A Question of Maturity
"Are games mature enough to deal with this?" The answer is often no - but that doesn't mean we should give up
There's a question at the heart of every discussion about gaming culture in recent years - a question which has been phrased in a great many different ways and applied to a wide variety of different topics, but always the same question at heart. Are we mature enough to be doing this?
Video games are a creative medium, and as such they intersect with many different fields of human experience - but they're also still exploring the bounds and possibilities of technology and commerce, still developing a language of interaction which all too often knows how to punch but not how to caress. There are topics our medium doesn't seem to be able to touch without causing harm, like a clumsy giant lifting a delicate piece of glassware. Race. Gender. Sexuality. Suffering. Love. Even violence, the lingua franca of so many games, is addressed with little delicacy. Games can let you laser the testicles off an alien at 500 paces, but reality is tougher; they fumble and fall when they try to deal with sexual violence, for example, or the grim horror of a massacre.
"Video games are still developing a language of interaction which all too often knows how to punch but not how to caress"
There are two reactions to this state of affairs. Plenty of people respond by saying, "this is subject matter that games just can't do". You can't make someone experience love through a video game, or sorrow. Even if you could, you can't reconcile the kind of adrenaline-focused "fun" and fast reaction play that defines most modern video games with more thoughtful exploration of a difficult topic. A game that made you think about the death of a loved one or a terrible moment in human history wouldn't be any "fun"; thus its existence is pointless in a medium which has chosen for so long to define itself in terms of "fun".
Commercially, they're spot on. If the next Call of Duty was announced as a game exploring the loneliness and grief of the family of one of the faceless soldiers you gunned down in an earlier game, it wouldn't sell very many copies. The creative leads wouldn't find much work afterwards. (For what it's worth, if done well, I think it'd be one of the finest accomplishments of our medium, but I doubt many Activision shareholders would agree with me.) Instead, tough themes find themselves being trotted out lazily to try to give an illusion of narrative depth to games that are still fundamentally about zooming around shooting people in the face - step forward, new Tomb Raider.
Faced with that, it's easy to argue that game developers should stop trying. Make games that are fun - if you want to explore something bigger and more important, go and write a book or make a film. Record a concept album. Games are about interaction, about instant gratification - pressing the A button and watching a puzzle piece slot into place, pushing forward to see the hero leap nimbly across the chasm, tugging the trigger to see those alien testicles dissolve in agonised green mist. This is barren ground for the seeds of narrative.
"It's been a shock to the system of many gamers, and plenty of people within the industry, to discover that the universe doesn't revolve around them"
There's another reaction, though. "Keep trying, and try harder." Our medium is very young and it's going to make a lot of mistakes, but it's a medium as viable as any other - and an increasingly broad one, in terms of the kind of experiences it offers, in terms of the audiences it addresses, in terms of the creativity which drives it. The Call of Duty franchise isn't about to turn away from its in-depth exploration of "what happens when you blow up big buildings" and focus its attention on the hole left in the life of a dead soldier's family, nor is Halo about to examine mankind's destiny among the stars from any perspective that doesn't involve the barrel of a gun - but that doesn't stop other creators from stepping into the breach and finding out how games can answer tough questions, giving us new tools to find answers and new ways to experience worlds and lives that are not our own.
If we've learned anything in the past five years, it's that the "core" of gaming isn't as important as we once thought. It's been a shock to the system of many gamers, and plenty of people within the industry, to discover that the universe doesn't revolve around them. Social and mobile; Pokemon and Farmville; Wii Fit and The Sims. Each has shown us that gaming means something more than we thought, that it's a bigger universe than we thought, that there are audiences out there who aren't "us" and who demand to be entertained or fulfilled in a different way to "us". We still cling on to the word "core" because even if we've been forced to accept that we are not the totality of the universe, it's comforting to think that we're at its centre. It took the Church many years to accept the truth of Galileo's contentions; we shall not have that luxury.
What that means, though, is that we do have the extraordinary luxury of experimentation with our medium. The core can stay exactly where it is - you can continue, with impunity, to shoot increasingly detailed testicles from increasingly distressed looking aliens using increasingly beautifully rendered laser beams. Call of Duty can still be about knocking over buildings and shouting a lot, Halo can still be about the satisfaction of ending an Elite's roar of rage with a crunch of your armoured forearm, Gears of War can still be about the delicate forbidden love which can blossom between men in times of war (wait, is this right?). None of those things have to go away or change, even though sometimes we'll wish they would.
Elsewhere, though, we're free to experiment. New tools and new platforms and new business models mean that if you want to explore a way to express grief and loss through an interactive medium, you can. It might not sell ten million copies - but hey, thatgamecompany just made a game without any combat whatsoever which explores the philosophical underpinnings of myth and religion, and it's the best-selling game on PSN, so who are any of us to judge? The divide between these things doesn't have to be absolute - there's a continuum, rather than a complete disconnect, between the experimental indie and the constrained and traditional commercial title. Even in the funded, AAA space there's room for experimentation. Heavy Rain may have divided opinion more deeply than almost any other game I can recall, but watching a distressed friend who's playing the game say "I couldn't kill him", and knowing that they don't mean "couldn't" in the sense of "my reaction times weren't good enough", tells you that it's a worthwhile experiment whose ability to provoke love is as richly deserved as the hate it engenders elsewhere.
"There is a fear that if we learn how to make thoughtful narrative a part of gaming, it will push alien testicle potshots off the menu"
The answer to the basic question is still "no". We're not mature enough to be doing this - not yet. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try, or that we should recoil from difficult topics. It's cynical and unpleasant to use emotive topics just to try to add a frisson of excitement to an action game otherwise indistinguishable from the last dozen action games, but it's wrong to think that that's the only thing our medium can accomplish. I suspect that some gamers don't want to see the medium evolve beyond that - just as they fear that free-to-play social games could spell the end of AAA blockbusters (they won't), that consoles could destroy the PC (this is co-existence, not competition), that mobiles will destroy handhelds (well, probably, but not today), they fear that if we learn how to make thoughtful narrative a part of gaming, it will push alien testicle potshots off the menu. You only need to look at your multiplex, where romantic comedies and heavyweight biopics show on screens next door to bombastic action films in which no gory death passes without a corny one-liner, to see that that's not true.
There are many, many controversies to come - many mis-steps and experiments gone wrong, many offended sensibilities and upset minorities and even more upset majorities. As long as we learn from each of them, discuss each of them (like adults, not spoiled kids afraid that mum will come and turn off the games console) and keep trying new things, one day the answer will be "yes - this medium is ready to deal with everything the world has to offer, from love to grief and from birth to death - and it still offers up a pretty damn satisfying alien nut-shot on the way". Stop telling us what games can't do. Focus instead on what we'll be able to do, and how we get there.