Space Invaders

Regular readers of Game On will know that a few weeks ago, I wrote two posts outlining an the argument that videogames are not a young media form. I don’t want to continue the topic past exhaustion point, but as an outcome of those two posts, Mark Serrels of Kotaku Australia invited me to participate in an ‘Objection’ piece – essentially a dialogue – on the topic. So, for the final word on the topic for the foreseeable future, I’m reposting the piece here at Game On. You can read the original here. Many thanks to Mark for organising the piece, and for his insightful and patient rebuttal.

MARK: Hey Dan, ol’ buddy. First off let me say that I very much enjoy your bombastic column in Crikey and I always read it on my lunch break whilst eating a mini burrito. On many occasions you have been to blame for the structural collapse of said burrito which, in turn, is mainly to blame for the multiple stains on my many white t-shirts.

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Your columns always inspire thought and structural burrito damage, but I found your recent piece ‘Videogames are not a young media form, so stop saying they are’ of particular interest.

I think everyone should click and read it first, but I’ll paraphrase your argument to speed things along: people tend to blame gaming’s struggle for meaning, artistic relevance, maturity, blah blah blah on the fact video games are, relatively, a young art form. You think that assumption is complete balderdash. I (sort of) disagree, but before I get into that, I’d like to hear you explain why.

DAN: They say there is a first time for everything. Not only is this my first Objection for Kotaku AU (and thank you for having me, Mark), it is also the first time I have been accused of being bombastic and of inspiring structural burrito damage. I must apologise for the latter (who wants a good burrito to go to waste?) but I make no excuses for the former. Anything worth saying is worth saying loudly. Unless that loudness is responsible for structural burrito collapse. But I digress.

The basic flow of my argument is this: videogames are not a young media form, but we have all been saying they are long enough for us to have started believing it without thinking. We now use it as an excuse. Poor storyline? Well, videogames are young. Sexist/racist/homophobic characters? Well, that’s because videogames are young. Mainstream media bagging out videogames for easy hits? Certainly just because videogames are young.

This excuse has become a crutch. A badly-made videogame is the fault of its designers and publishers. The issues of videogames cultures and gender, race, and homophobia are the result of a huge range of factors, but I’d argue that this kind of problem has actually increased in potency as videogames have ‘aged’. Gears of War dudebros were not around twenty years ago. And the mainstream media has formed its own narrative about videogames, regardless of its truthfulness, because it can get away with it, and because there is the presumption it will sell.

All of this would be at least understandable as an excuse if videogames were indeed a young media form. But – and this is where I suspect you disagree with me – they are not.

Being generous, let’s say videogames were ‘born’ when they became a commercial medium in 1971 with the arcade machine, Computer Space. There are many arguments placing the birth of videogames as earlier than this, but let’s go with 1971 here.

That makes videogames about 41 years old.

That’s a long time for a media form to develop. Many media forms don’t get that time at all (think tapes, 8-tracks, laserdiscs, silent film) or still haven’t hit that age (the internet, DVDs, CDs, etc).

In my article I made a direct comparison with the media of the music album, which a lot of people took issue with. It was intended to be provocative, though, because my ultimate point here is that media simply don’t develop in the same way humans do. We can’t make direct comparisons between them, and we can’t imagine different developmental ‘ages’ (such as youth) for them.

So, in short: media don’t age in the way we think when we say ‘videogames are young’; even if they did, it would still be wrong; and it is usually used as an excuse that has much more tangible (and solvable!) causes.

So Mark – I’m interested to see how you disagree here?

MARK: Man, I almost feel as though we should just wrap it up here, because I’m finding it pretty difficult to dispute any of the above.

I agree — the ‘video games are an immature medium’ argument is often used as a crutch, and you’re right, the progress of video games, video games criticism and media’s representation of video games is not the responsibility of time or the progress of time. We can’t just sit around hoping it’ll happen by itself — we have to take responsibility for it — push things forward as a collective, and as individuals.

But I have two main arguments and this is my first: no other medium is as dependent on technology as video games, and while you could argue that this doesn’t affect the themes video games cover, or the manner in which they are covered, I’d argue it does.

Video games are restricted by technology; they are restricted by the mechanics they use. With cinema you can point a camera at anything and record. With music you simply point a microphone. It’s not quite as simple in video games, everything must be designed. In short — gaming is being held back by technology and the tools that are used. Another way of saying it is this: video games suffer from a lack of verbs, and technology is part of the problem. In games we are shooting, we are punching, we are running, we are jumping. That’s about it.

Look at a game like Heavy Rain and how clumsy it was, how technology obscured its brave attempt to try something different. This is a game that attempted to add new verbs into the mix, to add depth to its thematic content. In Heavy Rain we brushed our teeth, we rocked a baby to sleep and it was all so… hamfisted.

On some level it almost feels as though we’re doing stupid things in video games because technology has left us with no other choice.

DAN: Well, that’s an interesting argument, and like many of those that have been levelled against my position, one that I have some sympathy for. It’s true that videogames have had a big focus on technology over the first few decades of their existence. Videogames are really less of a medium (like, say, watercolour pencils or clay) and more the creative expression of digital technology. But still, practically every modern media form is a medium within a medium within a medium (Inception jokes need not apply).

I do think it’s worth noting, however, that every media form is inherently tied up in technology. Before the Gutenberg press, there could effectively be no large-scale literary culture because written works could not be easily reproduced and were therefore the domain of the very rich. Skipping forward to the twentieth century, the history of cinema can be just as effectively told through a history of filmic technology. Consider that we even today refer to silent cinema in terms that suggest it is somehow technologically inadequate.

I don’t want to get too technologically determinist, but you can do this with practically any art form. Music has changed hand-in-hand with technology, from the creation of complex mechanical systems for woodwind instruments, to the microphone, to the LP, to digital downloads. Even other kinds of technology have influence. The performance venues for music have shaped the types of music made from different eras: from open air amphitheatres, to dense opera halls, to reverberating churches, to cars with loud, deep engines. Ever tried listening to a symphony in the car? That’s why huge subwoofers, cars, and Hip-Hop/R&B have such a healthy relationship.

I guess my point here is that all media forms are tied to technology. Maybe videogames more than most, I’m genuinely not sure about that. But are we seeing actual development? I think with videogames we still have this strange idea that better technology enables better games; that we’re pushing towards an ultimate Holodeck-type scenario. Does this actually hold out with any other media? I wouldn’t necessarily argue that silent films are inherently worse than sound films, or that 3D is automatically better than 2D.

I guess it comes down to this: if videogames died tomorrow, if there was no way to create any new videogames forevermore, would you be happy with what we’ve got now? I agree that poor uses of technology has created some of gaming’s most ham-fisted moments, but I’m not sure if the solution is better technology, or better designers.

MARK: The ‘all media is bound up by technology’ argument is a fair one — and without sounding like a patronising idiot, I sort of knew you would hit back with that! It would have been pretty difficult, for example, for Phil Spector to hit up Ronni and the Ronnettes with a truly phat dubstep beat back in 1963 — but I would maintain that no other medium in history has been constrained by technology to the same extent as video games. But, regardless, I’ll move on to point number two!

I’ll agree that we shouldn’t be afraid to hold developers/publishers/critics accountable for the growth of games, but there is an argument to be made that video games, and those involved in creating them, have simply been catering to a perceived target audience — and video games are simply in the process of growing up alongside that target audience.

In the beginning Video Games weren’t always seen as a childish pursuit, but somewhere along the line that public perception manifested itself. The NES was clearly marketed as a toy. Subsequently the original PlayStation was targeted at younger teenage boys. The Xbox, to an extent, was marketed at young college students. More recently the PlayStation 3 was a multimedia device targeted at young adults with disposable incomes.

I think you can see the pattern here — and my point. Video games have attempted to evolve and grow with their audience, and this gives us the impression that games are, in effect, growing and evolving with time. Whether that’s a spurious correlation or not — this progress occurred!

The average gamer is now in their early 30s, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re starting to see more sophisticated video games featuring themes that are of interest to that audience.

TL;DR — games have grown with the passage of time, because they’ve had to cater to a core audience that’s growing alongside it. That may be an artificial growth state, but it’s a perceivable growth nonetheless.

DAN: Okay, so this is a really interesting point, and with some slight tweaking, one that I think we can both agree on.

Certainly one of the major problems with the videogame industry is who studios and distributors see as their target audience. A game like Twisted Metal can only exist in a world where the developers don’t think they’ll get called out for rampant immaturity. I suppose to a large extent, the creators of videogames have been able to cultivate a set of audiences, as well, and now play up to them. This is where I’d disagree with your assessment: games are not evolving upwards through age groups in some teleological history here. This culture is malleable, and has varied throughout the history of videogames.

I agree that the targeting of youth largely starts with the NES, though some have also suggested to me that it was Nolan Bushnell’s tactic too with the Atari 2600. But in drawing out the links, like you have, from NES to PS to Xbox, we have to ignore other vast swathes of videogame history which has been subsumed to get to where we currently are. What about the games of Roberta Williams, which are still more clearly aimed at an older player than many of today’s videogames? Where do we place them? Or Froggy Software, the French adventure game designers who were making incredibly smart, politically aware games in the early ’80s?

Even the era of the arcades was not just for young kids. Perhaps the most notable book on arcade videogames was written by Martin Amis, (Invasion of the Space Invaders), a highly respected author who was in his 30s at the time. It’s easy to forget that the first arcade machines were in pubs and bars, growing out of pinball machine and pool table culture.

The fact is — the idea that videogames are for specific age groups is one that was constructed and maintained by a particular strata of design and media well after the birth of the medium. Videogames have not attempted to grow with their audience, but have instead constructed their audience and tracked them over time. Games have become young, reached towards age, then turned towards youth again. There is no progression here. It ebbs and it flows.

This ties in with my overall point: the idea that videogames are a young media form is a wholly constructed concept. It simply does not bear out to any examination of reality. It is an excuse, and it is a narrative that obliterates any sort of nuance or complicated understanding of videogame history. Videogames are only as young as we keep saying they are.

MARK: You make your point really well — a perceived audience is as much a construct as it is a ‘real thing’, and while I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘publishers constructed their own target audience’ (it’s most likely a balance between need and created artificial need) I can definitely agree that the ‘growth’ of video games, if such a thing exists, can be seen through that lens.

I would still maintain, however, that we can see some sort of progression — there is the occasional spike, but surely it’s difficult to argue that the majority of games made in 1991 were targeted at a younger audience than the majority of games released in 2011, but I digress — this is the part where I agree with you on stuff!

Everyone who is engaged with video game culture is responsible for its growth and, as you say, we can’t simply expect the passage of time to solve our problems with video games. Change is the responsibility of individuals — I completely agree. The creators who develop games, the publishers who sell those games, the consumers who play them — I think it’s important that we demand a higher standard, and that developers continue to do their level best to match those expectations.

Blaming the immaturity of gaming as a medium — whether that concept is a ‘real’ thing or not — is a cop out; surely we can both agree on that!

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