going to enjoy certain themes and types of gameplay more than others. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what’s important?
We’re all in the same business, folks, to create entertainment and unique experiences, to help people live their lives more enjoyably. That goal is greatly aided if we can treat each other in the industry, regardless of interest and genre, with a modicum of decency and respect, without condescension. Not only is that common courtesy, but it might aid in the transferrence of ideas. Someone might be more apt to listen to what you're saying when they feel you view them as something above troglyditic. Come off the high horse and come join the rest of us down in the mud. Who knows? You might even have some fun.
[When he's not running around suburban Virginia in a loincloth, clubbing deer and the odd housepet for his meals, Logan can be reached at [email protected]. Feel free to write in with any questions, criticisms, or just a good fart joke.]