We've all heard the petty squabbles of the "video games are/aren't art" debacle in recent years. While this has been an ongoing discussion among gamers for quite a long time, it has been on the rise since Ebert decided to chime in on a medium he didn't fully understand. For this to even be an argument seems absurd to me. If you make something that is meant to elicit an emotional response in people, then it is art. It might not be very good art, but art it remains. Of course there are legions of linguistic fetishists that would argue against me about how art has no definition or that I'm wrong or whatever else they could conjure up just to argue for the sake of arguing.
But I digress.
The problem that games face today is not whether or not they are truly artistic endeavors, but that they can't seem to break away from being toys.
I listen to a lot of podcasts, I mean a lot, multiple a day, and something I've noticed is how gaming culture differs in Japan. Gaming is still viewed as the domain of the young, while American culture seems to be more and more accepting of older gamers. We have television shows that depict adult gamers, and while it's still a somewhat negative stereotype it has come a very long way. People still make our jokes about grown men wearing plastic headsets, but the fact remains that it is quickly becoming a well represented demographic.
Unfortunately, game publishers and hardware makers don't seem to see it that way. When the NES was released in America it was somewhat of a Trojan horse. It was marketed as a toy, because Nintendo didn't want to sell a video game console after the crash of 1984. So, it came with a robot, and was called an "entertainment system" instead of a or video game system.
This treatment has held in Nintendo's treatment of American gaming to today. Their consoles are toys, meant to be played with. Games like Fatal Frame IV are released in Japan on the Wii, but in America it will never see the light of day. The usual excuse within the community is that it's too "Japanese". This phrasing is offensive to American people, Japanese people, and anybody with a brain and eyes. Nintendo releases video game consoles in other countries, but they release toys in America. This toyification of games has gone on long enough. The most recent casualty is The Binding of Isaac, a game that was deemed to religiously thought provoking for their most recent toy, the 3DS. And don't get me started on profitability of games that are too niche, we all know that Nintendo can sell anything they want and make it profitable. They are truly a powerful force in marketing.
Of course, at the end of the day, publishers and hardware developers are allowed to do whatever they want with their consoles, it's their right. They reserve the right to censor, edit, and remove any content they don't like. Hell, if you want to really get down to the root of the issue, we don't even own the consoles in our homes. Let me state this clearly:
If you buy a Playstation with your money, and then take it to your home and open it up and make modifications, Sony can press charges against you.
They will void your warranty, ban your from their online services, and try to arrest you.
Their defense is that you may modify the hardware, just not the software. But the blurred line between hardware and software allows for a gray area that can include almost anything.
But again, I digress.
I paid a whopping $250 USD for a 3DS the day it came out. Now, I'm a grown man, why would I buy a toy that expensive? Surely I should spend my money on school, and food, and other adult ventures. Well, to be honest, I thought I was buying a video game console. It would make sense that Nintendo would want as many games as possible on their system, but it has become obvious that that simply isn't true. My 3DS is a toy, on which I can play Nintendo approved content. As a toy, this logic makes sense. You don't want small children dealing with powerful content out of context. As a platform on which someone can craft a piece of art for me to consume, it seems silly and offensive.
Of course it isn't all bad. Some game companies have been making an active effort to have more adult-oriented games on their platforms. The efforts have, for the most part, been feeble, but the effort is there nonetheless. Sometimes the good intentions of developers can survive the onslaught of publishers and we get truly fantastic games. Other times I'm told that I'm not allowed to play a certain game due to religious undertones on a game I bought.
I understand that people who work at publishers are business people. They look at numbers, and consult HR, and try to be inoffensive as possible; unless they can make more money off of offending people.
Publishers want round corners, high sales, and big returns.
The trick here is that many adults will buy toys, but few children are able, or allowed, to buy adult products. Many adults enjoy cartoons, but a significantly smaller number of children enjoy adult shows like Mad Men. It's a one way street, and publishers know that. They know that if they sell a toy anyone will buy it, whereas mostly adults buy adult products.
To pick on Nintendo some more, let's look at two games: Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario Land 3D. I recently bought these games, and I've thoroughly enjoyed Super Mario Land. It has a decently fun, kid/casual friendly style, and it takes little effort to beat the "main" game. I got to the final castle, defeated bowser, and thought to myself, "Well, that was pretty fun I suppose."
Then the real game started: a punishing platformer ripe with old references and hard as nails level design. I'm still playing through the game, and it continues to be a fun on a bun.
However, Mario Kart 7 is a toy. The mechanics are fun, but largely based on chance, and the extra content is being allowed to play the same track backwards. Woo. It's a fun toy, but it didn't challenge me or elicit any kind of emotional response. I enjoy it, I'll play a track or two every once in a while, but I'll also pick up a Rubik's Cube every once in a while.
1. Nintendo needs to wake up and realize that we've all figured out that they make video games, not toys. I am an adult that bought a platform, give me some content that I can enjoy on an intellectual level. Gamers deserve it.
2. Publishers need to die in a hole. We live in a rising digital age that allows content creators to interface directly with consumers. Publishers are dinosaurs shoving ancient business models down our throats. Here's looking at you, Capcom. read