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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
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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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.

Arthur De Martino
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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?

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).

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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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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.