At its inception, the video game industry was mainly focused on one thing: fun. Most games weren’t concerned at all with story, and even less so with any sort of deep themes or ideas or messages. Role-playing games became the sole source for those interested in a narrative, but those games harkened back to tabletop games for inspiration. Gaming-exclusive genres like platformers or action games had no such inspiration to draw on. Building an art form from the ground up on their own, most developers were walking uncharted ground, not knowing, and sometimes not interested in, how to communicate anything deeper in their games besides simple fun. But gaming has moved past that initial stage and is on its way from an industry mostly concerned with making kids have fun to a storytelling medium that can create genuine art. Yet we still cling to this notion that games are first and foremost about “fun” and in doing so approach games not as art, but as toys.
First, there’s this common notion that games should be, above all else, fun. There’s nothing wrong with a game being fun and many developers create games purely for that purpose, but insisting that a game be fun and then writing it off if it’s not is detrimental to the growth of gaming. Some games are inherently designed to not be fun. Spec Ops: The Line is a game that examines the cruelties and tragedies of war. The player controls an American soldier as they attempt to rescue a destroyed Dubai from the hands of an Army colonel gone rogue. As the game progresses, the player is forced to commit horrible acts in order to achieve their goal, including killing fellow Americans. Making these actions “fun” would undercut the whole point of the game. To criticize Spec Ops: The Line as “bad” because it’s not fun misses the whole point of the game. We expect a toy to be fun, but art doesn’t have to be.
Thinking of games as toys is also part of the reason for gamers’ obsession with game lengths. A toy should provide as much entertainment as possible, preferably more than I’ll ever need so that I can enjoy it until I’m satiated. A piece of art, on the other hand, should exist only for as long as it needs to. Its boundaries are set by its own needs, not by its audience’s. Yet, a game’s length, its amount of content, is seen as indicative of its worth. This isn’t entirely the consumers’ fault, though. The AAA game industry is insistent on pricing every game release at the rather steep price of $60. For many, that means shopping for games is an either/or proposition, where every dollar has to be carefully spent. As gamers demand bigger games to match the large price tag, game budgets continue to grow and grow. Big budgets mean that creativity and inspiration are turned down in favor of sure-fire trends and products. The indie and downloadable scenes have helped mitigate this problem by releasing games of varying sizes at varying prices, but they’re mainly limited to PC gaming, leaving console gamers out.
Games as toys has also created an interesting situation when it comes to game awards. Gaming has begun to develop a similar dichotomy between art and blockbuster, just like the movie industry. Small, personal titles like Gone Home or Papers Please are relatively inexpensive, but challenge the player with their mechanics and stories. Then, there are the big budget AAA games like Grand Theft Auto V that are absolutely packed with content, using every single polygon and dollar available to build their massive experiences. But the game industry differs from the film industry in that film industry awards (critic and industry alike) tend to go to the smaller art titles, while the game industry tends to award the blockbusters. This stems from gaming’s history as a medium for fun. A game with a try-hard but not-quite right narrative and insanely fun gameplay will usually reap more mainstream awards than a game with a phenomenally delivered storyline but sometimes clunky or unenjoyable gameplay.
It’s easy to forget just how young gaming is. As the years have passed, gaming has begun to transform from a narrow focus on fun to a wide breadth of experiences. But we’re still steeped in that early history. Many people who plays games want to sit down and only enjoy them for the pleasure they can bring, and that’s perfectly fine. Some games are built to be pure joy and that’s fantastic. Some games, though, want to do something different, to make the player experience something other than simple fun, and we should be open to that. Holding on to the notion that games are only for fun is detrimental to the art’s growth. We need to be open-minded about the experiences a game can provide to us. As toys, gaming’s scope is limited but as an art form video games can offer unlimited opportunities.
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