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On video games and cultural relevancy...
On video games and cultural relevancy...
April 12, 2013 | By Kris Graft

April 12, 2013 | By Kris Graft
Comments
    31 comments
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design



"We are in the midst of the most important and influential movement in video games in a decade, if not ever."
- Adam Saltsman, developer behind Canabalt and Hundreds, on the cultural shifts that are happening in video games today, in a piece on Polygon.

Adam Saltsman is an accomplished, thoughtful game designer, and the creator of games like Canabalt and Hundreds. But he's been thinking beyond just game design and development -- he's been thinking about games' place in culture and society.

And so have other people. Notably, Gamasutra's own Leigh Alexander, veteran designer Raph Koster and indie developer and academic Robert Yang have explored this discussion around what games are, the role of the creator and what criticism really stands for.

This discussion is part of a movement, says Saltsman, towards more inclusiveness -- bringing more people with varied backgrounds into the fold, making game creation welcoming to all. New people making games mean new experiences and hopefully, new players and a broader place in our culture.

But he says that increased cultural relevancy of games is being hampered by an undercurrent of dismissiveness -- a sort of denial of others' viewpoints that's derived from what Saltsman calls "our real empathy problem."

"We are in the midst of the most important and influential movement in video games in a decade, if not ever -- a movement that is vital to the ongoing cultural relevancy and maturation of our medium -- and almost everyone involved in the conversation is, intentionally or otherwise, looking for ways to ignore everyone else," he writes. "We can do better than this, and we have to, in order to make progress.

"Instead of figuring out some reason why this person we disagree with shouldn't even be at the table, we should be trying to figure out why they so badly want to be part of this discussion. We will always, always, always learn more from people with whom we disagree than from our own personal echo chamber, as safe and comfortable as that place may be."


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Comments


Jay Anne
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I hate to break it to game designers, but it's all downhill from here. Mass market gaming is quickly becoming activity based, not content based. The games with significant audiences are things like League of Legends, Call of Duty, FarmVille, Minecraft, casino games, Angry Birds. The definition of gaming has become about addictive competition and creation, not experiencing interesting story or culture. There are probably developers who think they can change culture by making a game like Fez or Walking Dead or Braid, and it's going to be very sad how their insular delusions of grandeur are completely disconnected from the way that modern mass market audience views gaming.

I believe the only hope they have is to ensure that a sizable artistic gaming elite is formed that spends money readily on artistic games. But I also believe that even if that could happen, it is many years away.

Jed Hubic
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So do you even develop games or have your finger on the pulse of the industry? I know more people than ever that are sustaining themselves with the games they're making. Not to mention there's way more exposure to all sorts of games now that aren't AAA big budget titles.

A sizable artistic elite that dictates the game space for devs would be one of the worst things ever. That comment alone basically under cuts the point of the article. Maybe you are in the industry in some capacity or an actual game maker, so I don't want to sound assumptive that you aren't, but I'd have a hard time believing it with these comments.

Jay Anne
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@Jed
Yes, professionally for over a decade. So let's not bring "ad hominem" into this.

This was an article about cultural relevancy. 3 guys managing to live off of 50,000 Steam sales is not cultural relevancy. Even the rare breakaway indie hits like Braid or Bastion don't sell much more than a million or 2 at best. And they certainly don't have even a significant fraction of name recognition of household names like Angry Birds or League of Legends. And they generally aren't considered interesting culturally by anyone other than gamers.

And the conditions for that are changing rapidly. Most gamers don't appreciate that something like Minecraft or Angry Birds have an audience that is orders of magnitude larger and retain those players over many years. A 5 hour game that is consumed once by a tens of thousands of people cannot have much hope to make a cultural footprint against those kinds of numbers.

The point about the sizable gaming elite is that there needs to be a consistent audience that buys games that are willing to overpay and subsidize a sector of the industry. If you look at Oscar nominated movies, most of them are serious esoteric films that could not compete at the box office with blockbuster movies. But they still have a market that allows many of them to get made, with budgets that do them justice. Who knew that a serious movie about bipolar people could make $220 million at the box office?

Sure, there are many new developers quitting their jobs to try their hand at making the next Braid. But how many of them can go multiple years on a failure? How long before their maxed credit cards come calling? What happens when in a few years, there is a severe problem with gaining exposure because there are literally billions of free games all vying for your attention? Or that your game isn't as wacky or controversial to go viral in order to get exposure like Hotline Miami? Or today's indie developer that has to support a mortgage is now having to compete against college students who can pump out the same games for a fraction of the cost and survive?

Dane MacMahon
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Jay is right on. And there's nothing wrong with it really, to me the art is in the amazing gameplay design as much or more than it is the story or graphics. Games are an interactive medium built on gameplay and too often the gaming press seems to care more about story than they do game mechanics and design. Too often modern shooters and RPGs are praised for how quickly and easily a player can get through all that gameplay rubbish to see the story and graphics.

Meanwhile the truly successful mass-market games are all based around gameplay, not story. WoW, League of Legends, Minecraft, Call of Duty (the multiplayer), Diablo 3, Starcraft 3 and even Grand Theft Auto.

William Johnson
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money != culturalRelevance

Vincent van Gogh died poor, yet he might be one of the most influential painters of all time. Unless you are also trying to argue he's culturally irrelevant.

In 10 years, will we still be talking about the ending of the Walking Dead or our Elo in League of Legends?

Dane MacMahon
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It isn't the story ending of a game anyone will or perhaps should be talking about, it's that awesome moment when someone built a working calculator in Minecraft, or that time you personally had 16 kills in League of Legends with no deaths.

How will Walking Dead hold up against the best stories of cinema and TV in 20 years? In contrast will League of Legends impact on gameplay ever be forgotten?

Jason Wilson
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No one will every go see movies any more now that we have TV.

Jacob Germany
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Sorry, but this mini-thread brings to me images of old men on lawns, fists shaking and children running.

What does profit margin comparing have to do with cultural relevancy? Since when was gaming ever driven by content? Since when has art ever been more profitable than kitsch? Kitsch is, by definition, more profitable than art.

And this quote: "This was an article about cultural relevancy. 3 guys managing to live off of 50,000 Steam sales is not cultural relevancy."

Did you, @Jay, even read the article? I say this because the comments made seem less a contention and more of an embodiment of what the article claims is the problem. It had nothing to do with profit, and everything to do with "more inclusiveness". To quote the article:

"But he says that increased cultural relevancy of games is being hampered by an undercurrent of dismissiveness -- a sort of denial of others' viewpoints that's derived from what Saltsman calls "our real empathy problem.""

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't statements, like claiming that LoL, Minecraft, and Angry Birds are the downfall of artistic games, exactly what Saltsman is saying is standing in the way of cultural relevancy? Not profit margins?

Friar Zero
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That's not a modern trend, that's a description of gaming as it has been from Senet to chess to D&D to Cards Against Humanity to Pong. The idea that the primary purpose of gaming is "experiencing interesting stories and cultures" is the modern aberration, not the norm.

Dane MacMahon
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@Jacob

I am not saying Minecraft is the "downfall of artistic games." I think any game is an artistic expression, even if it's just how you make the sheep look. Minecraft has a style and vibe all its own that is artistic expression.

What Jay is saying, I believe, is that the public at large don't come to games for the things a lot of press try to push as gaming's "art." The stigma of "go watch a movie if you want story" still applies for most people, and where gaming penetrates into the mainstream consciousness it's usually based on pure gameplay, not story or meaning.

Which, arguably, is a good thing. As much as I care about stories in games and put games like Fallout, Planescape: Torment and Mass Effect up there on my list of story-telling expression, the core of gaming should be, well, gaming. Too many developers now-a-days come off as wanna-be directors rather than game designers, especially in the AAA space.

Jacob Germany
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@Dane I didn't think you said that, but it was a pretty strong implication, at least one I inferred, from Jay's remark about games going "downhill" in terms of culture because of Farmville, Angry Birds, and Minecraft. The implication from those statements are that art is left by the wayside because of those games focusing on addiction and competition.

As for the cultural acceptance of games, I think the fact that the mainstream culture is finally accepting games as something more than a child's toy is an improvement, not a "downhill" slope. It's not like video games are an ancient medium that used to be readily accepted as art, but Angry Birds came along and crushed the cultural castle the art-pigs constructed.

To the contrary, people are now playing games, albeit games more reminiscent of the arcades of yore, that have never before even considered video games as a medium worthy of something older than 12. I can see this only leading to more, not less, acceptance in mainstream culture, which can only lead to more, not less, acceptance of deeper, more meaningful games. Some of these comments here imply we started out at some artistic mountain, and we're falling. Really, we started out with Pong, and we're only improving.

Jay Anne
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@Dane and Jacob
Yes, Dane is saying what I was trying to say. In the mass market, games are not really a source for story, culture, arts, etc. They are increasingly being used for play: competing and creating. Not communicating ideas or conveying culture. And I don't mean to try to be a voice of disdain or an obstacle to progress. I am only trying to accurately understand and convey the state of gaming out there, and I'm trying to point out the discrepancies with how some developers think of it.

I agree with Saltsman that we are at an important point. But I think he meant that things will sway in favor of games becoming a medium for cultural importance. Whereas I believe it is difficult to look at real data and not see that for the mass market, video games are mainly becoming virtual replacements for paintball, chess, and Legos.

Jacob Germany
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Fair enough, that makes more sense. But paint me an optimist, I still see games as advancing rather than falling back. Certainly, the FarmVilles of the world aren't adding much of anything of value to the industry, culture, art, or anything else. However, even that example, as much of a blight as it is, has some potential to sway others to venture further into unknown territory. We simply, as an industry, need to find a way to bridge the newcomers in the medium to more... meaningful experiences.

I would actually like it quite a bit if more indies focused on usability and accessibility, rather than the trend I keep seeing too often which is one of almost deliberate obfuscation, like Cart Life. Awesome premise, and I even understand the alleged intention behind the poor usability (depicting the experience of difficulty and despair), but I think that experience could have been relayed well while still offering a usability the better side of "Rusty nails through your feet".

Were indies to leverage the almost obsessive drive for great usability by the "mass market" games and combine it with their unique perspectives and artistic bent... there could be some very interesting results, and quite a bit of cultural change with regard to our medium.

Ryan Watterson
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the 'audience' is not some inherent thing. The audience was built laboriously over time by the daily practices of marketers and community managers on a massive scale. Story games have enjoyed a great deal of mainstream commercial success -- you mention some, there are many, many, many -- and there was also a time in the 1990s when the exact opposite of this situation was true: narrative games were absolutely king, and the top of the mountain in mainstream acceptance was adventure games and RPGs. The needs of both of these types of games are very different, and it's no secret that there is a cultural rift amongst developers who disagree about the level to which games should bend toward media vs. activity. It's a false equivalency also to say that 'indie games' are not the activity based games that generate money -- both indie games and corporate games have this division; indies have both their minecrafts and their cart lifes, and corporations have both their LoLs and their Walking Deads

It's not secret also that studios are investing heavily to find new and better ways to monetize activity based games and are not doing it as heavily with narrative based games (there is some but comparatively little innovation -- mostly in ideas like pilot episodes, episodic content), but that does not mean the potential for monetization is not there. Activity games proponents talk about story games as if it is some untested theory -- it's not something people are thinking about trying and will it work, it's something tons of people have done and it's worked a lot of times. The market is somewhat different, it's not really competing for the same market as activity games and you're right is more competing with other narrative forms, but it is here, it's a successful idea, and, in the spirit of this article, should be encouraged and flourish rather than discouraged and dismissed.

It's not a prediction of the future that league of legends, casino games, etc are the most mainstream, it's an analysis of today. Markets are produced by work, and the market for such games as Saltsman represents is necessarily different from the games you like. But this is a dynamic situation -- the creators of these games know this and are putting in the legwork to build a market just as you suggest, which is interested in art house games, narrative games, independent games and hobbyist games. It requires marketing and time to build such markets and there is not so much ubiquitous cross-over as people think for markets of games -- players of 'call of duty' do not necessarily like 'final fantasy' just because those things are both games

The scene he is suggesting become more open and welcoming is the indie game scene, not the AAA scene, which is famous for its exclusion and secrecy and would never entertain such an idea, and I would suspect that the direction of taking indie games in a welcoming, encouraging direction has as much to do with building the market as making the culture more palatable and the games better and more diverse. Ouya, IGF, indiecade, etc, these are tactical tools that will help build up an audience for these types of games. The techie $700 console high def killzone graphics group has its own market. They're just two different scenes, and why shouldn't they be -- no one expects The Avengers to be the same as CNN

Friar Zero
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"They are increasingly being used for play: competing and creating. Not communicating ideas or conveying culture."

and

"for the mass market, video games are mainly becoming virtual replacements for paintball, chess, and Legos."

Again, you keep saying increasingly and becoming as if what your describing has not been the norm in gaming since pong. It's only in the last 10 years that the paradigm has started to shift. League of Legends isn't indicative of some new trend, it's just the current incarnation of gaming's dominant paradigm. There's a long unbroken line of games whose emphasis is on play, competition, and creation stretching back to Nolan Bushnell. You cannot hope to understand the market and the player base if you insist on viewing those games as a modern deviation rather than a historical constant.

Jay Anne
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@Friar Zero
I disagree. There has been a sizable shift in the last 5-10 years, caused by multiple factors. Zynga alone has 232 million users a month. That is very different from where gaming was 10-20 years ago. I mean the Internet was not even a household thing 20 years ago. Increased broadband penetration, improved hardware, adoption of micro transactions, socio-viral channels, data mining/analytics, browser based game technology, online communities, improved mobile hardware, persistently connected mobile devices, etc. the list is fairly long. All of these have changed the nature of gaming fairly recently, especially in regards to demographics.

My personal theory is that the last 10-15 years have caused developers to believe that gaming has great storytelling potential. Technology rapidly improved to allow expressive characters and near-CG visuals. Much of the gaming business was driven by improvements in visual fidelity and increased ability to simulate complex interactions. Up until around the mid-2000s, the biggest audience for games were in console games that weren't connected to the Internet. Most gaming hours were spent playing single player games that were improving visuals and expressiveness, which made everyone think that the trajectory of gaming would be a storytelling medium to live alongside films, and possibly overtake them due to its advantage of interactivity. Then slowly, the industry started to realize that story based single player content is not a good business proposition. It's expensive and doesn't last as long as activity based content or multiplayer based content. When the model of F2P grew in Asia, it was only a matter of time before it reached the West. It's hard to say when the shift happened exactly.

Jay Anne
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@Ryan Watterson
Good points. I'm not saying anything should be squashed. People should be realistic about the situation and understand why things happen the way they do. The Internet has a way of creating disproportion when it comes to gauging the outside world. Because you hear a lot about these games in your circles does not necessarily mean they are culturally relevant, for example.

As for the future, sure, anything is possible. But some things are more probable, if you look at trends. The amount of companies that make single player games is shrinking every year, due to the realities of the business. The number of titles that any given game has to compete with is growing massively. New investment in game companies is largely in mobile and social gaming sectors, neither of which are rooted in story based games. F2P games are not going away any time soon, meaning the lower cost of an indie game does not mean what it used to 5-10 years ago. So far, indie games have largely been about serving niche markets that have been under served. How it takes that success and creates mass market products is unclear.

Ryan Watterson
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I mean my general view is that when you see people put in the legwork you start seeing people get some results. So I think we're seeing indie developers putting in the legwork to build their market with ouya and festivals and blogs, etc, and speaking of trends, they've been having a trend of increasingly good results over the last several years. So I think this camp will continue to grow, and I don't think that's naivete or anything like that. Whether they monetize in as shark-y a way as corporate studios, I doubt it given the criticism of 'skinner box' monetization practices in the indie scene. I do think 'meaningful' games like you see from littleloud or cart life will get some more attention and traction

But the corporate shift toward activity games affected even their own cultures in strange ways. For instance, square enix abandoned its core competency of making high quality single player RPG to follow the corporate trend toward high def graphics and activity based MMOs and look at it now -- how would it have fared if it just recognized that it was a narrative game company and invested in monetization strategies for that? If the other story game companies hadn't given up and followed the wrong path, they'd be where WB games or Telltale are now, a decade ago.

Neither one of these types of games will ever be going away and hopefully we even expand and get more numerous categories of games. They've been there since it was zork and pong. I agree no one should be squashing anything else -- to me the whole debate every time I see it sounds like rock musicians arguing rap shouldn't exist or something. There is room for many tribes

Arthur De Martino
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Yeah it's not like Fez or Walking Dead made a profit.
Or were considered great games overall by several venues.

Except they did. And that's great. Triple A gaming isn't the be all, end all of the industry. Thank God for that.

EDIT: After reading the entire mini thread allow me to add this:

Why do you feel that storytelling and "play" or even "competitive play" to be something exclusive?
Even in the Triple A field this is not true, actually it is in there where we see creators trying to "Hollywood-fy" their games by ham handed throwing cutscenes at the player.

This isn't exactly marrying storytelling experience to Play. Rather it's something else. However the fact that these two things are things, big things in our industry, do we really see this as a "shift" or even a "Status quo" of storytelling in games?

Carlo Delallana
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"There are probably developers who think they can change culture by making a game like Fez or Walking Dead or Braid, and it's going to be very sad how their insular delusions of grandeur are completely disconnected from the way that modern mass market audience views gaming."

Maybe this is the dismissal that Adam talks about. There will be many failures, many misplaced "delusions of grandeur" but what's the alternative? Inertia? Inaction? Thank the stars that there are the irrational few who will keep trying.

Jay Anne
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The Surrealists movement in the early 20th century thought they could use their art in order to cause a new kind of dream-like consciousness to form in society. The Dada movement believed it was "logic and reason" that led to World War 1, so they believed their art should inject nonsense into society to prevent such atrocities. Both went on to create great works of art.

Is it better to allow delusion that serves the purpose of creating interesting things? Maybe. I'm glad there are people trying. But I don't think ignorance and delusion are for me personally.

Arthur De Martino
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@Jay

Are you saying the Dada and Surrealism movement where born of desilusion or ignorance?
Or that was the end of it?

The way I see it, it was a movement done by humans, about the human condition. Their hopes, dreams and expressions for a better world or even a better art world. They suceeded in several fronts of their movements, maybe not their bigger, megalomaniac ones.
I find it quite unfair to such interesting and successful movements for you to call it "delusion" - Even when the Surrealists where fundamentaly wrong with their methodology of painting, their ideaology and what they reached aligned with several of their visions and opened up artistic rules and paradigms.

And I also feel the comparison to the video game industries a bit shallow. Could you either expand or express your views over this comparison?

Jay Anne
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@Arthur De Martino
Sure thing. "Delusion" is probably too harsh of a word. Maybe "idealism" is a better word. Surrealism, Dada, Futurism, they all had goals in mind that did not get accomplished. In the same way that it's unlikely that video games will overtake books and movies as the dominant cultural medium. It's unlikely that 10-20 years from now, every modern art museum will showcase video games. Or that important cultural critics will reference video games when discussing the state of modern aesthetics, or social commentary on the issues of the day. Or that a video game introduces an import political topic of discourse into the mainstream media. Or a video game brings widespread cultural awareness and education to a topic like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List did.

Could these happen? Yes. Would I bet on it? No. Should a game developer create games with those goals in mind? Maybe. Personally, I don't give myself goals that have a small chance of being met, but other people are different.

Jonathan Murphy
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Things go up and down, up and down, up... I'm nauseous. Those that cry, moan, and pout don't accomplish anything. Adapt, think, create, act. Good times are earned. They aren't handed out.

Kenneth Blaney
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"But he says that increased cultural relevancy of games is being hampered by an undercurrent of dismissiveness -- a sort of denial of others' viewpoints that's derived from what Saltsman calls 'our real empathy problem.'"

This, I think, touches big time on the root cause of the sexism (both intentional and accidental) that exists within games.

It is unlikely that any single game will be the switch that flips us over from "games are irrelevant" to "games are part of the culture" even though we may look back and say that a certain game "made games serious" in hindsight. There are very few games that you can count on everyone having played just like there are very few books everyone has read or movies everyone has seen (except maybe Minecraft, The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane respectively), but that doesn't mean that games/books/movies don't seep into the modern culture (plenty of people who "don't play games/read books/watch movies know about Minecraft/The Great Gatsby/Citizen Kane).

R G
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"We are in the midst of the most important and influential movement in video games in a decade, if not ever."

I wouldn't mistake video games as a trend (see: Hot Topic, Let's Plays, and reddit) as hitting the most influential movement in video games in a decade, if ever. Because the past decade of gaming has largely been a joke, an attempt largely to prop up games that weren't an FPS as "art"...when we stop and think about it, WHY does this industry feel the need to validate itself?

We're always going to have those Call of Duties.Before that, it was "every game is a 3D platformer". Before that, it was "every game is Double Dragon/Contra". It's different now in that technology allows us to craft "better" stories through graphics, but we truly haven't moved on in terms of storytelling or gameplay.

And you know what? That's not necessarily bad. We're seeing things pan out, we're seeing where the chips are falling. A lot of studios, and publishers, honestly are going to die this coming gen. It won't be the same after this. The "indie" fad is going to finally bust through a bit. Video games are going to be forgotten for the most part, and we'll get back to doing what we all truly want to do: making the games WE want to play, not what Roger Ebert (RIP) or Bobby Kotick want to play.

Stay classy, Gamasutra.

Dane MacMahon
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Great post.

I remember all the kids in the 80's and 90's screaming for cultural relevance and mainstream acceptance. Little did they know what that actually meant for games.

Michael Joseph
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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2if5mg60D8

Everything is as it must be. :)

William Johnson
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I agree with Saltsman.

Video games are art. It has been for a long time. That's the funny thing about art, is that its a retroactive label. When ancient man made cave paintings, pottery, sculpture, etc, art wasn't even a thing. Yet crack open any art history book and they'll talk about how these non-art objects are art.

People may not believe games like Call of Duty, or League of Legends are art, but I'd disagree. Performance art rised into popularity in the 1970's, and I'd say these games are about as performative as it gets.

Other games that I'd also argue are video games coming in to their own as games about games. Things like Spec Ops: the Line, Hotline Miami, Retro City Rampage. Some people might say that's a problem, games about games, but that's the point. Painting, film, photography, etc they're influenced by their own respective mediums. Art is incestual by nature. People that love the medium they work with look at other creators of their medium, and even critique it in said medium. That is art!

And last year was a great year to show that people care about narrative in video games. Spec Ops: the Line was critically acclaimed for its narrative. The Walking Dead like wise, and even won numerous awards for it. Mass Effect 3 was decried for its mishandlement of narrative. People like to dismiss people's complaints, but if this shit didn't matter, no one would care that the Mass Effect trilogy was a stumbling block of story telling.

And on the cultural front. The feminist critique has finally gotten around to examine video games from a new perspective. Film went through it when they were the mass media, and now that video games are the new mass media; it seems only fair to get a critical look at the industry from a different perspective.

Video games are more relevant today (to culture) then they have ever been.

Luis Guimaraes
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Games do have an effect on culture.

They change the way you deal with things like other people, problems, failure, organization, planing, critical thinking. Or at least they used to, back in the days.

Isvar Horning
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I personally don't believe in "the good old days" - not for real life, and not for games either. There sure were problematic games back then, and the majority of games had very simple, backwardly messages. But that didn't mean they weren't fun to play.

In my opinion it didn't change that much. The majority of games (past and present) have no deeper meaning than the constantly repeated stories we also see every year again from hollywood. The lone hero/chosen one, saving the day, the girl, the world or getting out for revenge. There a just a few games every decade, that are thinking forward - not in game mechanics/graphics but in story/content.
The difference? Today more and more People in Games are trying to make even better, sophisticated games, and now they have the tools to reach out to the industry and the audience alike.


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