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Prevalency and Poignancy

The games industry is often compared to other media industries like film and literature. Do games have the same prevalence and staying power as other media? Fret not, I say.

I recently read an article on IGN on the staying power of games, with comparisons made to the film industry. While I’m as ready as the next person to sprinkle some aggravation and negativity on the modern gaming scene, I’ve been trying out this whole “positive attitude” thing. With that in mind, I wanted to voice a counterpoint.

I’m not worried about games yet because, simply put, we’re just getting started (as Dyer concedes in his article). Even by generous calculations, we’re looking at an industry that is only about 40 years old. By comparison, film has been around for more than three times as long, not to mention literature which dates back to the first and second centuries, BC. Compared to those two media, we’re just a drop in the bucket.

But hey, since many people (including myself) like to compare games to film, let’s do just that. Film, as a medium, began around the late 1880’s with the advent of the motion picture camera. If we use the life span of the games industry as our frame of reference, we’re looking at films made between 1890 and 1930. So, how many of the most influential films of all time were made within this period? According to the AFI, only four. And, though I’m admittedly speculating here, I’m assuming those four are not amongst the ones the Masses™ generally attribute as the greatest or most influential of all time. Many of what are considered to be the “great breakthroughs in cinema” were not made until, at the earliest, a good ten years afterward - Gone With the Wind (1939), Citizen Kane (1941), Casablanca (1942) - with many more occurring even later. Many more didn’t occur until much later in film history; The Godfather, for example, is at the #2 spot on the AFI top 100 films list, and wasn’t made until 1972, nearly 100 years after the birth of cinema.

By that standard, I’d say we’re doing pretty well so far. I can name a number of games - certainly more than four - that are masterful representations of our medium, indicative of the massive potential it has in making poignant statements on the human condition.

But the truth is, though many similarities can be drawn between them, our industry is not, nor will it ever be, the same as the film industry. Due to my fondness for analogies, I tend to think of media more as a family, with film, literature, radio, and video games as the siblings. They share similar traits and a common upbringing, for sure, but they stand as unique entities with their own goals, triumphs and failures. As such, they cannot be judged on the same scale of expectations.

We’ve seen some of the great things come out of literature and film, and it’s natural to compare our industry to theirs and feel jealous of their accomplishments and universal acceptance. It is also easy to feel cynical of something so early in its development, especially when you feel so passionately about it. It is even easier to forget the struggles that those industries have gone through in light of the success they have received now.

To be clear, I’m not saying we should accept things the way they are. It is vital to our growth that we are critical of the work we do, but we must remember that we are still growing, and that requires a certain amount of patience as well. As game developers we're used to working with an iterative process: you throw something at the wall and, after enough tinkering and repetition, eventually something sticks. We're so used to thinking this way about games, so what stops us from treating the development of our media the same way?

I do think there are things to take away from those triumphs in film and literature, however. Namely, why are they so prevalent? What about them appeals to people on a universal level? Why do people still remember them decades later? Is it due to their technological achievements, or does it have more to do with their insight into issues we find important and meaningful as human beings? Was that last question a bit leading? Perhaps, perhaps.

The point is, if we want our work to be universally accepted and remembered then we need to say something universally poignant. Technology, language, culture… these things all change. But the human condition is something we’ll probably be struggling with till the end of time. I dunno, could be something there we can work with.

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