Kotaku recently compiled a bunch of articles and quotes from critics in a debate about whether games would ever “grow up.” To summarize, some arguments include:
- Comics and games are “infantilized” because artsy content is the exception, with most of these media targeted to teenage boys;
- But games “have more to achieve” as a medium, and some creators are pushing for that;
- Moreover, dominance of the low-brow “isn’t inherent” to these media, but actually is common across all entertainment media;
- And in the meantime, part of the problem is that consumers “expect too little” of games (as evidenced by Bioshock, which is not nearly as sophisticated as its reception might have suggested).
My response to this is sort of a follow-up to recent posts addressing the perceived immaturity or unmasculinity of geeky pursuits like games and comics. In short, I agree with just about all of these to some extent, but I’d contend that these stereotypes can be escaped through creative and marketing efforts. Just look at the “graphic novel.”
The work of people like Chris Ware may still be the minority of comics industry output, but I think that the work of a concerted group of creators and publishers has done wonders to transform public perception of comic art. It’s no small feat that graphic novels have won some major literary awards and occasionally see reviews in mainstream magazines alongside literary fiction. Nor did this happen overnight: One comic retailer told me that people used to come into his shop looking for more things like Maus, and it was years before he even had anything else to put in their hands.
I don’t think the video gaming medium has found its Maus yet (leaving alone its Citizen Kane)â€”a product that not only reaches beyond the typical audience (as the Wii has done), but also commands respect from critics as sophisticated and adult. Part of this is that the closest contenders in gaming are still too much a victim of their medium’s and genres’ stereotypes: I think Shadow of the Colossus was a milestone in thoughtful gameplay and storytelling, but still too steeped in fantasy imagery and the juvenile associations of its medium to reach broader audiences. You can make a bid for respectability and sophistication with fantasy books and fantasy film, but the idea of a thoughtful fantasy game may still seem a bit too childish. Arguably, this is part of why people will happily pay ten bucks to see Spider-man on a big screen, but won’t think of touching a Spider-man comic.
Another part of the problem is that even the most open-minded and intelligent critics could still face technical hurdles in getting to the impressive parts of the most impressive games. A friend of mine who doesn’t play video gamesâ€”but has good taste in other mediaâ€”told me she wants to try Shadow of the Colossus. I was glad that word of the game has made such an impression on her, but I secretly worried that, for an inexperienced player, the game might still present too much tedium and too much challenge for its central messages and themes to come across quickly and apparently enough. (I wonder, too, if it might have been a better game with half as many colossi. Perhaps the success of Portal will encourage more games to just get to the point.)
I’m not saying that we need games to be super-easy, or that we need a game about the Holocaust (which, incidentally, I don’t think would be as inappropriate as some contend; see Escape from Woomera, a grant-funded game about trying to escape from a real-world refugee camp). I’m not saying that adults shouldn’t be entitled to juvenile games, either (I think we are). I’m just saying that, if you want Anglophone culture to recognize games as “adult,” take a lesson from comics. Even the most sophisticated superhero comic isn’t about the win a Pulitzer. As cool as Bioshock was, something tells me that gaming’s Maus won’t involve shooting anybody.