Games have grown up. People haven’t noticed.
There is a bit of a problem with how people seem to think about games. An acquaintance recently told me that he had grown up, that he wanted more from his games, but that games hadn’t grown up with him. He talked about how pretty much every game in the previous generation was nothing more than a collection of hyperviolent romps in the shoes of some hypermale (a figure which I addressed in a somewhat satirical piece in a previous post).
The problem with his statement is that games have grown up. It’s just that he and other likeminded players / critics have failed to realize this. To show how, I need to turn to books.
When one reads Romeo and Juliet, the reader is told a romance story. However, although Romeo and Juliet is a love story, it’s also about the self vs society, about fate and its inevitability, about family vs romantic love, and depending on who you ask, about gangs or colonialism. A reader of William Blake’s Introduction to Songs of Innocence will read a poem about a kid in a cloud who told a poet to write a book of songs. But the poem is also a celebration of spirituality and religiosity, an ode to a dead brother, a commentary on the process of creation, and a statement on the use of hallucinogenic. Twilight is a love story between a girl and some vampire, but it’s also about the effect of personal choices, about facing one’s fears, about isolation, about the linguistic process, morality, family vs romantic love, the self vs the natural world, memory, and how one defines self identity. Most of these themes go over the head of most readers, and it takes a critic or scholar to explicate these themes.
The same is true of video games.
When a player plays through a game, they experience the game at the most superficial of levels. The messages, arguments, themes, and ideas in the game, more often than not, go over the head of the player (and of my colleague). That’s why there is Ian Bogost and Janet Murray and Noah Wardrip Fruin and Daniel Floyd and Chris Franklyn and Matt Patrick. These are the critics and scholars. They are the ones who unlock the meaning of games. They are the ones who make it obvious that while yes, Gears of War is about “shooting the aliens in the face”, it is also about the repercussions of imperialist conquest and manifest destiny. They explain that Watch_D0gs is about “hax00rz”, but it’s also a commentary on mass surveillance and the dependence of computerized systems in our lives. They show that The Last of Us is about killing zombies, but also about questioning the nature of humanity and exploring how we define groups.
My acquaintance was writing about Bayonetta 2 when he made his comments. He said it was nothing more than an action game pandering to teen boys. However, I’m pretty sure that if the themes explored in it are anything like the first game, it is about female empowerment along the lines of sex positive feminism and that it also makes some sort of theological commentary on something. Here is what a friend replied to the acquaintance:
Games have grown up. It’s the ability of players to understand what they say that hasn’t because they can’t seem to get past a game’s visuals. (Ok, it’s not players, it’s just my one acquaintance).
I mean, Eternal Sonata may not be “in your face” about its anti big pharma message, but it doesn’t need to be. Some games are made to entertain and at the same time make a commentary about the horrors of war (Vakyria Chronicles). Others want to hit you over the head with “the point”. There is enough space for all of them. As game designer Greg Cotskyan said, “Play games. Love games. Understand that not everyone will love the same kinds of games that you love — and that this is okay. All games are good.”