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Opinion: The Case Against Entertainment Media Convergence

The explosive growth of games means more and more crossover with other media such as music (Guitar Hero/Rock Band) and movies (Brash Entertainment). But is it good for games? In the second of a two-part opinion piece, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander of
[The explosive growth of games mean more and more crossover with other media such as music (Guitar Hero/Rock Band) and movies (Brash Entertainment). But is it good for games? In the second of a two-part opinion piece, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander offers the case against.] Recently, I rounded up some evidence of entertainment media and technology convergence marching ever more swiftly onward. Permit me the bizarre indulgence of quoting myself: "It's been obvious for some time that games are going mainstream in a big way, which is necessarily bringing them squarely into the territory of other entertainment media that has enjoyed much more visibility, economic impact, widespread adoption and social acceptance for as long as my generation's been alive." And how do you feel about it? More importantly -- is it good for games? The answer's maybe. And, following my article on The Case in Favor, let's now look at the case against. If cross-media boundaries continue to dissolve, we'll have characters, settings and themes that we can visit and enjoy through gaming, film, episodic television or internet content, and anything else you like. In the case in favor, I asked the question: "Let's say that, after watching your favorite TV show, you can go online and play with those characters, in that persistent world, along with your friends, and then the property's producers make a movie from the events and stories written and played by you and your companions, did you just play a video game, watch a TV show, or make a film?" Well, it's hard to tell. And that could be a problem. Arresting Development Relative to these other media forms, gaming is still young. Some people would say it's in its infancy; I'm more inclined to call it early adolescence. And when we look to the ways in which games have grown up since the eight-bit era, we can project some of the directions in which we need them to continue developing in order to call it a mature medium. So what strides have we made? Games have developed from being reflex-based amusements into immersive storytelling and shared cultural experiences. Whether or not you believe games are art, they've certainly become more artful, at least -- back in the days of Tetris and Donkey Kong, could you have imagined the landscapes of ICO, for example, bathed in white light and foreboding, substantial shadow? Even the simplest of genres, like the stick shooter, has evolved from a brutal sprite march into an arena for innovation using art and music, like Mizuguchi's synaesthetic work and the multitudes of effort to emulate and build on it. Maybe as recently as three or four years ago, we could have accused certain genres of stagnating -- most especially the first-person shooter, and yet this year saw Portal, which relies on that basic gameplay convention -- take top honors for innovation. Only a few months ago I found myself wondering what it'd take to build a better RPG, one that really let us roleplay within a story, not just snooze through cut scenes and battle grinds. This year, there were quite a few better RPGs than we've ever seen -- even titles like Mass Effect that maybe wouldn't have been called RPGs a few years ago. And while we're seeing a blending of genres, it's not taking place in the name of generalization, of broadening appeal. The key driver in our industry has always been specificity. More Specific, Not Less If we sought to identify formulae, it was only so they could be broken, expanded on, improved upon. Gamers, however fallaciously, were always considered a "vocal niche," not a broader audience. And it seems as if the industry had just begun to learn that segmenting us into strict genres -- shooter fans, puzzle fans, RPG fans -- was ineffective. Rather than targeting such general, superficial and mechanical preferences, games began to aim themselves squarely for that little itch in our hearts and minds that couldn't be scratched any other way. Games are a very specific type of entertainment that it's impossible to replace -- and this is because games are finally beginning to understand what it is we need from them. You can even thank casual gaming for this. With the advent of casual gaming, people realized that there were variations in gaming preferences and behavior that were actually quite broad -- people who want to zone out clicking dots, or who just want light interactive play to enjoy with their families, versus those of us who want to personify the content, see the impact of choices on a story, or become engaged in a long-term emotional investment. And if development was to specify the casual gamer, it must necessarily differentiate not only the more traditional gamer, but identify various colors within a much wider spectrum than anyone ever imagined. This trend of trying to please as many people as possible with the same title, console or gameplay mechanic is fairly new by contrast. And while films and television do stratify their audience, they do so in the most simplistic way possible -- action, comedy, drama, et cetera. If games were to become more like film and TV, and if gaming would have to share markets with them more intimately, this encouraging trend of specifying audiences would abruptly reverse. Gaming has always worked because it wasn't for the masses. To continue on the specificity train -- it's a very particular type of entertainment, and whether a game "works" or not depends on factors that are not static or thematic. Film and TV demand user engagement, it's true, but they do so passively. A game's success or failure depends -- perhaps even primarily -- on how well it allows for what the user wants to do. One of the most important things we've ever learned about games is that while art, story and characters are important, insufficient, ill-fitting or just plain bad gameplay can render them all worthless. A marriage to other more static entertainment media means that the focus on engaging users with themes, settings and characters would increase -- but if developers must prioritize create a product that adheres to a larger media entity, what will happen to the gameplay? Games are already a hit-driven business, and we lament that fact because it makes innovation difficult. Should games continue on their collision course into the territory of the Hollywood-based production empires, get ready for it to become much, much worse. Whether or not a game gets made will come down to how well it can be ported or broadcast to other devices, how well it lends itself to a community component, whether it has the potential to align with existing properties, or spawn new ones. They'll be weighed on how easily they can be generalized, and how readily they can be personalized, altered and claimed by the broader population. The Downside To Mass Participation Wait, wait -- letting users take the helm of stories is good, right? Letting them contribute content, take ownership of it, guide the direction of a game world's evolution? You want to have that kind of input and control, don't you? Maybe you do, but think of this -- to have that, you'd have to give the same right to every idiot, unimaginative automaton, disruptive teenage jerk and mouth-breathing drag you've ever played a video game to get away from. As I pointed out in the case in favor, games have always been a closed world. And that's how gamers wanted it. Desiring a private sphere -- even as it becomes less and less possible -- is not, as some people say, a hipster-esque desire to keep under the radar to maintain some proprietary cool. The fact remains that there are heaps of people who we're glad don't get it, because we'd like something we don't have to share with others. Plenty of people wish they had a girlfriend who was as into video games as they are -- and plenty more people are glad they don't. It might be fair to call such ideals immature or unfounded. We've always believed that an open world can rise to the level of its most sophisticated participant; that none of us is as smart, as creative, as all of us are together. I find Jane McGonigal's essay on the strength of collective intelligence fascinating, for sure. But recall that we have always been in a closed society -- our most broad population sampling has always, for the most part, been comprised of gamers, even if it's a spectrum thereof. We've been trained to think critically and creatively in a very game-specific way. The truth is, an open world will primarily be branded and transformed by its lowest common denominator. And it only takes one percent to ruin things for ninety-nine. Do we really want to open our kingdom to that particularly disheartening social principle? "Participatory" is a great word. But would you rather read a book written by your neighbor, or by your favorite author? We may chafe against utterly linear game experiences, but the idea that we want wholly and entirely to guide ourselves, to build our own play, is a bit of an extreme response. If that were really what we wanted, we'd all be in Second Life, making up stories while we social-network with each other constantly. And most of us don't do that -- while we'd like to be part of a story, I really don't buy that we all want to write it. For my part, I'd like to leave that to the pros. The Smell Of Green And, if you haven't forgotten -- movies based on games and games based on movies may be as old as the hills, but for as long as they have existed, they've unequivocally sucked. All of them. The two spheres have historically failed to "get" one another. They're trying again, because the money's there. -- Yeah, sure, that's gotta go well. Speaking of money, one factor I raised in "the case for" was the rise of the ad-supported business model forcing games to monetize based on user engagement. Some people will be willing to buy a $60 retail box, to pay a $20 per month subscription fee. But more people aren't -- and yet, they want to play anyway. This puts control in the consumer's hands and extends the game company's commitment to the player, as I said. It also means they're going to be looking to wring us, at every turn, for every dime they can get. They'll try to manipulate us into investing things with emotional value so that they can charge us money for it later; something we built out of love will be sold behind cellophane on the shelf as the season's must-have toy. The idea is that you can customize your engagement, pop in and out of online worlds as you please, and pay for no more and no less, or thereabouts, than what you consume. But how it's more likely to work is that rather than trying to engage you, they'll be trying to addict you; far from being left alone to your pursuits as you like them, both subtly and overtly they'll be trying to convince you you need more -- that's how mass consumerism works, and we will not be safe from that anymore. Popularity Contest I cited Chris Dahlen's always-excellent and forward-thinking transmedia articles in "the case for," and now I'll bring him up again. A few readers took a bit of an issue with one of his recent columns, "Games & The Birth Of The Cool," in which he argued that games aren't "cool" in the way that other pop culture is, and that their occasional efforts to act "cool" intentionally -- say, Guitar Hero III -- don't quite work. That "cool" factor, he says, is important to all other forms of pop culture. But, asked one commenter, "Why consign gaming to the wasteland of popular culture?" Why indeed? Do we really want to see our medium subject to whims, trends and in-jokes? Now, of course, we have our own "hip" lexicon and network of in-jokes -- think "party escort submission position." But we have historically attached ourselves to that kind of meme because there are so few others with whom we can share it. What would it feel like, after a while, to see Jonathan Coulton do Letterman, Leno and O'Brien, anchors gleefully tossing companion cubes around on the jovial morning news? Viral marketing stunts? Virtual worlds? The lifespan of general enthusiasm within our audience for a new title is already short -- sometimes it even seems like we like to anticipate games more than we like to play them, and plenty of people can probably talk about a time they've become sick of hearing about a title before they ever even picked it up. What if that saturation level happened even more quickly, even more inescapably? Some readers have pointed out Portal, Team Fortress 2, and Tim Schafer's work as being examples of what's "cool" to us. And they are. And do you really think the minds that are bringing you yet another Terminator sequel are ever going to understand that? The message that gamers have been broadcasting should be loud and clear by now. At the end of the day, it's about gameplay. All of the "entertainment device" functionality in the world wasn't enough to sell PS3s without games. We don't want to play movies, we do not want the game industry to resemble the fickle music industry, we don't want games to emulate our real lives or our real relationships. All we asked for was a touchstone with reality -- now let's hope we can close this door before it all stampedes in, mashing beneath its feet everything that makes gaming what it is.

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