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.

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Latest comments (18)

Whilst reading, I found myself nodding and agreeing wholeheartedly. Something springs to mind though. Deadly Premonition covered many of those topics in a way that left an indelible mark, even if it reverted to standard OTT game stuff right at the end. It even had a ridiculous amount of time set aside to just nattering about old films with the player.
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Ryan Locke Lecturer in Media Design, University of Abertay Dundee9 years ago
Reminds me something I tweeted a couple of years ago

"Games are still just teenagers. Full of both rage and affection, one day they'll grow up and have an intellectual convorsation with us ;)"
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Games like any medium can offer a bit for everyone. Sometimes we dont play games looking for deep meaning full content. mindless bashing of sprites and collection of flowers is sometimes what is sought for, whereas for others seeking a interactive movie content, a well produced mature dialogue and gameplay may be what is sought after.

What we havent really tackled is a good rom com in a game. Bring on the cupcake brides and meet the zombies titles ftw!
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Show all comments (18)
Terence Gage Freelance writer 9 years ago
I guess part of the problem with the medium is that there traditionally is a place where the storytelling stops and the gameplay returns. Take Uncharted for instance; a lot of people feel a disconnect from the story and characters because when cutscenes end and when Drake's no longer being likeable and quirky, he then proceeds to kill hundreds of people. Or the Tomb Raider reboot; so we know this man tries to sexually assault Lara and she kills him in self defence, but what about the other people she kills, no doubt while popping up from cover and maybe even in slow motion? Does this horrible experience mess Lara up mentally, or does it make her become this gymnastic elite ninja who goes on to casually kill people by the truckload? I feel like until 'core' games can move past the idea of having to be centred around action and violence then we're going to struggle to tell intelligent and coherent stories. That's why Heavy Rain - as flawed as it was in ways - was so brilliant for trying to do something different, for being brave enough to not have to focus solely on action. Similarly, Telltale's The Walking Dead is easily one of the best games I've played this year, and it does tension, action and character development really well. Hopefully more developers will look at these titles and try to do something a little outside the norm.
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Rom Com game: Mario meets Peach. Peach ignores Mario. Mario wins Peach over by lying about something. First phase of gameplay will be construction of the fabric necessary to support the lie. They fall in love. Peach finds out about the lie from Bowser who was spying on Mario. Peach has a strop and calls it off. Mario impresses girl by confessing in front of lots of people a week later. All is forgiven. Gameplay on this last bit just involves being strong enough to remain true to Peach and not run off with the hot girl Mario meets at a club that night. QTEs will be fine here.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Charles Rodmell on 6th July 2012 1:19pm

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Ha haar
In all honesty, I wonder of gameplay seen in the old lucasarts games within a fps but almost non shooter or 3rd person view would work.

Game design. Person is never in US. Chances of obtaining gun. Zero

But if u had to be imaginative. The player could try to use local object
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Lee Chesnalavage Writer 9 years ago
I think using FPS' as examples for the lack of narrative is a bit of a cheap shot, but only because those games fail to impress me. I don't expect a story from an FPS because their only purpose to blow the heads off the enemy. This is why I don't play them. It doesn't interest me. That's boring. The last 10 years has been the same story: Shoot that guy because he's evil/alien.

However, humans are influenced by emotion. Everything we do is based on how we feel. Why can't this be incorporated into an FPS? Provide me with emotional motivation and the game won't feel so pointless. It can still be fun with a shit load of reasoning behind it. I realise the contradiction though: If humans are motivated by how they feel and they feel like relaxing and having fun by shooting the heads off the enemy, then I suppose that justifies the game's existence.

So to summarise, I'm not particularly looking for a gripping story from an FPS but just emotional motivation, something that grabs the player and says "I know you love shooting things but at least be invested in the end goal".
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Joseph Cassano QC Development Tester, Ubisoft Toronto9 years ago
Excellent piece. Too often do we see "games must be this and only this", where the definition of "this" changes from author to author ("fun", "not fun", etc). The better mindset, as this piece shows, is to call for a wider variety in games. We shouldn't get rid of our "Call of Duty"s and our "Gears of War"s, but merely make different experiences alongside them (and, ideally, enough of them so that no one "genre" feels like it looms over the others). There's room enough in this medium for all, and I'm glad to see that others realize that fact as well.
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Terence Gage Freelance writer 9 years ago
@ Lee
"I think using FPS' as examples for the lack of narrative is a bit of a cheap shot"

Actually, I'd point to Half Life 2 (and its Episodes) and BioShock as a couple of examples of some of the best storytelling and characterisation in gaming over the last 10 years. Portal and Portal 2 are also some of the funniest games I've ever played, although they're strictly speaking not first-person *shooters*.

The genre has a lot of plus points, if you look past the typical biggest-sellers and at the more varied titles like Mirror's Edge, Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, plus those mentioned above.
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Mike Wells Writer 9 years ago
As an industry we beat ourselves up over this a little too much. The truth is that most movies, most TV, most books don't handle 'mature themes' that well. But what they often do better is make you feel engaged with the characters so that you feel more complex emotions when those characters are put in certain situations (love, suffering, discrimination, etc). You don't need a new game format to achieve this - you need better writing and attention to character - and if some of those pay-offs are delivered in cutscenes within an FPS or other standard game type well at least that is some kind of progress. RPGs surely present many opportunities to handle these themes well? The problem the industry will always have is the widely-held perception that game = for kids, and that strongly colours observers' views on what is and is not acceptable and what the developers are trying to achieve in touching on these subjects (even with an 18 certificate).
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Greg Costikyan Senior Game Designer, Playdom9 years ago
I am awfully tired of the "it's a young medium" argument. It's not a young medium. We've had games since the neolithic; designed games since the 18th century; and digital games for fifty years. And I can point to artistically -- not necessarily commercially -- successful titles that do indeed engage with complex themes; colonialism, slavery, civil conflict, even rape -- in a sensitive and emotionally impactful way.

If there's an issue, it's largely a failure of imagination on the part of developers.
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Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ9 years ago
I think it's noteworthy that the Apple App Store Guidelines specify that you are NOT to make games about race, religion, politics or sex.

These topics are ruled out. No go. Not safe for children.

And yet, pretty much every meaningful piece of art ever created is about those topics. Those are the topics that scare people, that fire people up, that get an emotional response, that cause debate, and where opinions and feelings collide.

But the very format of the medium itself, in the case of iOS, says "No, no art here please, not safe for children."

So we make games where you have to explode zombies, jump on platforms, punch people in the head, run away from the cat. We make games about lots of things, not all violent, but almost none that are "about anything meaningful".

Games have trodden a strange course since the 70's. They are about "kill or be killed", because the logic of games lends itself well to that, and violence, war, survival are concepts that society is happy to have as it's entertainment mainstay.

And sure, we don't want misogynist, bigoted, racist games on the App Store. But do we need to have the core areas of artistic pursuit cut off from us at step 1 in the guidelines?

I suppose there's still room for emotional storytelling, you can still create a game about romance, about friendship, about birth and death, marriage, having children, about characters searching for meaning in life, about greed, guilt, sadness, happiness. These things are all allowed, and I think many gamers would like to see more games about these things.

But I thought that was a point worth making, about games feeling compelled, to some extent, to steer away from politics, religion, and sex. :)
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 9 years ago
The more people you need to produce one 'unit' of a medium, the more the costs, the higher the chance you end up with garbage.

A book can be written by one person at virtually no costs and books are arguably the most 'mature' of mediums out there. I know, the book has to get printed, marketed and sold, but just creating the thing people consume, a book can still be made by one person.

The age of a medium has nothing to do with the maturity of the content this medium can produce. The so called immature media are not those which are young or old, but those with lots and lots of overhead costs to produce one unit.

Games cost money to make, there is pressure from investors to make money back and those facts will tilt any decision making process towards lowest common denominator schlock. Even the studios which do not have too many financial worries, e.g. Blizzard, end up putting monetization over substance. They create the easy to process pulp story and not the thought provoking storyline. They go for the cheap joke, not the smart political satire.
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Tin Katavic Studying MSc-Games Technology, University of Abertay Dundee9 years ago
Great article and I agree 100%.

One problem of narrative in games, especialy FPS, is that they are "slow" for a game compared to the fast paced combat. As such many gamers just skip the narrative to get to the "good" part. Shooting and killing.
In a way its same as watching Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith - everytime I saw the Ani/Padme scenes I would skip it on my DVD.
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Lee Chesnalavage Writer 9 years ago
I think I did over-categorise the genre there so I should apologise for that. I didn't consider BioShock or Portal. I love Borderlands but the story wasn't amazing and it didn't have a mature theme (or a theme at all) but there was something about it that appealed to me. Maybe it's the visuals but I think it's probably the game's sense of humor that really grabs me.

I haven't got round to playing Prototype 2 yet, but because it's a revenge story and because the protagonist has this strong motive to do what he's doing I'm more drawn to it than 'another war shooter'.
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Jerome Grasdijk Snr Engineer, Microsoft Studios9 years ago
in many ways the gameplay space - analyse-decide-execute with its min-maxing ethic - is very well explored, while the interaction of that space with more emotive content that works best in a sit-absorb-enjoy mental space is not well explored apart from a few much-copied models. It's not just a question of maturity, it is a question of resolving on a case-by-case basis this core conflict between emotive content, story and game mechanics.

There are some useful novelties in recent games like Limbo, but it's an open question how accessible that part of 'design' is to an average project at a AAA console developer. Very few games become an Ico, where the art effortlessly picks up the story content. Many more become a Fallout 3, where the art complements a story told in a long form.

A real question for me is, how well do games of all types sustain their appeal past the age of 35, or among more serious-minded people? The more mature approach to subjects suits mature gamers, but by definition there is a point where people leave the gaming curve, as they recognise that games are a form of puzzle entertainment which is absorbing offline, out-of-work cycles that can also be used on other more useful things or genuine relaxing downtime. Perhaps there is no call for the sensitive subjects because the audience drops off at a certain age in a way that it does not do for books or film.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jerome Grasdijk on 7th July 2012 8:03pm

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I believe the bioshocks, diablos, baldurs gate, half life, Marios, sonic, minecraft, final fantasy, vagrant story, home world, skyrim, dead space, battlefield/ COD, monkey island, day of the tentacle, broken sword...they do not arrive at their zenith every year. We would be really lucky if one true gem arises each year and much less two. And each undertaking would have truly undergone many thousands of hours of labour, love and crafting. Gaming has already truly arrived and crossed beyond geekdom into popular mainstream culture that supersedes movies as the de facto interactive medium.

In addition, some truly deep, hidden, diverse mature engaging games have already been released but perhaps not as well recognised upon release. It is just that deep unsatisble mass consumption of game titles that pressures development of titles in such a unrelenting way that there is a constant drive to try to be that slightly different, even whilst re treading old territory. Sometimes, just having a fun and less serious approach to the genre can produce a sleeper hit.

In the end, I believe our industry had done remarkably well. Sure there are certain areas which can further grow, evolve and be refined but lets give a small pat on the back as well for all those greats and lesser great titles that has truly entertained and stood the test of time. Well done all!
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Brian Smith Artist 9 years ago
The game industry is still eagerly desperate for ever sale they can get and that means generalising everything, trying to please everyone, and being sell-able to all ages. Until the business side of the industry grows up, the creative side will just have to stew in adolescence IMO.The business side needs to move beyond expecting/planning everything to be a AAA number 1 hit. You only have to look at the film industry, not it's creative output, but it's business model, to see that it's not reliant on just hits.
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