Gaming: more than playing

There have been a great many criticisms levelled at the video games industry of the years. Many are valid, some are less so, but despite each and every one, the industry has continued to grow and mature. What was once little more than a facile distraction is now a multi-billion dollar industry that employs countless multi-talented creatives.

Yet despite the scope and scale of the industry, there still persist arguments that seek to reduce the entire industry to one that simply makes toys, or that it has no artistic value, or that video games little more than poker machines — mechanisms designed to exploit human behaviour. Such arguments are dangerously reductionist. They ignore the variety of platforms, genres and narratives being told, brush aside the complexity of modern games, and reduce whole experiences to little more than time wasted due to some fault in our simple, animal brains.

It’s tempting to think this way if your experience of gaming has only been from a handful of experiences — from spectating, reading sensationalist articles about deaths from addiction, or listening to the parents at your local school complaining about all the violence their son is exposed to when they play Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. Indeed, the anecdotal evidence of a great many parents I meet is that video games are little more than a distraction from the ‘real world’, that they prevent kids from playing outside like proper children, or finishing their homework, or that they passively sit for hours at a stretch engrossed in the meaningless drivel of a shallow fantasy.

“But Mum, I AM playing outside!” (David Grandmougin, CC.O)

But this kind of argument, at best, serves only to lazily paint an entire industry as a waste of time. Consider this: what would your opinion of sports be if your whole understanding of it was limited to having tried football once and hearing the latest news of head injuries and assault charges from whichever NRL team is headlining this week? It’s not a stretch to assume you might not think too highly of ‘sports’, even though the word applies equally to backyard cricket, competitive sailing, the FIFA world cup and everything in between.

The same applies to the people who engage in the activity. People who play sports don’t identify themselves as ‘sporters’, they’re footballers, fencers, sailors, cricketers and bowlers. Yet people who play games are ‘gamers’, even though the word compasses an equally diverse swathe of experiences and people.

The gamut of human experience

Games are more than simple Skinner Boxes designed to part people from their time and money. There are those experiences, yes — games like Candy Crush Saga and Game of War, where the developers consciously and very deliberately deploy all of the behaviour influencing tactics they can to keep people playing for the maximum amount of time. Games whose objective is to get players to get them to spend every last dollar, and who happily treat their players like poker-machine addicts in order to acquire their next whale. The freemium games model — where the core game is free, but is riddled with microtransactions to encourage wanton spending — has done a great deal of damage to the reputation of the games industry and us so-called ‘gamers’.

But there are games that are so much more.

(Potential spoilers ahead; apologies)

There are games like Portal which combines compelling narrative with humour and mind-bending mechanics that redefine the entire platforming game genre.

Journey remains groundbreaking to this day for its ability to tell a cohesive story and foster multiplayer collaboration with strangers without a single word of dialog.

Journey is a remarkable blend of stunning visual design, haunting music and innovative storytelling. (Source)

There’s Hotline Miami, which immerses the player in what looks like a standard ultra-violent shooter, then holds a mirror up to the player and asks ‘are you happy now?’

Bioshock does the same, making the player question the very nature of choice and free will with one simple phrase: “a man chooses, a slave obeys.”

Spec-Ops: The Line presents the player with a Call of Duty-esque first person shooter, and then twists it into an unexpected commentary on the nature of war and its effects on the participants.

This War of Mine takes that same warzone setting, so common in many games, but turns it on its head. Instead of running around shooting bad guys, the player has to eke out an existence as a civilian trapped in this hellish limbo, forcing them to make harsh choices between selflessness and survival.

That Dragon, Cancer can hardly be described as ‘fun’ at all — which is ostensibly the point of this entire endeavour — yet nobody who has played it could describe it as anything less than deeply affecting.

And games like Crypt of the Necrodancer, Push Me Pull You, Magika, and Towerfall: Ascension are experiences of simple, ridiculous, unbridled joy.

You may note that few of these games are made by big publishers. A great deal of what’s considered the ‘artistic’ games are made by much smaller developers — sometimes a single developer working from their garage. The simple truth is that the majority of mass-market games are, by and large, forgettable experiences with not a great deal to say that’s of artistic value. But even these have value beyond that; games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Skyrim, and Grand Theft Auto are more than cynical cash-grabs by souless publishers, they are spectacles in their own right which, for a brief time, transport the player to worlds and experiences beyond the normal, that provide escapism, reward and, most importantly, fun.

Beyond canvas and clay

‘Art’ is not a term that’s limited to paintings in a gallery. It’s everything from literary classics to grand cinematic spectacles to the mass-produced garbage hanging on your motel room wall. ‘Art’ need not be passively consumed, it need not be contemplated within the confines of a gallery, or defined by the bearded sages of the Media 1.0 era. ‘Art’ can be good or bad, simple or complex, grandiose or a cheap cash-grab, genuinely thought-provoking or shallow, bland and self-involved. Games — and the broader experiences of digital media — have the ability to be all these things and, more importantly, they are functional.

It is because of their functionality, their interactivity, that games have the capacity to be among the most powerful artistic forms available. Where Guernica simply shows in abstract the horrors of war, Spec Ops forces the player to confront first-hand the effects of their actions.

Where 2001: A Space Odyssey presents us with the story of a man battling against an unforgiving AI, Portal makes the player the guinea pig in a pointless maze constructed by a taunting, crazed machine intelligence.

Where Indiana Jones regails us with exotic adventures of the titular Jones overcoming obstacles physical and mental, Uncharted allows us the satisfaction of finding our own solutions.

Where The Exorcist aims to terrify us with scenes of mystery and mounting horror, Amnesia: The Dark Descent places you in the driver’s seat, and then rips all sense of power from you and leaves you shitting your pants in the corner, vowing never to turns the lights out again and knowing that you did this to yourself.

Where The Scream presents us with an image of unspecified mental breakdown, That Dragon, Cancer takes us through the emotional extremes of a parent watching their child die.

An artist need not consider how to make their art commercially viable. Their concern is the purity of form and message. Game developers have no such luxury; their work may scale the heights of visual storytelling, but if it’s let down by stodgy gameplay nobody will ever experience it. And the most amazing thing about this is that this is precisely what should happen. Games are a marriage of form and function, and both are needed for success. Indeed, some of the most groundbreaking games out there are astounding not because of their art or narrative, but because the game mechanics themselves tell the story.

An equal target for praise and condemnation

‘The Block’ is an intellectual black hole, so logically all these must be terrible too. (Bentley Smith CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There are countless games available. Some, like examples I’ve listed, are groundbreaking, heartbreaking, terrifying, awesome, mind-bending, critically acclaimed and award winning. Others are shallow, iterative, uninspired or even downright dangerous. There are games that elevate the industry to the heights of artistic potential, and others that should never have been made, much less disseminated. The point is that both extremes exist, as does much middle ground. To condemn this entire industry for the design decisions of a few makes a much sense as dismissing the entire television production industry because of the existence of Sunrise and Today. There are a variety of ways to promote player engagement, and a good designer will use the Skinner Box sparingly, if at all.

I consider myself a ‘gamer’ (as if you couldn’t tell), with all that word implies. I accept that it puts me in the same category of people who think that relentless, misogynist attacks qualifies as rigorous intellectual debate, and that sexual harassment is an integral part of a competitive gaming competition.

But it also puts me in the same category of people who would drive a pretend bus nonstop for almost a week to raise money for a children’s charity, who contribute to advancing science by playing a video game, or who honour a friend who died trying to do good. And while this argument has been made before by people more intelligent, more articulate, more well-informed or more clever than me, it would be remiss of me to not add my own voice to the chorus of those who would defend this industry. Because while it may sometimes be puerile, pointless, morally objectionable or ethically lacking, it is far more often engrossing, affecting, exciting, informative, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking.

Oh yes. And fun.