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Analysis: The State of Play - Why Gaming Has Grown Up

Analysis: The State of Play - Why Gaming Has Grown Up

August 26, 2009 | By Lewis Denby

August 26, 2009 | By Lewis Denby
More: Console/PC

[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, writer and commentator Lewis Denby argues that, despite claims of 'an immature medium', video games are more grown-up than ever, suggesting: "The console wars may continue to rage, but for most of us, it's not an issue.".]

With the Wii's family-oriented social multiplayer, the 360's core range of hardened action and the versatility of its indie service, along with the general diversity of the PS3, the variety of gaming experiences currently available is wider than ever.

That's without even considering the PC's ability to deliver in-depth strategy and simulation, or its friendliness towards small-time developers with an artistic message to communicate; or the DS' ability to train and educate, the iPhone's selection of games made for being on the move; or any of the numerous other methods of playing video games, and the individual styles they contribute to the medium.

It's been suggested by a number of commentators that games will be a mature form when asking the question "do you play games?" seems as unusual as asking whether someone watches movies. But that doesn't seem to stick.

Not everyone is interested in the high arts, yet they've been considered a mature and significant form of entertainment and expression for as long as history has recorded.

Mass appeal does not appear to be a reasonable test for maturity or significance, and there's no reason why gaming's nature as a marginal hobby has to stand in the way of its status.

In one sense, the ongoing console wars between feverish fans, and some people's insistence that a certain genre is inherently superior to another, can be insufferably irritating. But really, the same scenario has been at play in another respected medium for a long time. Different musical genres divide listeners something rotten. Consider how many metal fans worship their chosen genre to an almost alarming degree, and passionately dismiss everything else.

Consider how young girls learn every single dance move to the latest teeny-bopping single, and turn their nose up at all else. Think of how your grandma says it's all just noise these days. Or the alternative scene, standing around in quirky clubs, listening to expressive, atonal soundscapes that many would say really is just noise.

Many have pointed to the disagreeable content of websites' comments threads, forums and elsewhere, and suggested this is a sign of an immature medium.

If it's attracting this level of immaturity among its fans, with arguments aplenty over which games, consoles, developers or publishers are the most worthy, then perhaps there's a problem with the medium itself. But, while it's a recognized problem within music fandom as well, there's rarely a person who doubts the maturity, significance or importance of musical expression.

This is just how people function when they feel passionate about an area of their lives. It's an instinctive response to defend something that you love, not a sign of emotional childhood. So while the battles continue to range, I can only see bright things for the increasingly versatile video game.

Active Engagement

Of course, the diversification of games has a distinct advantage over something like music. The interactive nature of this medium means there's a whole other facet to explore, over and above the experience of listening to, reading or watching a passive form of art or expression. So not only can the themes of games be vastly different, or their image, their pacing, their storytelling, but the ways in which we engage with them can be enormously wide-ranging as well.

Indeed, it almost seems odd to discuss gaming as one, individual section of entertainment at all. Sit Brain Training next to Flower, The Sims next to Doom, Oblivion next to Wii Sports, and there are very few parallels to be drawn between any of them. We can solve puzzles; we can shoot bad guys; we can build cities or collapse PhysX-powered bridges.

To an outsider to the medium, someone unfamiliar with what those who play games look for in their entertainment, this may seem unfocused. Me? I think it's fantastic that so many people can enjoy such a wide range of hobbies that are all supplied by this digital medium.

The console wars may continue to rage, but for most of us, it's not an issue. We just want to play, to experience and to experiment with this increasingly enormous digital palette.

So while asking "do you play games" may still garner a fair few negative responses, asking why people play games proves particularly fascinating. We did just that over at the alternative gaming website I run, Resolution Magazine, recently, and the range of responses was staggering to behold.

Some players referred to the element of challenge. Others said they enjoyed exploring virtual worlds, that they inspired them or helped them to escape from problems in real life. More still talked about socializing with friends over the Internet or a local multiplayer session. People spoke of shared passions. Developers talked about the games that made them certain this was a career they wanted to pursue.

Resolution's three-part feature on the matter concluded with a thousand-word piece by Michael Samyn, half of Tale of Tales and one of the brains behind - among other indie curiosities - this year's much-discussed The Path. Instead of writing about why he plays games, he talked in detail about why he does not.

Samyn argued that the reason such a question is still relevant is because games do not sport the diversity required for a mature medium. I couldn't disagree more. From Tale of Tales' provocative artistry, through Valve's narrative-driven first-person shooting, Bethesda's open-world role-playing, Nintendo's mastery of the traditional game and understanding of family desires, to The Creative Assembly's epic strategy or PopCap's gleeful puzzles, we're absolutely spoilt for choice.

I agree with Samyn when he asks for more intellectually stimulating material in certain cases. I'd certainly love to see more of that - and while I wouldn't want it to be at the expense of occasional, puerile fun, it's definitely something I'd like to experience more when I play games.

But to suggest the video game is stale, that it's not growing up, that it's treating its fans like morons? I can't understand that mindset. Gaming is more diverse, more accomplished, more intelligent and more mature than ever - and that's a trend that's growing exponentially. These are exciting times to be playing games, and I cannot wait to see where the medium branches next.

[Lewis Denby is general editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. Wander over to his website for more information and contact details.]

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