Whenever the conversation turns to the cultural legitimacy of video games—Are they art? Are they entertainment? Are they just business?—I instinctively want to take a step back. If you have to ask the question, then your implicit answer is that you don’t think they are culturally legitimate. That always leads me to the next question: Where does this neuroticism come from, this self-doubt? To whom are you granting the exclusive right to tell you that it’s OK to love video games and to find meaning in them?
Together, the four of us have spent thousands of words talking about video games we loved this year: the heavily authored scene in Modern Warfare 2 that affected Chris so deeply, the mad dash of the last man alive that moved Jamin, and the rigorous difficulty of Demon’s Souls that filled Leigh with such a sense of accomplishment. What you three said sounded pretty damned legitimate to me. I can’t imagine that knowing any of those games’ sales numbers or gross revenue could change that.
Sure, some people are not only resistant to the notion that video games can be the conduit for a meaningful experience but downright hostile, and these are the people I have the least interest in convincing. They’ve made up their minds. Fine. But they don’t get to define my meaning. When I say that video games matter to me, that’s exactly what I mean. I love to share my experiences with others and to hear others’ experiences in return, but I have no interest in debating the authenticity of those experiences, especially when they’re mine.
Jamin is right that literacy is a big reason we’re still waiting for the day we can stop fretting about whether it’s OK to spend so much of our lives playing games. Part of that must be due to a generation gap. Television has improved so rapidly in the past decade because everybody who watches it these days has grown up with television and has developed an ability to follow multiple characters and story threads. The average person is television-literate today in a way that she wasn’t 20 years ago. (This ground was covered, entertainingly, in Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good for You, which I recommend.) Note that the audience for a demanding and rewarding show like Mad Men (so they tell me) is miniscule compared with the ratings that brain-dead sitcoms used to pull down. Yet it seems like everyone would agree that the TV landscape is better off this way.
In the same way, we’ll get from our games what we put into them. Just as you wouldn’t upbraid somebody for not appreciating Great Expectations if they lacked the ability to read, it’s nonsense to think you can shove a controller into the hands of somebody who has never played a video game and expect them to say, “Wow, I am really co-authoring a meaningful zombie apocalypse here!” It’s going to take some time to get to the point where the majority of people can grasp games as intuitively as they do TV shows, movies, and books. We’re closer today than we were yesterday.
I’ll of course agree that we need more diversity in game development. (And, for that matter, in game writing. It is out there, though—lately I’ve been reading the Borderhouse, which bills itself as a blog for gamers “who are feminist, queer, disabled, people of color, transgendered, rich, poor, middle class, gay, lesbian, and others who belong to marginalized groups.”) Still, when Heather Chaplin accuses game developers of a certain juvenile machismo, it’s not that she’s wrong, but … how many more counterexamples would make her wrong? In this discussion, we’ve all spoken positively of a game about floating flower petals. Power fantasy? Hardly.
And why do Facebook games have 100 million players, in the same way that the Super Bowl has 100 million viewers? Because the barrier to entry is so low as to be nonexistent. You don’t need to learn the rules of football to watch the Super Bowl, and you don’t need to learn how to use dual-analog sticks to play FarmVille. Both are free. Both are beamed into your home. Both are communal experiences whose value is not so much in what they are but what they represent: a cultural touchstone. For some people, they’ll be a gateway to greater interest, greater investment, and greater meaning. For others, they’re pleasant time wasters. That doesn’t put anybody at odds. It gives us more common ground than we’ve ever had.
Gamers are everywhere. I see people on the subway playing Tetris on an iPhone. I see my mother-in-law beating me at Wii Bowling (sadly true). I see 20 people on my Xbox friends list playing Modern Warfare 2. Different people, different games, different reasons for playing, and they’re all getting something valuable out of it. I’m not trying to be Pollyannaish here—I really think games have arrived. In short, when it comes to the games-as-culture-war conversation, I say we declare victory and go home.
Which, coincidentally, is what I’m about to do with Gaming Club. Before I do, I want to quickly respond to Leigh’s question about what I’m looking forward to in 2010.
I can’t give you a specific title, for two reasons. One is that I try to steer clear of marketing hype so I can go into reviews fresh. Nothing ruins a game like lofty expectations. The other is that I know something must be lurking on the release calendar that will knock my freaking socks off, and I love that I have no idea what it is. Sure, I’ll play sequels to Final Fantasy and God of War and whatever else, and maybe they’ll be great. But over the course of the year, we’ll all discover the games that speak directly to us, that seem as though they were created for no one else, and when 2010 is over we’ll be arguing about them all over again—because, damn it, they mean too much to us not to.
Chris, Jamin, Leigh—it’s been a blast. ¡Hasta la victoria siempre!