Few topics have agitated great minds as persistently as the flaws of youth. Inter-generational hand-wringing has long been a ritualised passageway to middle age and beyond. The accelerated pace of technological and media change, however, has expanded the old habit to enthusiastically target youthful cultural forms as well as youthful people. Older, wiser souls at one time or another have pinioned cinema, be-bop, rock ‘n’ roll, comic books and rap music, amongst others, as the folly of youth.
These debates are well chronicled. Some are even enshrined in works of popular entertainment, as in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, a morbid and satirical account of silent cinema versus the talkies. It is now expected that those who have grown up attached to one set of cultural forms will expostulate as best they can in response to the media nouveau. And so it is with videogames. Despite their centrality and importance in today’s cultural life, videogames are routinely treated with disinterest and occasional hostility by cultural commentators who should know better. Bemusement and righteous ignorance are simply the most uninteresting and unchallenging responses to the emergence of a new media form we can have.
The case of Videogames versus The Public Good has been fought, won and lost many times since their introduction in the 1970s. The war peaked in the 1990s, with the appearance of a new generation of violent games such as Mortal Kombat (1992) and ‘interactive movies’ like Night Trap (1992), which caused concern amongst many parent groups. Later in the decade, American psychologists Craig Anderson and Karen Dill claimed that Doom (1993), the landmark first-person shooter videogame, inspired Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Yet the long and involved 2004 FBI investigation into the massacre found no link between videogames and the boys’ actions. Australia’s legislators have remained suspicious of videogames and in 1995, while introducing the national classification regime, decided videogames could not be trusted with an adults-only R18+ classification – today, any videogame deemed by the Classification Board to exceed the MA15+ rating is automatically banned.
These days, videogames are now a relatively uncontroversial part of everyday life. Dame Helen Mirren, a star of my mother’s media landscape, says Wii Fit is her ‘new best friend’. Barack Obama placed advertisements in popular racing game Burnout Paradise in the lead-up to the 2008 US presidential election. To differentiate a group as ‘gamers’ is now no more precise than to specify ‘book readers’ or ‘music fans’. The Bond University ‘Interactive Australia 2009’ report found that 88 per cent of households currently have a device for playing videogames, and that by 2014 the average age of gamers and non-gamers will be the same (35). Videogames can no longer be claimed as a generational fad: they are here, as they have been since the 1970s, to stay.
In spite of these statistics, some cultural commentators continue to play that elite sport – denigrating videogames. I was angered when journalist and literati-botherer Gideon Haigh cosseted a cheap laugh at the Wheeler Centre in September 2010 while interviewing The Shallows author Nicholas Carr, describing gamers as ‘proverbially dull, inarticulate, social misfits’. Caroline Overington made similar comments in the Australian in February 2010, dedicating an entire opinion column to excoriating gamers for their ‘wet hands and their weak chins, they’d never get through [a job] interview’. And in spite of his confessed unfamiliarity with the medium, US film critic Roger Ebert recently declared on his blog, Roger Ebert’s Journal, that videogames could never be art. Almost 5000 comments later, he directly invoked age when hoisting up the white flag: ‘Okay, kids,’ he said, ‘play on my lawn.’
What really is at stake here for anyone interested in popular culture is how we must now understand the videogame and its place in contemporary life. Videogames have long since won the same war that popular music, literature and television have all fought. Their popularity, ubiquity and mainstream appeal now speak with authority. The challenge is similar to that advocated by Marshall McLuhan’s frequently misunderstood maxim, ‘The Medium is the Message’: to trace out the associations and patterns introduced by the prevalence of a new media form.
Why do so many play videogames? As the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga argued early in the twentieth century, most justifications for even the physical, non-digital act of play assume that play is not a reasonable end in itself. Play, such arguments assume, is a transitionary activity that might build important skills for later in life, develop our physical abilities and our cognitive functions. But to continue play once these skills have developed is considered a waste of time. This is a furphy on the same level as if we had assumed a child reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar was somehow doing essential primary learning about insects, all the while forgetting that the child is in fact learning to read and appreciate language. It is important to frame our understanding of play – and therefore videogames – as a cultural activity, and not simply as a means to an end.
If we are to understand videogames, we have to accept them at face value, and not search for a phantom meaning that will either legitimise or de-legitimise the medium. Regardless of any positive or negative effects, cultural activities are most often undertaken because of their immediate and irreducible pleasures – people play videogames because they are an enjoyable way to pass the time. In 2011, the pleasures of the videogame can no longer be contained as ‘fun’ (if indeed they ever could). And videogames do indeed facilitate many pleasures: wonder, excitement, stress, concentration, mastery and exploration.
Videogames remain a relatively new art form, and certainly the only one wholly native to digital technology. Nonetheless, videogames also contain traces of cinema, literature, theatre, theme-park design, visual art and sports – as videogame designer Ken Levine once suggested, this is in many ways ‘the convergence of everything’. The earliest of videogames were the result of humanising, rebellious acts: against the will of their professors, the young mathematicians and physicists of the 1960s repurposed the then room-sized computers of universities for more playful ends. Videogames humanised and familiarised the stony seriousness of these new and alien machines. This is still true today – the usual path for new digital technologies (recent examples include motion sensors, touch screens, networking technologies) is to be co-opted into videogaming before being used for other, more ‘serious’ purposes.
As it is with all media, videogames generally do certain things well and other things badly. Videogames do not, for example, deal particularly well with dialogue or tight narrative structures. In 2007, Scott Osterweil, director of MIT’s Education Arcade, delivered a talk at the Harvard Business School outlining what he called ‘The Four Freedoms of Play’. Good videogames, he argued, offer players the freedom to experiment, the freedom to fail, the freedom to explore identities, and the freedom of effort. These freedoms suggest a shift to a more open foundation for cultural media, one favouring involved and flexible consumption.
Videogames also encourage, more so than any other medium, active participation and understanding from the audience. While traditional mediums require an author to provide both what Russian formalists describe as fabula and sjuzet – the distinction between story (events as they happen) and plot (the order of their presentation) – videogames often leave the plot in the hands of the player. In this way, videogames are more like architecture than previous narrative-based mediums: playing a videogame can be a lot more like ambling through a sprawling building, with each room designed for narrative function, rather than the constrained linearity of traditional plotting. The artdeco dystopia of BioShock (2007) is a good example of this. Inspired as a critique of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged (1957), BioShock embeds elements of story through the game (audio diaries, abandoned protest signs and propaganda posters) and the players piece the plot together.
Videogames are also adept at creating expressive systems and even depicting systemic problems. Videogames may, like other media, use images, sounds, text and video, but they can also uniquely simulate how things work. In Newsgames in 2010, Ian Bogost, Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, and two of his graduate students, Bobby Schweizer and Simon Ferrari, argued how this allows videogames to be uniquely used as a medium of journalistic expression. Cutthroat Capitalism, for example, the web-based videogame created by Wired Magazine, represents and critiques Western economic systems (insurance being cheaper than alternate routes, for example) that enable current-day piracy in the sea of Aden. As the New York Times recently pointed out, given the consistent commercial failure of films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (The Hurt Locker, for example, is the lowest grossing film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards), and the freewheeling successes of videogames depicting the same conflicts, videogames must now be regarded as the world’s most popular fictional depictions of these wars.
Beyond the medium itself, videogames have inspired a creative and critical culture that ranks among the most inventive and propitious of the decade. Jane McGonigal, a director of the Institute for the Future in California, has formulated large-scale online games aimed at creating solutions to pressing global problems. Her 2010 game for the World Bank Institute, Evoke, resulted in funding and mentorships for confronting global problems like poverty and hunger, and McGonigal predicts that one day a game designer will win the Nobel Peace Prize. Conversely, Kill Screen Magazine, a recently launched publication for ‘cultural elites’ who also happen to play videogames, has been lauded by The New York Times and Wired, and boasts contributors from the stables of Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and Los Angeles Times.
In 2011 videogames are a complex and protean form of the cultural experience. They are fascinating cultural objects that reward attempts at deep and considered analysis; we are only just coming to understand their broader influences and successes. As the population continues to embrace videogames as a part of everyday life, the discourse about their meaning only grows more inviting. Those who disregard videogames only lock themselves out of one of the most interesting contemporary cultural conversations – I therefore invite them to join us in re-appraising the videogame.