by Joseph Hilgard
I was excited to see that John Walker wrote a piece calling for more mature games. My excitement faded, however, when I saw that he approached this admirable goal in completely the wrong way – talking about games’ stories and themes.
Walker criticizes games for their immature “game content” and wants to know when video games will take on more serious themes. I feel that this is an ineffective, piecemeal approach, like an amateur filmmaker deciding that it’s time to win an Oscar by making a movie about the Holocaust.
I always suspect that this criticism, that games are insufficiently “mature,” comes from our old, gnawing feelings of Game Shame. To some degree, every player wishes that his games were somehow equivalent to the canonical works of art, and that time spent playing Dark Souls was as respected or valuable as time spent reading War and Peace. (It’s not, laments Slate.com’s Michael Thomsen.)
There seems to be some expectation that games are young and will yet evolve into something respectable, which completely ignores that we have games which are nearly three thousand years old. We even have games which are so popular that it is socially acceptable to cosplay as your favorite character in public. These are called sports. Anyway, I do not know how to make video games respected. I do know, however, how to make a boring game by chasing hopelessly after respectability – obsessing over theme and content.
In his rebuttal to the Slate.com piece mentioned earlier, Edge.com’s Jason Killingsworth writes: “Though it’s possible to debate whether or not games are art, there’s no room to argue that games are books. They function in dramatically different ways and games arguably become weaker the more slavishly they aspire to mimic the conventions of other mediums. [...] Thomsen is unable to engage games on their own terms because he seems incapable of seeing beyond the superficial thematic level.”
When I read articles like Walker’s, I feel the same way. To criticize a game for not having the daring to meditate on love and loss or to end in your avatar’s suicide is like criticizing the Ford Pinto for being the wrong color. The cosmetic details may not be to your liking, but to really understand what makes the Pinto a good car or bad car, you have to open up the hood and think about what the car does, how the car works, and why it explodes when you look at it the wrong way.
Roger Ebert had a law he’d apply in his critiques: “A movie is not what it is about. It is how it is about it.” Games are the same way. It doesn’t matter what you say your game is about, because that is all just window dressing. Granted, a good theme certainly does make a good game better, especially for RPGs and virtual worlds; I deeply appreciated Fallout: New Vegas and its Country Western sensibilities. However, you can never get by on theme alone. By the tenth or twentieth hour of play, all that theme has melted away, leaving the game’s core of rules, mechanics, dynamics, and goals.
The defining feature of a game is, and will always be, play. Happily, games are staggeringly diverse and create a diversity of forms of play. In my closet I have games played through calculation, dexterity, trading, deceit, humor, language, geometry, and teamwork – and these are only the board games!
Games are only as valuable as their play. We respect chess as the grandfather of strategy games because playing it requires caution and cunning. We envy players of football and basketball because playing well implies that you are physically fit and socially capable. We cast sidelong glances at poker players because they must be cunning and deceitful. It’s how we play games, not what the games are about, that’s important.
If we want the “solid food” that will bring video games into maturity, we must ask for richer gameplay dynamics and new challenges. We need to play something different that challenges us as players, not yet another game where you hide behind waist-high barriers and trade gunfire in the Middle East / the future / Liberty City / the Old West.
Dressing up the theme around our games changes nothing. It is a lazy way to try to make your game more mature. If we called in Todd McFarlane, artist of the heinously 90′s comic book Spawn, to give Mario a remake, the result would be superficially more mature, but the game would remain the same enjoyable action-platformer. To really bring about these challenging feelings that Walker wants, the gameplay has to support the message and help to create those aesthetics, which demands much more artistry from developers and a more adventurous audience.
To date, many games with heavy themes have failed to support them with gameplay. For example, Bioshock claimed to be an insightful game for a more mature, contemplative sort of player. It was, we’re told, about the perils of libertarianism and unchecked genetic manipulation. Supposedly, the game is about the importance of humanity and kindness. I wouldn’t know, because the game I played was mostly interested in how efficiently I could shoot the mentally deranged. The heavy theme is not supported by the way the player plays. This approach is all style and no substance. It is pandering to our longing to be taken seriously but delivering nothing in return.
Many of our celebrated initial attempts at serious themes suffer from similar clashes of gameplay and theme. In Grand Theft Auto 4, Niko is written by the developers as a war vet struggling for redemption but played by the player as a mass-murdering sociopath. Compare this with the superior The Saboteur, in which the character’s motivation is always to kill Nazis, both in and out of cutscenes. Fallout 3 wishes to be about post-apocalyptic scarcity and the struggle for survival, but the player carries a limitless cornucopia of weightless health and ammunition on his back. Again, compare with the superior S.T.A.L.K.E.R., in which the player can carry little and must constantly forage for weapons, ammo, food, and vodka.
Walker suggests that games are still immature because their thematic subject matter is immature, citing that “[it's] impossible and uncommercial for a game to have a gay protagonist.” Give any video game out there a gay protagonist, and you have changed nothing about that game. Turn Marcus Feenix gay and you have simply Gears of War with a gay protagonist. In a system of play that has nothing to do with homosexuality, you have just another superficial element.
This is not to say that games shouldn’t have gay characters (or serious themes), but that it is largely irrelevant to how they play. This is one of the beautiful things about games. Games are justice. Games exist within a magic circle in which the only goal is to win and the only virtue is to play well. It doesn’t matter what race, gender, or sexuality your avatar or teammates are – the only important thing is how you play. To keep Jackie Robinson off your baseball team because of his race would be an act of pure idiocy.
In the excellent interactive fiction cover-shooter Gun Mute, you don’t realize that your character is gay until you win the game, rescuing, not your girlfriend, but your boyfriend. The question of the character’s sexuality doesn’t come up during gameplay because whether you like boys or girls has nothing to do with taking cover and shooting a pistol. In games, it is irrelevant whether you are black, white, tall, short, fat, thin, young, or old, because your value as a player is in your ability to play.
Because of the importance of play, games are not well-suited for discussions of or meditations on heavy themes like mortality, love, loss, sexuality, et cetera. Games are made of rules and enforce those rules, judging the player based on the player’s performance.
Games are didactic – each game teaches the lesson of how to play it well. This complicates attempts by a game’s writers to explore deep, emotional concepts. Consider romances in Persona 3: because the player gains in power as he becomes socially “closer” to his friends, the player will strive to become as close as possible to as many friends as possible. This results in the skilled player having a harem of five or six desperately committed lovers by the end of the game. By making romance a gameplay mechanism (grow in power as you gain romances) the theme is twisted and forced (every player, no matter how monogamous his intent, must foster a harem).
There are many other examples of how theme is trampled underfoot by the directing influence of gameplay systems. In Tropico, you might be interested in making your citizens as happy as possible, but funneling money into your Swiss Bank Account is a much more effective way to gain points. It may not make sense to hack into a computer you know the password for, but you will do just that in Deus Ex: Human Revolution because it awards you necessary experience points.
Games shape and direct behavior, which does not allow for discussion or ambiguity. Games are not the place to experience your son’s funeral, because then your son’s funeral will be minmaxed. You would be better off exploring such themes in other media, like books, movies, or even visual novels.
Often, when I read articles like Walker’s, I get the distinct impression that the author is looking for something that isn’t a game. To discredit games without heavy themes as simply “sources of distraction-entertainment… shooting cans off walls” is to completely and infuriatingly miss the elegance and genius of Chess, Go, sports, Bridge, Pictionary, Doom 2, Spacechem, Starcraft, and Tetris. He’s watching a football game and disappointed that it’s not ballet, oblivious that a great play or a masterful kick has a beauty all of its own.
Instead, he wants a movie in which he gets to be the protagonist. I am not sure that I understand the value of this sort of medium – to me, as a player, there’s nothing special about a movie where you can point the camera someplace wrong or the lead actor can miss his mark, making the other characters cough and whine and fart nervously until he gets it right. I won’t be so pigheaded as to say that such a medium would never have anything to offer me – I do really enjoy a little interactive fiction sometimes – but to compare these hybrid mutants to the richness and fullness of a game seems downright unfair. I would rather be a fencer than be an actor playing one.
If we want our games to provide us with real nourishment, I would argue that the last thing we need is last year’s shooter wrapped in some awkward story about love and loss, or yet another indie platformer about the inevitability of mortality. We don’t need superficially serious themes. We need new and interesting games which provide novel and challenging forms of play. These criticisms of theme only scrape the outer skin of a game, failing to pierce through into the rich, savory meat of play. Do we want real food, or just garnish?
Joe Hilgard is a social psychologist and enthusiastic player of board games, video games, and sports. He writes a blog at http://crystalprisonzone.blogspot.com and can be followed on Twitter as @hipscumbag.