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Content. Context. Maturity.


David Cage took to the stage at the D.I.C.E. Summit earlier this week to give his opinion on the state of the videogame industry. He laid out a nine point plan that, he said, outlined what the industry needed in order to grow up. He actually had some very good ideas, but he also managed to spectacularly miss many of his own points. I'm not going to attack his opinion or whinge that "he should be making films", but I do think it's worth doing a quick breakdown highlighting the problems with some of his concepts.

His first point was that games should be made for people of all ages, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. If we want gaming to be accepted by the masses then we must appeal to the masses. I often think the reason so many people are afraid of videogames is that they don't understand them. People are scared of things they don't understand. Maybe if we were more inclusive, and tried to get more people playing, we wouldn't have to deal with accusations of influencing violence. Surely we can take a few ideas from companies like Pixar, who manage to create films beloved by all, and make games that work on different levels, that appeal to people of all ages and tell a story that anyone can enjoy. Sure, we're already doing this to some extent, but a little more wouldn't hurt now would it?

So, he was off to a good start, and he continues with his second point. He wants us to change our paradigms, and challenges developers to "make games without guns". Fine, I agree here as well; the market is over saturated with shooters and some more variety would be welcomed. He also addresses the problem of publishers attitudes towards games that try something different. If it doesn't feature guns, platforms or cars there's a good chance they're not going to take a risk on it. However, I'd ague that we're already moving away from this problem. Look at the recent examples of The Walking Dead and Journey; two very different and very original games that were resounding critical and financial successes. Publishers will have taken note of this, and the whole Kickstarter thing as well. They can see that there's money in originality now, and there are clearly a lot of developers who would take that money and make something great with it.

Point three is where things start to get a little murky. Cage wants games to feature more mature themes, such as sex and politics. The problem, though, is not the themes themselves but how they're handled. Cage's own Heavy Rain deals with sex in an apocalyptically immature and cack-handed manner that essentially amounts to a poor attempt at titillating the audience. Just because you have sex in your game it doesn't make it mature. By the same token, violence doesn't equate to immaturity. For example, Spec Ops: The Line featured a fantastically mature portrayal of violence that genuinely unsettled many players. It's not the content itself it's how the game handles it.

Next he throws out the prickly pear of accessibility. This is bound to get many self proclaimed "hardcore gamers" to throw all their toys out of the pram and start bawling for mommy. Frankly, though, I kind of agree with him. Not every game needs to be super challenging. There's plenty of room for interactive narrative that focuses on player choice over player skill. What that doesn't mean, however, is that we should abandon challenging games altogether. Cage himself states earlier in his address that games should appeal to everyone. Everyone includes people who want a challenge. I'm also one of these people. Sometimes I want my twitch reflexes or my puzzle solving skills to be tested, sometimes I want to agonise over moral choices. It's all about variety; if all games were intricate narrative pieces but lacked any challenge we'd get bored. Variety is the spice of life, and I like my games to be covered in exotic flavours.

I'm going to combine Cage's next two points into one, but essentially he wants developers to work with more people from outside the industry; especially Hollywood. This is a fairly harmless statement really. It's always good to get fresh ideas and collaborate with people from different fields. The recent love-in between Gabe Newell and JJ Abrams seems to suggest that this is already happening. But we probably shouldn't forget that the most interesting ideas in gaming right now are mostly coming from independent developers. They know gaming better than anyone in Hollywood, so maybe the big studios should be looking to them for ideas rather than big-shot movie directors.

Moving swiftly on, Cage's next talking point is that of videogame censorship. He feels that games are treated in an unfairly harsh manner when it comes to portraying sensitive material. Especially in regards to sexual content. I must admit that I completely agree with him here. You only have to look at the hot coffee scandal that surrounded GTA: San Andreas to see that even the suggestion of sex in a videogame can cause massive controversy. This makes even less sense when you compare it to the amount of violence that is acceptable in any media. Very, very few people will ever kill someone, or even commit a brutally violent act, but everybody has sex. All. The. Fucking. Time. For as much of their life as they can manage. Shielding people from something so harmless seems utterly ridiculous.

Cage's final two points were directed at the gaming press and gamers themselves. He wants the press to focus less on churning out scores and more on analysing the industry, suggesting new ways to shape it and new directions it could move in. Similarly, he suggested that gamers could shape the future of the industry with their wallets. If we want more risky and unique games then we have to buy more risky and unique games. The reason there's a new Call of Duty every year is because millions of people still buy it, whereas there's no Psychonauts 2 because nobody bought the first game. It's hard to argue against these last two points to be honest, although I would say that it's the gamers responsibility to read the text of a journalists review and not just look at the score.

Cage concluded his speech with a particularly controversial suggestion: That maybe games shouldn't be called games anymore, but, rather, digital entertainment. He wants this medium to have broad, wide reaching appeal, and yet at the same time he extolls the virtues of its unique interactive nature. The problem here is that he's contradicting himself almost within the same sentence. He suggests a homogenisation of the gaming industry; to bring it closer to film and TV by focusing on traditional narrative and meaning. He seems not to understand that this would diminish the individuality that he also thinks is so important.

Games don't need to tell stories in the same way that movies do. They have their own unique toolbox that can be leveraged in ever more interesting ways. Just look at Journey. In the traditional sense, it doesn't have a story or characters, there is no dialogue and there is no set narrative. The player builds narrative through their interaction with the game, and through this they experience a far more personal emotional attachment than almost any traditional story could hope to accomplish. Meaning is created through context; not through content.

Cage wants the game industry to grow up by following his rigid, one-dimensional path. What we should really be doing is experimenting with what makes games truly unique. We should be asking ourselves how interactivity affects narrative not just through inflexible dialogue trees, but through organic and emergent gameplay. I want to know how multiplayer would affect this. I want to know what player created content could bring to the table. I want varying levels of challenge. What makes games so unique is the number of different things they can do. Lets not focus on one path that's already been well explored in other mediums. Lets experiment with all the uniqueness that games have to offer. This is how the industry will truly grow up.
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About Marcunioone of us since 5:15 PM on 10.31.2012

I'm a time traveler! But I can only go forwards... And only at normal speed... But I'm still traveling through time, damn it!

On a vaguely more serious note, my name's Marcus and Ive been playing video games for more time than I care to admit. By day I work for a popular movie streaming website, which veers between fun and boring on a near constant basis. When that's not happening I can usually be found procrastinating over doing more stimulating things.

As you may be able to tell, I like to write about games, but I also have a background in film, so occasionally I write about that too. If you like what you see here then check out my personal blog for ramblings about things other than games.

Random facts about me:

1. I'm Cornish (and mildly proud of it)
2. I've worked on a number of short films
3. Sometimes I forget how old I am (25... I think)
4. I know quite a lot about very little
5. I once played chess for my county
6. I bloody love the Simpsons
7. I'm a friendly drunk