Fun isn?t enough: why video games have to move beyond simple escapism


Video games should not just be “fun.” They shouldn’t just serve as “entertainment.” As gamers, we have been present for the birth and adolescence of what may be the single most important and inclusive art form in the history of mankind, and yet all we ever do with that art form is create better and prettier methods of driving fast, shooting accurately, and blowing things up spectacularly. It may seem odd to demand more than just simple entertainment from a medium that has provided us with nothing but for the past thirty years, but an escape from escapism is exactly what the medium needs.

The time has come for video gaming to move beyond a simple diversion, and become something more. Escapism isn’t enough: it’s about time for video games to be disturbing, depressing, timely, political, thought-provoking, and, above all, meaningful.

Hit the jump to see a full breakdown of what video games need to become.


Why gaming has to move beyond escapism


Video games can be pretty damn good at evoking emotion

When they try, that is: I’ve referenced Shadow of the Colossus almost as many times as I’ve made qualifying statements like “I hate to reference Shadow of the Colossus again,” but it still stands as the best example of this.

The player is given little to no information about the plot, other than the fact that a god in the Forbidden Lands has told you that if you kill 16 colossi, the dead girl you love will be revived. You go about your business, slaying the giant beasts one by one, until something strange happens: a colossus doesn’t initiate combat with you. A beautiful, flying colossus that lives above a lake sees you, acknowledges you, but doesn’t attack. It simply watches, curious. The player is forced to initiate violence. In so doing, the player essentially murders a creature that did absolutely nothing to the player. The player continues through the game, killing each “monster” as he comes to it, but there is nothing triumphant or heroic or cool about the deaths of the colossi: many act like scared children (one bulldog-shaped colossi is terrified of fire, and cowers from your torch like a nervous animal), and all of them die in an oddly graceful way, as funereal music plays.

The player is forced to re-evalutate his actions, because the player is the person directly killing these beasts. The player is not watching a movie where a character slays an innocent giant; the player is doing it himself. Through gameplay alone, the player feels uncomfortable, and must reexamine the consequences of his quest.

I could go on and on about Shadow of the Colossus (and I frequently do), but suffice it to say that directly influencing the player in the actions of the game make the themes much more potent, the characters much easier to care for, and the situations much more involving. 


Sadness sticks with you longer than happiness


That’s all I have to say. One name. That one name, more than any other name in video gaming, brings back memories of tragedy and loss and regret and anger and horror and vengeance. Despite the fact that Final Fantasy VII was released a decade ago, many gamers still mark the death of Aeris as one of the saddest, most emotional moments in video gaming history.

The death of an innocent flower girl who healed your party and was (some would say pointlessly) murdered by Sephiroth in the middle of the game really has a way of sticking out in the collective gamer subconscious. And that is a very, very, good thing.

While we all have moments we enjoy from our favorite games, the sad moments tend to be the most oft-remembered amongst in our community. Whether it’s the death of Aeris or the end of Fallout, tragedy has a way of standing out in a way that happy endings and jokey one-liners never will.

This trend is not solely relegated to video games, of course. Some of the greatest works of literature ever written have unabashedly negative endings — hell, most everyone would agree that Shakespeare’s tragedies were immeasurably greater than his comedies.


Misery is friggin’ awesome

Happiness is, in my opinion, overrated. Happy people are seldom interesting for very long. Things that consistently make people happy are usually transitory and intrinsically meaningless. Happiness is rare, and fleeting.

But misery? Misery, as said above, sticks with you forever. Misery can ruin your life, and fuel your creativity. Misery can give you purpose and drive where simple happiness and contentment lead to stagnation. Not to get any more philosophical or condescending than I already have, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see that misery present in video gaming, as well?

Imagine you play a video game that takes place during a war. Throughout the entire story, you have to lead an innocent child through a battlefield, protecting her while trying to find her parents. After hours and hours of getting to know and care for this child, you finally reach her home — only to find that the enemy combatants have quartered themselves in her house, and the little girl is shot to death upon entering.

Now, while the above scenario would be admittedly more than a bit manipulative, it’s the sort of thing you’d remember for the rest of your life. As games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus prove, accompanying a helpful character throughout a game is an original and fantastically effective way of connecting the player to a character. If the player loses someone he or she cares about due to the atrocities of war, then it will hurt so much more than if the player had watched a movie or read a book with an identical plot. Even ignoring the thematic implications of such an ending, it would be insanely effective, and, if done well enough, could change the way the player thinks about video games, war, and the world in general. That is what great art does.


Simple is boring

If you put together all the WWII games in all of video gaming, their combined amount of play time would probably exceed the actual length of WWII. When this strange influx of Nazi-stomping games appeared, many gamers (myself included) didn’t know how or why the industry had suddenly chosen to create dozens upon dozens of games about the same war.

I would argue that this happened for two main reasons: firstly, the gameplay opportunities WWII presented (on land, on sea, in the air, across the entire globe), and secondly, because of how easy it is to oversimplify the morality of that war. WWII was clear-cut: Nazis bad, Allies good. Unlike WWI or Vietnam (to my knowledge, not a single WWI game has ever been made, and only a handful of Vietnam games have been produced), very few people in modern America would argue in favor of the enemy’s side. While, to a degree, this method of viewing WWII is not entirely false (though films like Das Boot do an awfully good job of humanizing the Nazis), it provides game developers with often unfair opportunities. Instead of looking at WWII as the horrific loss of life than it was, in video games the war is frequently depicted in much the same way it was in the 1940’s: a heroic, unambiguous fight against evil. Good guys die in large numbers, but their deaths are not terribly violent (not a single WWII game I can think of includes blood, much less gibbing). The enemies we fight are faceless and without personality (Call of Duty 2 seems to have about twelve different Nazi models, total).

Now, are these WWII games fun? Undoubtedly. But through the genre’s inability to reinvent itself — to take the war setting and apply actual concepts of morality and loss and horror — gamers quickly grew tired of the flood of differently-playing, but identically-themed WWII games. Even though each new WWII game brought something new to the table (whether it be commandable vehicles, epic multiplayer, or a different gameplay structure), not a single one of them chose to innovate in an emotional or thematic way.

“Simple” is boring. “Good vs evil” is boring. The world is in shades of grey, so why not make the player experience that same moral ambiguity in his gameplay? Why not move beyond simply making a game “fun” or “entertaining” and present real, moral dilemmas? Dick and I have talked about this before, but most video games tend to make their moral choices far too clear-cut,  or altogether meaningless in the overall scheme of the game.


Video games are repeating themselves

This is true of absolutely every art form in existence (when you boil narrative structure to its core, there are only twenty different plots in all of fiction, and even fewer repeated themes), but is especially present in video gaming. If you take those twenty plots and remove all the ones that don’t involve action of some sort, it won’t be surprising when video games begin to repeat themselves. In the past few years, how many Epic Fantasy Quest games have we had? How many Gruff Hero with a Shotgun Versus the Mob games? How many Space Badasses Versus Aliens games?

For reasons that will be discussed later, originality is not a particularly valued commodity in the video game industry. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should simply settle for rehashes of the same old plots and gameplay structures over and over again. Similar plots breed similar gameplay, and similar gameplay breeds boredom. Maybe one day some ambitious game designer will create the end-all-be-all of Space Marine Versus The Alien games. But until that day, what’s the harm in a little experimentation? Why not a game about infidelity, or about car repair? Games are great at simulating fantastically unreal things that you or I would never experience – why not simulate some things that we experience all the time? Why not view reality through the mirror of video gaming? It may not be fun, but such games would be at the very least interesting, and at the very most would affect the way you look at real life.


Why use a medium for only one purpose?

If I told you that from now on, literature should only be written if it’s deep and surreal and complicated, you’d think I was a pretentious windbag. If I told you that movies should only be made if they’re loud and action-packed and pointless, you’d think I was a simpleton. Why, then, has it become socially acceptable to say that video games should only be entertaining? Or that one can only play games to be entertained?

It’s easy to look at games as a medium of simple entertainment and nothing more. Technologically speaking, the medium has had little opportunity to stretch its legs as a legitimate art form. We’ve only had video games for the past thirty years, and only just recently have they become advanced enough (both in terms of atmosphere and user involvement) to serve a purpose other than being fun. After three continuous decades consisting almost solely of platform-hopping, bug-blasting entertainment, a majority of modern gamers have a hard time considering their virtual pastime anything other than a diversion from the stresses of modern reality.

But consider the attributes of video gaming, as a medium. Video games can use text in large quantities without receiving copious amounts of criticism. Video games can use lighting, cinematography, mise en scene. Video games can use music, and video, and illustration. And, most importantly, video games are interactive.  Video gaming, as a medium, is the single most inclusive art form ever created. Not only can it use the tools of filmmaking, illustration, literature, and music, but it actually forces the participant into the situation instead of allowing him to act as a passive bystander.

Now stop, and think about that for a moment. Every single piece of art you have ever experienced has relegated you to the act of a passive bystander. Even during the most exciting action scene ever filmed, or at the end of the saddest novel ever written, you were just sitting at home, passively enjoying the story being told to you.

eternal darkness

Video gaming can absorb all of the aspects of the other art forms, and take them one step further through user interaction. When you get to the end of a sad book and you feel sad, you are sad because you empathize with the characters. When you clutch the hand of a loved one during a tense moment in a scary movie, you’re scared that something horrible will happen to an imaginary person on a screen. While the emotions that result from scenes such as these (sadness and fright, respectively) indirectly influence the viewer, they do not, strictly speaking, involve the viewer in any sense. When a machete-wielding Jason Voorhees chases a pretty young girl around, you’re not scared because you don’t know what to do, or because you can’t run as fast as he can walk. You’re simply scared that the way in which the victim dies will be either so violent or so sudden that you’ll be indirectly physically repulsed by the kill.

And while many video games rely on these same passive mechanics to affect the player, they nonetheless have the potential to affect the player in a much more profound and direct game than any other form of passive media. When the sanity meter fills in Eternal Darkness and the game begins to freak out, the player is not scared for the playable character they are controlling: the player is personally scared for him or herself, because the horrifying and confusing things that the game throws out (sudden loss of sound, requests to plug in controllers that have never been disconnected) are directly influencing the player.

And that’s just in regards to the horror genre (as Colette pointed out yesterday). Good games can make the player directly feel whatever the developer wants them to feel: with every emotion in the human experience ripe for simulation, why stop with happiness and fun and excitement? Why not try for misery, loss, sacrifice, disgust, hatred, and love? Video games are the single most exciting art form of the last century – to waste the medium on cheap laughs and disposable entertainment is to overlook its true potential.



Recent “political” games have failed miserably

Not financially, mind you (though Bad Day LA was most definitely a failure, Super Columbine Massacre RPG is one of the most frequently-downloaded games on the  Internet), but just in the sense that they really sucked.

Bad Day LA had horrendous graphics, worse controls, and even worse social “commentary.” The entire game bashed Americans for serving as the lowest common denominator in world culture, and then derived most (if not all) of its jokes from flatulence and cursing.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG was ostensibly created to give the player the perspective of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on the fateful day of their school shooting. Danny Ledonne, creator of SCMRPG, states that his game exists to initiate conversation, present the events of Columbine from the perspective of the boys, and push the boundaries of what a video game can be.

This sounds really great until you actually play the game and find it to be a more or less completely uncompassionate portrayal of the suffering that happened that day. The classmates you kill don’t have actual names, but are rather identified by stereotype: “Jock guy,” “Prep girl,” etcetera. While you could say that such a conceit puts you more directly into the shoes of Klebold and Harris considering they viewed people in these stereotypes, it doesn’t really go a long way in enforcing the idea that their actions had a real, horrible consequence.

Not to mention the entire second half of the game consists of the boys going to hell, fighting monsters from Doom, and eventually killing Satan (who looks as he does in South Park) before taking his throne. Whatever artistic credibility Ledonne builds for himself in the first half of the game is immediately dropped, stomped on, and spat upon as the killers descend into the lower levels of hell and meet Mario, Pikachu, and Mega Man (I am not making this up).


Games are really, really hard to make

The flip side of the “video gaming is the most advanced and inclusive art form known to man” coin is that they are the absolute hardest and most time-consuming to create. With enough free time and a word processor, any schmoe can write a novel. With very little training, anybody can create a two hour movie. To make a video game that lasts more than 20 minutes, however, takes hours upon hours of training, programming, and testing.

Game developers have to deal with all the aspects of the other art forms in addition to controls and gameplay (mechanics which, in their specificity to the medium of video gaming, are by far the most important in making a game great).

Games take years to make, even with an enormous development team and a multi-million dollar budget. Independent gaming remains a market nowhere near as bankable or common as, say, independent film simply by virtue of the fact that most independent games take too long to create, or simply don’t end up getting finished. The Street Fighter mod for Max Payne 2 has been in development almost since the game’s release. The aforementioned Super Columbine Massacre RPG took six months to make, and it was just a simple RPG Maker title. Games are too much trouble to create independently, with little to no ultimate reward – just ask the guys who bailed out on Niero.

With all of the difficulties in creating simple escapist entertainment, is it at all surprising that most game developers – even the ones who want to elevate gaming to the level of art – either don’t have the time, ability, or heart to create games that do something other than entertain? It’s an irritating paradox — most game developers want to develop something outside the norm, which prevents them from joining a big-time game publisher. Games that take place outside the norm, however, are insanely hard to make and would usually require a big-time team to produce. As a result, there are countless mods and independent games on the Internet that start very promisingly, but soon after die off.

I am, however, pleased to inform you that an (admittedly small) movement exists to get funding to these games. Gibbage donates 100% of the profits it makes from anything on the site to aspiring independent game developers. Every penny you spend allegedly goes to the developers — while it may be naive or idealistic to think so, sites such as this could hypothetically be the solution to the frustrations of independent gaming.


Most gamers don’t want to feel lousy

I know, I know, I was shocked, too. The fact remains, however, that most gamers simply do not want to consider video games as anything other than a form of escapism. While I obviously disagree with the philosophy, it’s absolutely understandable.

In our modern world, free time is a commodity. Why spend the precious few moments you have to yourself feeling lousy? Furthermore, video games are nothing if not expensive and time-consuming – while children have the luxury of playing whichever video games they want, whenever they want, the average working adult has to fit his or her hobby around “real” obligations such as work or family.

Video games are most frequently played amongst males aged 12-35, which is the same demographic that most frequently goes to see violent action movies. With the exception of emos and pretentious windbags, most video gamers aren’t too keen on the concept of intentionally feeling lousy.

Still: once a truly great artistic game comes out, gamers will be forced to take notice. Of course, actually creating that great game presents a serious problem considering that:


There’s little financial incentive to create “unhappy” games

When asked about why his planned PSP “crying game” (otherwise known as “Heartland”) was cancelled, David Jaffe said that,

“I wasn’t incentivized to make it, in a way that I could go to my family and say, ‘You’re not going to see me for 90% of the time, but there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.’ There isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, at least the current way the industry is set up.”

While most everyone who’s ever worked under David Jaffe can verify that he’s something of an asshole, he knows what he’s talking about. Heartland, which would have chronicled the story of a Chinese invasion of American soil, would have been the ultimate artistic game. The player would have been asked to make dark, ambiguous moral decisions (whether to stay and fight or go AWOL, whether to kill innocent Chinese-Americans or face court-martial, etc). Of course, the game was cancelled.

Whether Sony was behind its cancellation, or if Jaffe just lost heart (a few months after his cancellation, he effectively convinced himself that it was never worth making in the first place) is unknown. Suffice it to say, however, that all of the previously mentioned difficulties don’t exactly create a welcoming environment for morally ambiguous, non-escapist video games. Creating a game that does more than simply entertain would be insanely difficult, it’d take a very long time, and there’d be no guarantee whatsoever that players would buy it, or even enjoy it. Few game companies are willing to spend a few million dollars on a game that is designed to be divisive, and just as few game designers are willing to put their careers on the line for what may potentially turn out to be a financial flop.

This probably has something to do with why Jaffe’s next project immediately following Heartland’s cancellation is Calling all Cars, a straightforward, arcade-style downloadable PS3 title. Fun? Yes. But it won’t make the player feel anything he hasn’t felt a thousand times before.

Woah, conclusion paragraph

In the end, the move of video games from mere escapism to that of a higher art form is not so much a necessity as it is an inevitability: even though the industry is currently in no position to allow such a thing, technology will eventually progress to the point where mainstream society won’t have any choice but to stand up and take notice. It may take decades, but video games will move beyond their escapist roots.

Still, though: why wait?


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Anthony Burch
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