They rot your brain. They impede your social development. They incite racism, misogyny, larceny, civil unrest. Sometimes, they can even kill you. Computer games and controversy have skipped through the last 30 years happily hand in hand; but whilst a great deal of the furore has revolved around the computer games industry’s peculiar fascination with violence, one thing that needs discussion is whether we should take them seriously at all. I have a hard enough time explaining what I do for a living to both concerned family friends and fellow graduates alike. Trying to explain that I think computer games are an increasingly valuable and significant cultural development quickly has them looking over my shoulder for someone better adjusted to talk to. It makes me a real winner with the ladies.
And such a reaction is understandable. Manoeuvring a 4 cm high plumber through a death-trap landscape of skittering turtle shells and performance-enhancing mushrooms is a very difficult thing to call a valuable use of your time. The same goes for assuming the persona of a ravenous yellow pie chart navigating a ghost infested maze, or arranging oddly shaped blocks as they reliably plod their way to the bottom of a screen no bigger than the palm of your hand. Computer games were born out of escapism and distraction, and it is tempting to believe that they haven’t progressed. Pong started out in a Californian bar, as something to do to while away the time as your friends got the beers in. If, 25 years ago, people had spent as much time playing Pong as many modern gamers do playing World of Warcraft , you’d fear very much for their mental health. And 25 years is not a very long time.
When I talk to people who fall into this (I stress, understandable) mode of thinking, the same themes crop up again and again. People object to spending too much time indoors, and a child glued to an Xbox 360 who could be running around scraping knees in the sunlight tolls the death knell of simpler, healthier times past. Similarly, computer gaming ostensibly removes the desire or need for human contact. The thought is that it is, in a way, raw entertainment on tap, as if we were rats in Skinner Boxes, and having the pleasure switch on rapid fire has lulled us into such a misanthropic stupor that we just don’t want to talk to anyone. But most damning is the notion that computer gaming is irrelevant. So you’ve rescued the princess from King Koopa. Will that help you get a job? Will it give you perspective on the human condition? Will it help you realise what makes you happiest in life? Apparently not. People think gaming is puerile: alongside skateboarding, comic books and action figures, taking too much of an interest in it beyond the age of 16 says that you have let the more valuable and important concerns of the adult world pass you by.
When it comes to computer games and education the argument is slightly different, but born out of the same mistrust. We have centuries-old pedagogy and teaching methodology, which, despite their flaws, have worked in the past. But we have the problem of truancy, boredom and apathy, and the need to present information to students in interesting ways. We have the fact that computer games could provide an enormously exciting way of doing this. But we’ve seen what they can do, and which titles littered the rooms of oh-so-many high school students with an erring moral compass and a handgun under the bed.
While the more sophisticated will say that your child’s education is simply too important to trust to some upstart medium with a chequered past, most of the incredulity revolves around an inability to come out of a mindset of repetitive bleeps and blorps, and to understand that gaming is a vastly different affair now. Developers are starting to refer to their games as experiences, and though that could be as much of a buzzword as any of the jargon that proliferates in the new media world, it seems to be becoming more and more appropriate. Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Starfox, Super Mario and the Legend of Zelda, is considered an auteur, as is Hideo Kojima, responsible for the Metal Gear Solid series.
“Early eighteenth century novels and romances were still not considered part of the world of learning, hence not part of “literature”; instead they were market goods.” Nowadays, the novel is considered a staple medium of artistic expression. Though you might think the analogy sacrilegious, I think it’s worth taking seriously. The medium of film has gone from a technological curiosity in the late 19th century to a widely recognised art form. I genuinely don’t think it’ll be too long before computer games go a similar way. I think you could plausibly argue that they are doing so already.
Of course there will be misunderstood gems, of course there will be controversy, and of course there will be junk; games which will be name-dropped in sensationalist tabloid headlines, and despised by concerned parents for decades to come. But then we already have junk in other aspects of culture, which we are perfectly happy contrast with far more respectable examples within the same field. Compare McChicken Sandwich and Michelin-starred. The Seventh Seal and Showgirls. Big Brother and The Wire. Whether you deem them ‘culture’ or not, these are events in areas which mean a great deal to people, into which they pour energy and time, over which they lose friends in frenetic debate.
We all realise that games are becoming more technologically sophisticated, and thus more complex. But progress in game development isn’t just exemplified by releasing extremely complicated and realistic shoot-em ups. Such developments are, of course, fascinating, but they aren’t all that is happening. Games are being made which push the boundaries of genre, and which engross you in narrative. Games which are not just complex, but have enough depth to be taken as serious artistic and cultural endeavours. It’s progress like that which will take us away from thinking about computer games as glorified, photorealistic pong, and push us towards thinking of them as ‘experiences’ of genuine value.