Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The perception of games and why it needs to change

It is my belief that the general perception of video games is that they are exclusively aimed at children. In this post, I hope to challenge this view, explain why it is damaging, examine the causes and outline what you can do to change this view.

The Perception is Wrong

Before going any further, let us be clear what I am saying. I believe that video games as a medium have as much potential for depth as any other media (film, books, music etc). I am not saying that all games are mature pieces of artwork, but, this is the same for any medium. Film has great thought-provoking movies, like Shawshank Redemption, but it also has Final Destination 4. Books have Lord of the Flies, but they have Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. Do any of these less mature titles mean that the rest of the medium is childish? Of course not.

Games can provide a unique way of telling stories that involve the player; not only can they immerse the player, they can let the player effect the story and the whole experience becomes more real. It even goes beyond this, games don't have to be a linear traditional story, but an abstract experience. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss this fully, but games have a near infinite capacity for making players feel a huge variety of emotions. I think this means they qualify as a mature form of art.

Why it matters

I care because I have a true passion for playing games. When playing a really good game, I experience a truly fulfilling enjoyment and it saddens me that so many people dismiss it on the basis it is different. However, there is a real danger when parents take a games-are-not-for-me attitude.

Typically, parents do not get involved in the process of choosing and playing games, hence they are not best able to make judgments of what may or may not be suitable for their children. I am not going to deny that games can be damaging to a child's welfare, like every other medium. However, like movie ratings, game ratings are guidelines. Some children are going to be able to play 15s when they are 12 and they aren't going to grow up to become murderers. It has to be done on a child by child basis.

Films have a PG rating which means that younger audiences may require an adult to watch it with them. I think the same applies in games, sometimes having an adult take an interest in the game and discussing the more mature themes with the person may help them to understand the game in a sensible way.

What causes this perception?

The games industry itself is, in part, responsible for this perception. Not only has the industry promoted the clich├ęd image of teenagers mindlessly shooting people, but until recently it has not addressed the "controller" issue which, to many adults, can be highly intimidating.

However, there is another element contributing to this perception - the main stream media. The only stories covered by the popular press are when either financially significant games are released or scare stories saying that games are turning children in to dysfunctional slobs or mass murderers.(see this video for the other side of the story).

I feel the problem is that there are no programs on television or radio dedicated to indepth discussion of games. This reinforces the idea that games are for children. There are programs on the BBC for films, music, books and plays. However, there is nothing for games, even though programs such as Front Row could easily cover it under it's remit of:
"Live magazine programme on the worlds of arts, literature, film, media and music"
If the BBC or any other mass consumption media want proof that interesting intellectual discussion can be had about video games, Three Moves Ahead, a real time strategy podcast, is a good start. (Try episode 8).

What can be done

It is all very well me criticizing, but what do I think should be done?

I genuinely believe the BBC has a responsibility to host a program that facilitates informed discussion of games. (This means more than a quick review of the latest releases). Games now have a larger market share than DVD purchases; it isn't a niche market anymore. I will be sending this post to the BBC and, if you agree with what I am saying, I ask that you do the same . Likewise, repost, link, retweet and spread the word.

However, there is something we all need to do; talk to people who hold this negative view of games. Don't call them a n00b, try to engage them in a meaningful conversation relating video games back to a medium they enjoy, such as films or books.

If you feel you are getting somewhere, there are 3 games which I feel are both accessible for anyone to be able to play and also demonstrate the potential of video games to engage, entertain and stimulate the player.
  • Portal: This game is available for both the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 and has modest PC specifications. This game has a beautiful and very funny story and the best puzzle design I have ever seen. It shows games to be an intellectually stimulating pass time. It has a very gentle learning curve and does not require first person shooter skills to get started.
  • Fable 2: This game is very easy to pick up: the combat system only requires one button and death penalty is minimal. However, it demonstrates the power of story telling in games. Encourage them to let go of themselves and become their character. Tell the player not to feel self-conscious and make the decisions as they actually would. If they do this, they will be treated with the kind of emotional depth that few books have achieved
  • Bioshock: This game demonstrates a world to explore - one of the things that games excel at. This game also has very little punishment for dying (although I would recommend letting them have a little experience with first person shooters such as Portal first, you can get both games on the PC, Xbox 360 or the PS3). It also has an absolutely fantastic twist that a book could not pull of due to the nature of games.
If the skeptic player is still in any doubt that video games are a serious topic suitable for serious discussion, then encourage them to read about a game designed by Brenda Brathwaite called Train or listen to the aforementioned Three Moves Ahead podcast.


Thank you for reading. To summarize:
  1. Games are not just for children
  2. Games are a serious medium and have as much potential for emotional depth as any other medium
  3. Main stream media should be encouraged to devise new programs to cover games
  4. Parents - get involved in games. Only you can know what is right for your children, and you might even enjoy it!
Spread the word and, if you disagree with anything I say, please leave a comment, I would love to hear other opinions.

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