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The Current State of ‘Play’: A Look at How the Interactive Medium is Maturing

Source: arstechnica.com

Source: arstechnica.com

Since their entry into the mainstream with consoles like the Sega Genesis and Nintendo Entertainment System, video games have received critical scrutiny from anyone who does not affiliate his or herself with the medium. It is misconceived that because they are called games, they are inherently childish or meant for children. As video games have evolved and the people who create them have matured, this accusation has become far from the truth. Video games today are becoming personable experiences intended to provoke thought and emotion. They have begun to commentate on culture, politics, religion, and the things people struggle with behind the closed doors of their minds, just as any other creative medium has done in the past. As the medium spreads from the mainstream to academia, people should accept the meaningful and impassionable works video games have to offer because it is here, in the interactive medium, that coming generations will pour their creation into.

This medium, or at least the corporate side of it,  is in a state of denial that is hindering their maturation. This is a notion strongly backed by David Cage, a developer who entered into the industry with his first game, Omikron: The Nomad Soul, in 1999. Since then, Cage has been a driving force in the push for more mature and unique experiences. Cage attend the 2013 D.I.C.E Summit, a convention in which industry leaders discuss what they see and want to see happen in the game industry. There he talked about how, over the past 40 years, with few exceptions, games have essentially been doing the same things for the same kinds of players. He mentions a concept he calls the Peter Pan Syndrome. This, referring to a subject that is afraid and therefore refuses to grow up, is what he attributes to the lack of innovation in mainstream video games. When discussing what he wants to see happen in the industry he says, “We need to focus on meaning [within our games]. We should become accessible. We should focus on what happens within the minds of the players, not on how fast they can move their thumbs.” Later in the same keynote he talks about the industry’s relationship with censorship. Speaking in broad generalizations Cage says, “If it is okay to do [violent or sexual acts] in a film or to do them in a TV series, why is it not okay in a game?” He continues with the same point likening the industries current relationship with censorship to the constraints films had in 1950’s.

A clear example of what Cage is referring to is the Crossroads trailer for Crystal Dynamics’ game, Tomb Raider. The title is a reboot of the long running video game series by the same name. In the series’ past, players would take control of a highly sexualized female hero as they set out on an adventure to find long-lost treasures, kind of like Indiana Jones with a pretty face, tight ass, and large breasts. The title is well-known in the gaming industry and considered a classic to many gamers. In the most recent iteration, the creative team decided to take a different route, making the games protagonist, Lara Croft, less sexualized and much more relatable. In the trailer shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2012, Crystal Dynamics proceeded to show what was clearly Lara Croft struggling to escape an attempted rape. The developer received heavy backlash regarding such content and quickly responded with an open letter quoted here from Daniel Nye Griffiths in a Forbes article:“One of the character-defining moments for Lara in the game, which has been incorrectly referred to as an ‘attempted rape’ scene, is the content we showed at this year’s E3. This is where Lara is forced to kill another human being for the first time” (1). Though this is not a central theme in the game, it is an undeniable aspect of the character’s progression. The backlash received for the game’s attempted rape scene is unwarranted when considering the freedom given to film, television, and music. In denying this sort of material, especially when it is presented in context, consumers are hindering the industry’s maturation.

Source: joyme.com

Source: joyme.com

Also in the 2013 D.I.C.E. Summit was Warren Spector, a veteran of the industry for over thirty years. Spector spoke of how his outlook on the industry has changed during his career and came to introduce a revelation he had. He said that, now in his fifties, he realizes that he wants to “leave something behind”. Spector referenced two games, The Walking Dead by Telltale Games and David Cage’s own Heavy Rain, applauding their uniqueness in that they celebrate the ordinary rather than putting a large weapon and the fate of the universe in the player’s hands. Directly referencing and expanding on Cage’s point of becoming more accessible, Spector says, “I have been the last space marine between earth and an alien invasion already, I just don’t need to [experience that any more]. I want content that is relevant to me and that is said in the real world. We need to think about things that are relevant to normal humans and not just the geeks that we all used to be.” Now look back on reactions to the Tomb Raider trailer and the criticism it received. The disturbing idea of rape, which is a real world issue, is something that pulls a player out of that “geek” fantasy Spector mentioned, thus bringing back the idea of the Peter Pan Syndrome. Though currently the sort of experiences that celebrate the ordinary or speak of things we are all effected by are few and far between, their effect on the industry’s current immaturity is a pernicious one.

Papo & Yo, a game released in 2012 by Vander Caballero and his small studio, Minority Media, is a fine example of how the medium is maturing. During the game’s development, Minority Media released a series of video diaries taking viewers through the process of creating their first game. The first entry shared how personal of a journey the development was for Caballero and what he is trying to say with the game. In Papo & Yo players take on the roll of a small boy as he traverses an old town conceived within his imagination, solving puzzles with a small yellow toy and a large red monster. Feeding the monster and finding shelter for it builds a relationship, making it easier to get him to do what the player needs. If needs and wants are not met, the monster will set out to kill the game’s protagonist, which Caballero says is his alter ego. You may think this just sounds like a normal platformer with a decent little gimmick, but that is because video games are rarely looked at for anything more than the surface level experience they can offer. In the video diary Caballero explains how he put himself entirely into his work, creating an allegorical tale of his experience of growing up with a physically abusive father. The monster, a red monster mind you, represents his father. The yellow toy is just that, his yellow toy. Now just think of what colors represent. Passion, in this case anger, is attributed to red while joy or cheerfulness is to yellow. Hearing what is being said through the game’s subtleties is a rewarding experience and allows players to see into more than just a glowing television screen.

Message in a PediaSure Bottle Source: thatdragoncancer.com

Message in a PediaSure Bottle
Source: thatdragoncancer.com

Another example will be coming in 2014 by Ryan Green, a game developer and father of four. Green will be releasing his first game titled That Dragon, Cancer. In an interview with Revision3Games Green explains that in his game players will assume the role himself as he spends time in the hospital room of his cancer ridden son, Joel. The title, as he explains, comes from the imagery his wife used to explain to his other sons what cancer is. According to Green, she relates cancer to a dragon, greedy and ruthless, that Joel is fighting alongside God. When asked why he chose to share his experience and open up his heart through a video game, Green said, “The interactive medium, what we call ‘video games’, has a profound ability to take your entire focus. This is a wonderful opportunity for me as a creator to invite people to walk with me in my life and to see things the way I see them, but also to remain themselves.” This subject matter is difficult for most anyone. Death is one of the most universally frightening subjects a person could tackle, given any form of expression, but for someone to have enough faith in a medium that is so young and misunderstood as childish undoubtedly shows that it is maturing.

An even further and culturally more relevant show of the industry’s maturation is its entry into academia. It is instantly apparent that kids today are not experiencing fictional narrative through reading books as much as they are through playing video games. Jeff Clark, a middle school teacher in Cheektowaga, NY, fully understands and explains this in an interview with Polygon writer Colin Campbell. Clark explains how he uses video games to teach kids how writing has evolved and uses the interactive medium as a segue into literature. In his successfully funded Kickstarter video, used to raise money for the hardware needed in his classroom, Clark explains that he will introduce kids to critical thinking by writing and comparing reviews for the games they play in the classroom and exploring the reason behind the decisions they make within those games. In the interview with Polygon, Clark talks about why he has chosen to teach with video games saying, “Once kids realize that the games that they play and love so much, the ones with strong [characters], have strong writers behind them, I think there’s a powerful hook right there”. It it with this technique that Clark is teaching kids how fiction is created and used to inspire.

As this industry becomes more relevant and sought after by youth, seeing the industry’s past failures and achievements will also become more important. With this in mind, Henry Lowood, a curator of the Stanford Libraries, has been steaming the initiative of video game preservation. In a community discussion at NYU, called Pressing Restart, Lowood explained that that preservation of cartridges and discs are not enough to truly preserve a game. Lowood argues “that a

game is not simply a piece of software, but rather a historically specific site of shared experience”(Zarembsky). While making accessible the culture of past video games is Lowoods mission, the NYU Game Center, established in 2008, aims to educate tomorrow’s industry leaders on how to create those cultures and experiences. The Game Center’s website reads:

The mission of the Center is to graduate the next generation of game designers, developers, entrepreneurs, and critics, and to advance the art, science and culture of gaming by creating a context for advanced study and innovative work. The Center’s students, both undergraduates and graduates, will be drawn from diverse disciplines including computer programming, visual art, sound and audio, animation, writing, and joined together by the central discipline of game design. (Lantz)

It is in this medium that coming generations will pour themselves into. Video games offer a powerful landscape of creation. In the passionate and insightful documentary Indie Games: The Movie by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, Phil Fish, creator of the independently produced game Fez, explains this with elegancy saying, “[Video games are] the total of every creative medium of all time made interactive, how is that not [amazing].”

Even after this knowledge there is still an elephant in the room, so to speak. That elephant is called Violence. It may also be called Sex, or Language. It is well-known that video games, quite often, are obscenely violent. There is no getting around the fact that games franchises  such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are well-known and often attacked by the media for their frivolous usage of violence, language, or graphic sexual material. However, is this true for film, television, and music as well. Every year there is a wave of new horror films released around the time of Halloween which are dripping with frivolously graphic content. Tyler the Creator, a famous rapper, uses music to spew hate, attacking people and ideals. As for television, watch any show on HBO. Shows like Spartacus: Blood in Sand and the well-known Game of Thrones series also contain overly graphic violent and sexual scenes. Regardless of the medium, there will always be material that simply shouldn’t exist. Video games are by no means an exception. But for games like Grand Theft Auto, instead of attacking them with uninformed claims, some people are beginning to analyze them in a positive and professional way. Adam Sessler, a journalist at Revision3Games applauds the game saying this:

All against the backdrop of economic, moral, and intellectual apocalypse, Grand Theft Auto 5 covers materialism, celebrity obsession, millennials, the tea party, electronic surveillance, torture and xenophobia, to name only a few topics addressed. It does so with satirical fangs that leave no prisoners as they scorch the earth in the tradition of Bill Hicks and Jonathan Swift.

GrandTheftAutoV--Trevor

I can imagine that two hundred years from now, like our reading of Dickens, the game will be regarded as a catalog of our contemporary [trappings]. An accelerated reality that will bear more truth than just gazing at our reflection. (Sessler)

While games like this are not meant for children, they are obviously meant for a purpose. Video games are clearly not just children’s toys, they are becoming fictional and commentating works begging to be analyzed.

Video games have come a long way since their inception. They are becoming a platform for moving narrative pieces, satirical commentaries, and even means of experiencing catharsis. There is a grand invitation being made through the accessibility of “games” like Papo & Yo and That Dragon, Cancer. The future of this industry is a well of untapped potential that is going to take more than a few passionate developers to draw. By dismissing the medium and misunderstanding it as a childish thing, people are hindering its growth. In the D.I.C.E. Summit of 2011, Mark Cerny, senior developer and hardware architect at Sony, mentioned the evolution of the technology in the industry and how advances in technology have hindered advances in maturity. In his keynote Cerny demonstrates that there is currently no place left for the tools used to create games to go, Cerny excitedly explains that “we are done. This means we can finally take time to learn our craft. To learn what is important… and what isn’t important.” This is exciting news for those who have watched the industry grow over the past decade. The interactive medium, as so clearly demonstrated, is ready to become more than what the media and uninformed onlookers have perceived it to be.

Sources: D.I.C.E.|Forbes|Indie Games: The Movie|InfoPlease|Kickstarter|Kill Screen|NYU|Polygon|Rev3Games|Tomb Raider

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Categories: Lists and Editorials, Up For Discussion, Video Game History, Video Games

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