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High Horse: Gaming's adolescence is over

High Horse is a rotating opinion column in which GamesRadar editors and guest writers are invited to express their personal thoughts on games, the people who play them and the industry at large.

There's a persistent argument constantly being thrown around in debates concerning the video game medium, and it's one that I find particularly vexing. "Gaming is an adolescent medium," they cry, "give it time to grow up!"

The argument is difficult to understand, and I suspect that it's often used when a gamer finds themselves backed into a rhetorical corner by a non-believer. Rather than stick up for what games are and what makes them great, they shift the argument to say the true form of video gaming has yet to be realized. That like an adolescent child, gaming hasn't yet figured out what kind of adult it will be.

Above: The Edison Kinetoscope was the start of film's "arcade" phase

This is an outmoded saying, and it’s lost its use in the modern day. It may have been true in the dark days of the turn of the millennium, when babes and power fantasies still ruled the sales charts. However, gaming has demonstrated that its adolescent period is over.

Commercial games have been around for about 41 years. Our earliest experiments with commercial games, like Galaxy Game and Computer Space, started out much the same way film did with Edison Kinetoscopes. They were displayed in public spaces like fairs, colleges, and bars, and cost a small price for a small game/film. Since then, games have advanced rapidly.

Since those early experiments, the fundamental form of video games has changed. From a starting point of basic dexterity challenges, games have found their footing as a form that excels with narrative (sometimes) and blockbuster excitement (often).

What baffles me is that many people seem to think that video games are on the cusp of a revolution. Were you asleep? I think you missed it. It happened in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Game developers started broadly experimenting with narrative in the ‘80s, and truly figured it out in the ‘90s with games like Final Fantasy VI and Metal Gear Solid, proving that gameplay can be an incredible force for serving narrative. Since then, narrative games have mostly been refining that formula. We also underwent a much quieter revolution in the 2000s, when games like Far Cry 2 and Bioshock raised gameplay itself into narrative.

Above: Far Cry 2, like Bioshock, did its best to weave gameplay and story together seamlessly rather than interrupting one for the other

Comparisons between gaming and film are overused, and usually illogical. But indulge me for a moment, because in this case I think it's useful for comparison. By the time film had reached its 41st birthday (using the first public appearance in 1894 as its date of birth), creatives had already produced some of the American Film Institute's greatest films of all time, establishing the form of the medium in the process. In many ways, the following 77 years have been spent refining (or toying with) the formula of films like Battleship Potemkin, City Lights, and King Kong. (Not shot-for-shot, but the basic formula of visual storytelling.)

Wonderful additions like color, sound, and computer graphics have kept film relevant in the modern era, but none have fundamentally altered the structure of visual narrative. And none have changed what people enjoy in a movie. What I'm suggesting – brace yourself – is that games may already be what they're destined to be, and that any further changes will be minor tweaks to an already well-established formula.

Ask yourself if you're comfortable with gaming as a hobby and art form if the next hundred years of our history will essentially be more of the same. Slow evolution, with no more revolution. After less than 50 years, film had Casablanca and Citizen Kane on its resume. I'm not suggesting that the creative timelines of games and film will line up, I’m suggesting that industrious creative geniuses work quickly. It’s unlikely that all of the geniuses in gaming history have missed something fundamental to gaming over decades of arduous study that a Digipen graduate will discover in five years.

Above: Super Meat Boy was a reminder that sometimes, the simplest games are the best

New genres will doubtless be discovered, but they'll be built upon the foundation of player engagement that already exists, which is the central core of gaming. We should consider the possibility that many of the greatest games that will ever be made are already behind us. And that our greatest visionaries (Miyamoto, Meier, Wright, Molyneux and Kojima spring to mind) have already done most of the heavy lifting in probing the potential of games.

Today we find games returning to their roots, and the popularity of the medium has exploded as a result. We've spent the last 30 years trying to make games more and more complex, but the truth is that simplicity has always been gaming's most potent ally. Facebook, Flash games, Nintendo and iOS are testament to that. It's important to always remember that the people who frequent sites like this one are gaming’s “artsy” crowd – the tiny two percent of enthusiasts who care about trying new things and pushing the envelope in bigger, flashier experiences. This is the avant-garde, but the enormous majority of gamers are satisfied with gaming as-is.

By a wide margin, the most popular games of the modern day are centered around the beauty and purity of play and competition. Which, I can't help but note, is right where we started from in the arcades of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Above: Computer Space was the first real attempt to commercialize video games (ironic, considering it was an adaptation of Spacewar!, the first real open-source video game)

I fibbed a little bit earlier in this article. While games aren't poised for a revolution, they've just had one. But it's a backward revolution. After decades of seeking to justify their existence by mimicking every other medium, a new generation of game designers has risen to prominence by going back to gaming's roots. The focus has returned to finding fun in a set of basic rules. Don't let Meat Boy touch the saws. Anything can be mined; stay alive; dark is dangerous. Shoot the other team. Birds can't fly; gravity pulls down; kill the pigs.

Games were in their adolescence when they were hopelessly holding onto the leg of their older brother, film. They wore his clothes. They acted like him. They used all the cool words they heard him say, then tried to impress their friends with what they’d learned. They tried to emulate others, rather than focusing on themselves and what makes their form unique. Amusingly, they often even acted like teenagers, simultaneously angry that the mainstream media wouldn't pay attention to them, and also begging said media to leave them alone.

In this sense, gaming's adolescence has ended. We've grown out of our little-brother complex, the pimples are gone, and we've become comfortable in our own skin.

68 comments

  • Shinard - April 2, 2012 7:21 a.m.

    Gaming is an artform on par with film. We have our blockbusters, which can be decent fun with multiple explosions (COD, Battlefield, etc.). We have a thriving independent scene (Dear Esther), many cult phenomena (Syndicate), long-running series (FF) and even some timeless classics that will be played for many years to come (Shadow the Hedgehog... or alternatively Bioshock, Portal).
  • Shinard - April 3, 2012 8:54 a.m.

    *Singularity, not Syndicate.
  • Nikku7 - March 19, 2012 7:53 p.m.

    Just as in movies, books, or any other medium, for every really good one there are a ton of crap ones. We can't say that because so many games are crap and there are a few good ones that gaming isn't just as much of an art as movies, for instance. Does anyone call any Adam Sandler movie art? Unlikely. (Not to bash him, just the first thing that popped up in my head as an example)
  • pin316 - March 20, 2012 10:53 p.m.

    Happy Gilmore is totally movie art... 'you're gonna die clown' = ein art 'the price is wrong bitch' = ein art the t-shirt worn by richard kiel saying 'guns don't kill people - i kill people' = ein art 'you're in my world now grandma' = ein art
  • LordZarlon - March 19, 2012 5:49 p.m.

    I agree completely. Video gaming has existed since Computer Space came out in 1971. That's over 40 years ago! We have advanced a lot since then and I'm glad somebody in the press finally admitted it!
  • ChristopherDalley - March 19, 2012 7:44 a.m.

    Molyneux is not a visionary. He is a liar. A good liar, mind; He'd make a great politician. But he's not a politician. He's a game-designer. And a liar. Do I make myself transparently clear, Mr Groen? P.S. Nice article by the way. You'll go far.
  • ParagonT - March 19, 2012 10:48 a.m.

    True dat.
  • Andrew Groen - March 19, 2012 11:30 a.m.

    Molyneux has trouble with his reputation these days, but never forget that the man invented an entire genre. There aren't many people who can say that. His early resume is what makes him a visionary. Populous, Alpha Centauri, Syndicate, Dungeon Keeper. Whatever his sins in marketing, we can't forget his contributions to gaming. P.S. Thank you very much the kind words.
  • jmcgrotty - March 21, 2012 5:05 a.m.

    I disagree greatly with your hypothesis, to the point I think it was backwards. Molyneux is very much a visionary. Over the years, time after time, he quite often attempted ideas that would later change the gaming world. He would see the way the industry was going long before most people. The problem though is that, he just wasn't able to do what he wanted to do. The tech never catches up with his ideas. Was he a visionary and saw the future of the industry early? Yes. Was he a game designer? That is a bit more tricky, and you need to take into account what you are specifically saying. I would contend that game designer = game developer, and he was just never good at that part. He could come up with the ideas that would be the future of the industry. He just couldn't figure out how to make them work.
  • jennyleezy - March 18, 2012 10:32 p.m.

    Isn't simply enjoying the game enough?
  • talleyXIV - March 18, 2012 1:57 p.m.

    Yeah I can't see video games evolving much more. What else do we want? Every game to be in 3D without glasses? Virtual reality? Graphics that look like we are not playing video games? Those all sound like things people want but in the end we all enjoy a game of Super Mario World even though it is a 2D game. Graphics will probably keep evolving but I think the controller has almost reached its final point.
  • ObliqueZombie - March 18, 2012 11:41 a.m.

    "Amusingly, they often even acted like teenagers, simultaneously angry that the mainstream media wouldn't pay attention to them, and also begging said media to leave them alone." Great analogy, Andrew, that got me a laugh. Fantastic article, too! You prove a very good point. Games will always be the way they are now, but with a different approaches, iterations, and interpretations as we go along. Fundamentally, games will be video games most likely until I die.
  • Yukichin - March 17, 2012 11:05 p.m.

    First: keep in mind that the American Film Institute was formed... to study and rate /films/. Trying to say that films became legit at that time because an institution made specifically to study that medium is like saying that music became good because some pop music magazine says pop music is the best thing ever. Hell, gaming critics commonly hail some games' narratives as strong (Silent Hill 2, for instance), just as AFI rates films. I understand the argument, but the way it's presented is iffy. Second: gaming still IS growing up, and I think to say it won't change--even though you clarify that you meant specifically a revolution--is disingenuous. Dialogue in games needs to improve; stories in some games need to improve; gamers' opinions on the things they play themselves need to improve (in some cases). Saying that games won't grow up, that trying to use that as part of an argument isn't valid is not fair. Yes, gaming's definitely established a lot about itself, but it's going to continue to grow and evolve, just as film did and is still doing.
  • ObliqueZombie - March 18, 2012 11:39 a.m.

    I think what you're saying is what Andrew was saying: we still have refining to do, not to mention other creative approaches to the same thing. Something improving doesn't classify as a revolution--it's just another tweaked iteration. He never said games won't change. Just that they won't change fundamentally. So yes, games still have a long way to go (if games don't try a narrative like Mass Effect, God knows if I could enjoy a proper narrative in a game again), but they'll always still be what they have been for a decade or two.
  • CapEmCrunch - March 18, 2012 11:53 a.m.

    Your last sentence basically just sums up the point that the article made.
  • Andrew Groen - March 19, 2012 11:36 a.m.

    ObliqueZombie nailed it. I'm not saying games wont evolve. I'm saying the basics are established. Improving voice acting isn't a revolution, nor is an improvement in stories. Furthermore, I didn't say that film became good because the AFI was formed. I used their choices as an example to show that many of the most revered films were created early in film's history.
  • R_U_Guys_From_British - March 17, 2012 7:48 p.m.

    Great article.
  • Andrew Groen - March 17, 2012 9:11 p.m.

    Thanks! I really appreciate that.
  • sandraudiga - March 17, 2012 7:47 p.m.

    The argument is very well presented, and has some very indisputable facts behind it, but be that as it may, there will always be people asking the medium to "grow up". And Mr. Groen is correct, they will be the artsy, semi-obsessive 2% that traffic websites like this, and there's nothing wrong with that. All mediums, even those that are losing their relativity are being asked to push the envelope by those that view the medium as an art-form. Painting enthusiasts do it, fans of literature do it, and so do film fanatics. The majority of the world may accept games as grown up, but just like other mediums, they'll still mature, just more slowly, and in less noticeable ways.
  • Andrew Groen - March 17, 2012 9:13 p.m.

    Thanks for the kind words. I think the "games need to grow up" crowd selectively focus on the most juvenile games rather than viewing the medium as a whole. Does film need to grow up because there are entire movies devoted to staring at tits (read: porn)?

Showing 1-20 of 68 comments

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