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ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Breaking Down the Video Game Stigma


News flash: if you’re a video gamer, your activity of choice is not well respected.

Another news flash: if you’re not a gamer, chances are you should respect gamers’ activity of choice a bit more.

Both of you, however, will have to take responsibility if this is to change. Everyone can agree that video games have made some large strides, but what remains to be settled is whether or not they have attained the same level of art as movies–or in other words, if they have reached a point where they are an acceptable or even constructive use of your time.. Regardless of which of the aforementioned groups you come from, the answers may surprise you!

Video Game Creation: A New Visual Art


I find it interesting that when CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) made its way into the film industry, nobody questioned the artistry behind it. Viewers were wowed and amazed with each new CGI film to come along…so why not the same public reaction with video games as their graphics get better and better?

The answer, I think, lies in the perceived application of the art. By and large video games are still, even after so many years, regarded merely as glorified versions of simple concepts like Asteroids; time wasters with pretty visuals and nothing more. It’s also not common knowledge that in some ways, making a lifelike real-time CGI environment to be run on home computers is multiple times harder than making one to be pre-rendered on world class hardware. To the average non-gamer, movies look better than games, and therefore movies are more of an art form. But of course, just because more work goes into a game doesn’t make it a work of art, and just because a game is visually excellent doesn’t make the game as a whole a work of art, either.

Popular Titles: The Reason for the Stigma?


It’s hard to imagine a day when something so simple and purposeless as Asteroids could be topping the game sales charts, but there was such a time, and it was not actually all that long ago…and it shows. While even the lowest budget of games has gotten more sophisticated in appearance, let’s be honest: the biggest chart-topping titles out there today are pretty much devoid of any real substance; just move and shoot, move and shoot. A new Call of Duty game, for example, seems to get released every six months and still come with a $60 to a whopping $120 price tag for different editions of the game, and that’s without a subscription to the Elite service, which tacks a monthly fee onto the deal as well, all of it just so that people can blow each other up over the Internet.

That’s crazy.

And that’s exactly how non-gamers tend to look at gaming: this obsessive, expensive, mindless, and rather juvenile activity that completely consumes a person and prevents them from having any sort of normal or meaningful life*.

So don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing for every game in existence, as some–which unfortunately happen to number among the most popular–really are not worthy of your time…but isn’t this true with any art? No matter what you do, someone or another will always manage to make a real stinker and pass it off as something great (and even worse: it sells). On the flipside, I’m also not saying that you should never, ever play Angry Birds on the bus or engage in some dumb fun to relax after a long day at work. The problem here is not so much what gamers play, but what they play the most and what games they really value. If you as a gamer want to break down the video game stigma, your gaming habits need to change to value the best out there and put less stock into the time-wasters.

So…what defines ‘the best’?

Story: the Reason for Art


Ever notice how 10 different people who say that art is just expression can come up with 10 different things that a single piece of purely ‘expressive’ art really means?

Well, the fact is, they just proved themselves wrong. Art is about a message; a story. If the ‘art’ has no story in it, then the viewer just has to fill one in for themselves. But this kind of relative storytelling is weak and ultimately unfulfilling, as it provides no real ends and no real means by which to get there..

Pardon me getting away from tech talk for a moment, but the truth of the matter is, anything that has a problem in itself must find the solution outside of itself. That’s true in life, and it’s true in art.

For a story to be or to support a work of art, it can’t rely on the viewer to fill in all the blanks; it has to present a problem the viewer can identify with, and then carry the viewer through some kind of predefined path to make an ultimate point–that solution outside of you, the consumer.

By nature, any half decent movie covers this well, as like books, they are inherently required to follow the typical narrative structure of a beginning, middle, and end in order to be engaging at all. The problem is, games by and large are only beginning to mimic this pattern, and those that do are not usually the chart toppers.

Art: Why You Should Care


With the majority of gaming titles falling short of art status, and the works of art going less noticed than others, why should anyone care enough to invest their time in gaming?

Well, simply put, because those few that get it right get it really, really right.

For one thing, the medium of delivery allows for much longer stories to be told, giving the opportunity for a degree of consumer involvement matched only by books. While the average game will get you a decent ten hours or so of story, the best out there offer anywhere from thirty to a hundred or more hours of story-driven gameplay (though it is worth mentioning that these exceptionally long titles do not require the player to complete every ounce of available content).

It may not take much to keep you engaged with a film for a couple hours, but anything that can hold your attention for months on end definitely has something special going for it. Like a good book, it’s easy to put yourself in the characters’ shoes and for all practical purposes experience their lives as if you yourself lived it. Throw a great soundtrack and voice acting in the mix, and you’ve clearly got something very powerful on your hands, great visuals or no.**

Part of this is the ability of story developers to cover topics not considered mainstream enough for movies. Hollywood loves its clich├ęs, and does its best to fit one of half a dozen morals into any story it can get its hands on. Thankfully the gaming industry feels little such pressure. In a sense, some games are becoming more relevant to real life than some movies involving live actors.

As a general rule, I don’t get very emotional over stories. To date, I can only recall one film that actually made me want to cry. However, I could list off at least three games that did the same. Something about the type of story that was told and the method of telling it that was employed connected with me on a level that, for whatever reason, a movie has a much harder time achieving. It may not be so with everyone, but for those that get it, it’s an experience worth having that will actually leave you a better person for having gone through it. And by the way, you don’t have to cry to get there–in many other ways, gaming is still the most engaging method of storytelling man has yet devised.

The Moral of the Story


To recap, there is a problem for gamers, and that problem is simply that most see gaming as a wasteful and juvenile pastime inferior to watching a movie. But gamers who have experienced some incredible stories know this to be untrue. There’s no doubt anymore that games are capable of being on the same as or an even higher level than movies, but what can be done to help the public recognize this?

If you are a gamer, you bear the most responsibility. Don’t put money into the pockets of uninspired developers. Put down the CoD. Pick up something of greater merit (seriously, go for Minecraft if it strikes your fancy…just do something). And as a side note, if you’re the sort that does a lot of chatting, lose the cursing. It makes us gamers look bad. In short, if you want respect, give the world a gamer worth respecting.

If you are not much of a gamer, then here’s my advice to you: don’t let the worst of the gaming world define your opinion of all gaming. And if you have the time, I would also encourage you to try some notably good title, such as one of the many Final Fantasy roleplaying games out there, as they have the kind of story and gameplay that will easily draw even new gamers in. Then, perhaps, you’ll at least be able to understand gamers regardless of if you become one or not.

Video games becoming a legitimate art form is just the first step, and it is happening now. Next, the world has to accept them for being such.

That, my gaming and non-gaming friends, is up to all of us.

(*If you play CoD, don’t take it personally. In general, your game of choice just happens to be the worst for drawing in such people.)

(**Just try out some old Final Fantasy games from the SNES and PS1 days if you don’t believe me)