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The Verdict on Video Games pt.1

A few months ago I overheard a conversation at the Game Design Conference. In the conversation, someone presented the idea that the video game industry doesn't know what it is; that it wrestles with an identity crisis not knowing if it's art to convey and express, technology to be engineered, or a business with profit as its ultimate aim. This concept seemed very familiar to me. I've found this idea of understanding video games as three overlapping ideals to have incredibly insightful explanatory power. With this 3-part perspective, we can begin to unravel the fundamental motivations and influences that shape our gaming industry and culture. To frame this investigation, I have to describe a part of our current industry as I see it. 
Stand before the judge and receive the verdict.


I know a guy who wants to change the term "video games" into "digital games." He persuasively argues that the "video," as in video screen, part of "video games" is not as important as the fact that the rules of such games are coded digitally. Now that video games are played with and without screens, on TVs, phones, computer monitors, and beyond perhaps it's time to modify the language that we use as well. Yes, language evolves naturally from small changes over time. But it also changes due to "explosive evolutionary" change, i.e. people speaking persuasively to the community. Maybe we have Moore's law to blame for how technology out paces our lexicon to describe it. Regardless, my point isn't to talk about assigning new terms. It's to identify a core language issue. 

"Video game," is a term used to describe games and non-games. Instead of using interactive movie, or application, or software, or making up new terms to describe various non-game experiences, we tend to call anything that we can stick inside of our computers or consoles a game as long as it is minimally interactive. I'm not sure how many titles pushed the boundaries of what games are back in the NES days, but now we have games with hours and hours of cinematic cutscenes, games with endless interactive activities, and games with other features that complicate our understanding of what games are. 

I have defended gameplay in depth in my series A Defense of Gameplay. In it I defined what a game is, which helped frame what gameplay is, which allowed me to explain the kinds of experiences and messages that can best be conveyed through gameplay. The article series also helped me outline what kinds of experiences and elements directly contrast with gameplay and what games are.  

In A Defense of Gameplay I opened up with this bold statement, "modern gamers do not like gameplay." The statement was designed to get people thinking critically about what games are by presenting a seemingly absurd statement that gamers (people who play games) do not like playing games (gameplay). At the heart of my statement is the idea that gameplay is a part of all video game experiences. I also argued that gameplay is the most unique and most important part of video games. 


"I used the word modern to indicate a current trend that's only growing stronger. When I say that such gamers don't like gameplay, I mean they don't like gameplay over other elements and features that are commonly found in video games like graphics, sound, story, and even interactivity. My argument deals with player preference; what it is, where it comes from, and what it means for the culture of gamers." ~from A Defense of Gameplay


At the time I thought I was writing about gamer preference, as if each gamer who didn't value gameplay primarily in their video game experiences had developed this preference after carefully weighing out their thoughts and opinions. I felt that I had to make a defense of gameplay to show that there's a lot to value in gameplay experiences too. Now, I'm convinced that the growing trend of gamers who don't like gameplay isn't the result of personal introspection. These "modern" gamers who don't value, critique, share, and talk about their gameplay experiences haven't created a detailed list of pros and cons to determine that gameplay fails to measure up. Now I believe that gameplay is invisible to these gamers. And in general, people don't value, critique, share, or talk about things that they can't perceive, experience, or feel. This simple idea helps me explain many of the trends and behaviors I've noticed in the gaming culture over the last 10 years.

Doesn't it seem odd that gameplay, the primary and most unique experience in games, is practically invisible to gamers? How can it be that after years of participation and dedication that so many gamers are blind to gameplay, how it works, and why it's a meaningful experience with profound artistic value? Surely, after this much time we, as a whole, should have picked up on a few things here and there to give us some nearsightedness into the art of game design. After all, haven't we done this with other mediums? Perhaps. I'm sure we have made slow progress developing and picking up the language to discuss movies, for example. And as movie reviewers and critics push the upper limits of the discourse, their efforts trickle down to everyone else so that the whole culture benefits. But, are games inherently different than other mediums?

Due to the power of video games to house many different types of artistic media, video games can create a broad range of experiences. This inherent complexity comes with some potential drawbacks that other mediums may not have. What if video games are actually multiple types of products that appeal to a much broader range of tastes? What if the common ways we understand, experience, and enjoy video games are at odds with each other?

Now to set the metaphor. If the gaming industry is a world filled with people who struggle to experience, express, create, and sell video games. And the console war consist of battles and alliances among some of the industry's biggest nations. Then the issue I address in this series is analogous to global climate change, where the seemingly minor decisions we make today push us all in a direction that we may not want to go. The very landscape of the gaming industry can change drastically if we don't realize what's important and how to preserve it as we wage war. 

For the remainder of this article series we'll zoom out to gain a broader perspective on video games. By looking at games as art, technology, and as a business individually, we can identify conflicting ideals to better understand our current industry.

Part 2.

« The Verdict on Video Games pt.2 | Main | Critical-Casts Episode 2: Expression »

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