Monday, January 26, 2009

Gaming's place in pop culture

It's strange how almost as soon as I post an entry tearing down a videogame site (See "Dear IGN," below), several more articles pop up to prove me wrong. I'd be remiss not to point out a great article posted recently on Gamasutra, Video Game Legislation: Where We Are Now, which takes an in-depth look at how videogames are being legislated around the world.

But an article that I particularly wanted to share comes from (who would've guessed?) The New York Times: For Video Games, Mainstream Success Comes With a Price. First of all, I think it's a major leap forward that videogames are being written about in the NYT Arts section at all, as opposed to being put down in a news piece covering the latest school shooting. But moreover, what makes this article so great is that it manages to convey almost my exact feelings about the place of videogames in mainstream pop culture:

The great lurch toward grudging respectability that began a few years ago will almost certainly continue in 2009, if only because of the continuing popularity of mass fare like Wii bowling, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, not to mention Madden. And so video games are becoming acceptable in the manner that watching reality shows or sports on TV all night is acceptable. Bravo. But that can’t be all games are capable of. The real test of 2009 is whether games with a bit more intellectual and artistic ambition can continue to flourish.

Yes! Thank you! Finally, someone gets it! The writer, Seth Schiesel, even goes on to show how a regular diet of videogames is compatible with other forms of entertainment:

So I got away, in the hope that taking a refresher course in other media would help me understand games more thoroughly. I read Hermann Hesse. I saw Alan Gilbert conduct a program of Schubert, Brahms and Schumann at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I watched Clint Eastwood’s first major film, “A Fistful of Dollars,” back to back with his latest, “Gran Torino.”

It worked, because at times in all the reading and watching and listening — in all the merely consuming — I chafed at how little control I had, at my inability to affect the narrative, at being taken on a joy ride by someone else. At those moments I longed to be able to make a decision, to solve the problem myself, to take responsibility for what would happen next — all the elements that make a game.

From that point, Schiesel gets into the real meat of his argument, and it's one that I and my fellow game enthusiasts have made time and time again: games are more than shallow entertainment. Games can be serious works of art, albeit these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. The fact that The New York Times agrees with me makes my heart leap with joy.

So it's official: games are legit. The NYT says it, so it must be true. Excellent. I hope this means this means that, when talking about gaming's place in culture, we can take this as a starting point and move out from there.

But as the article mentioned, games that go beyond the level of idle entertainment are still few and far between. However, I think we're seeing the beginning of a snowball effect in the opposite direction. We're slowly but surely going to be seeing more and more games that reach the narrative level of Oscar-worthy films. I believe there have already been a handful of them, and I'll be expanding on what those are, but the fact that we're going to be seeing a higher concentration of them is most exciting of all.


  1. Hi Brian. As you probably know, I'm not too much of a gamer, but many of my friends are. I've certainly come to appreciate the most accessible (Guitar Hero and Wii) games. Even though I don't play other games, I definitely think they are an up and coming part of popular culture. And they should be studied as such. I know UCR has at least one course already on Video Game Analysis.
    Great stuff!

  2. It's good to know that games are finally getting their fair props (at least in the public eye), but I have to wonder if that's simply because it's a $40 billion industry. If that's the case, the NYT and others are acknowledging video games' marketability, not their artistic value.

  3. David, look at it this way: if video games weren't earning $40 billion a year, would they be a big deal? That is to say, what does it matter how artistic games are, if they don't reach beyond a small, niche audience?

    We're fast approaching a world in which games are as ubiquitous as movies and popular music. It's partly because they're so popular that it's important that they go beyond fluff. If video games were only played by 12-year-old kids in their mothers' basements, who would care?