[Talking to Women about Videogames is a series where Jonathan Holmes talks to different people who are women about the biggest videogame news of the week for some reason.]
People are talking about how gaming needs to grow up. Some are even claiming that their games are more grown-up than the games the other guys are making. These are well-meaning, intelligent people whom I have a lot of respect for. That doesn’t change the fact that they are being totally silly.
There are so many things wrong with the statement “videogames need to grow up” that it’s hard to even know where to start. Why would videogames “need to” do anything? Last time I checked, videogames were doing pretty damn well for themselves as it is. More people are playing games than ever before, and the variety of games being developed has never been more expansive or more vividly original. We live in a world where Fez, the Bit.Trip series, Sword & Sworcery, and Lone Survivor stand alongside more mainstream titles like BioShock, Super Mario Galaxy, Halo, and God of War as critical and commercial successes. That’s a pretty awesome world to live in. The only thing videogames as a whole have to do is keep doing what they’re doing, because it’s working for just about everybody.
And “grow up”? What does that even mean? By what standard? Grow up compared to what? Sports? Movies? TV shows? Popular music? If videogames ever “grow up” to be a primitive exercise in schadenfreude like Jersey Shore, or whatever derivative pop song about sex/bravado/grumpiness that is topping the charts at the moment, then count me the hell out.
No, I don’t think the problem is that videogames aren’t “grown-up” enough. I think it’s a bigger problem that a lot of grown-ups aren’t “videogames” enough.
Let’s start by making one thing perfectly clear: videogames have already grown up.
Play, fantasy, and the expression of biological drives are as normal for adults as they are for any other age group. Just like mainstream movies, music, books, sports, comics, and websites, mainstream games are made to appeal to our baser instincts because everyone has those instincts. Sometimes those instincts will be explored and exploited in relatively intelligent ways, but they are still being exploited. In film, you may get a cerebral examination of the alpha-male instinct, like in Fight Club. In games, you may get something like BioShock. In pop music, it might be the Beastie Boys. They’re all arguably “smarter” than their more simple contemporaries, but they’re still playing the same tune. They’re just doing it with a more complex arrangement.
Fight Club probably has more layers to it than Bad Boys II. BioShock probably has more intended symbolism than Modern Warfare 3. Regardless of how “smartly” these games and movies may be delivering their ideas, their themes are still just primitive, working on our instincts in the exact same ways. As such, just about anyone over 13 is likely to find this type of material appealing. That’s what appealing to the lowest common denominator is all about.
Videogames shouldn’t be penalized for trying to be appealing. Instead, they should be applauded for effectively challenging millions and millions of consumers who are increasingly accustomed to passively allowing everything to be handed to them. By their very nature of demanding commitment and personal involvement from the audience, videogames are intrinsically more “grown-up” than any film or TV show. They personally involve and challenge the player in ways that require more personal responsibility than existing passive forms of communication.
Children sit back and let their parents (and the world at large) do most things for them, as they are unable to do things on their own. Adults do things for themselves. In videogames, you have to be the adult, even if you’re in a child-friendly world. Mario may spend a lot of time in a colorful land filled with talking animals and magical plant life, but he’s still a grown-ass man (hence the mustache). That mushroom kingdom isn’t going to save itself.
Where I think people get confused is the idea that adults aren’t suppose to play, or engage in fantasy, or use their imaginations at all. Our culture tells us that once you’ve reached a certain age, you’re supposed to focus only on real situations, and should only spend your energy on fixing real problems. In reality, adults are the group that are probably most able to effectively utilize play and fantasy in productive ways. Adults are more likely to have the life experience and conceptual thinking necessary to fully analyze a modern fairy tale like Metal Gear Solid or Mass Effect. From a practical standpoint, the outlet and perspective that modern fairy tales offer to adults can make a big difference in their lives, much larger than they might for children. Who needs a harmless escape and/or an outlet for their psychologically complex life more than a stressed-out executive, or a parent of four who is desperate for just a few hours to themselves?
So if videogames are so clearly and plainly appropriate for adults, why would so many people say that they need to “grow up”? As much as it pains me to resort to the “B” word, I’m going to have to call it a bias. If you write about videogames, make videogames, or have otherwise intertwined your identity as an adult with the videogame industry, chances are that you’re going to have a vested interest in videogames’ relative level of respectability. It’s a similar feeling that leads people to start thinking in terms of “gamer cred,” except this “cred” is for gaming in the eyes of the rest of the world. For a lot of people, it’s a childhood dream to work in the games industry. They’ll do just about anything to make that dream come true. Once they do, the script often gets flipped. That’s when they start thinking it’s time for the industry to start changing to suit them.
That desire for credibility can take on many different forms. Sometimes it’s out of a desire for game developers and “journalists” to feel like they’re doing something important with their lives. Sometimes it’s because they simply want the industry to match their internalized image of their identity and role in the world. Sometimes it’s because these gaming-industry types want more respect from their non-industry peers. They want videogames to grow up in the eyes of others so that they themselves will appear more grown-up in turn. I can’t help but guess that this last one often has the largest impact on most people.
As I’ve said many times before, I know what it’s like to be in a group of 35- to 50-year-olds and announce that you write for a videogame blog. You’re going to get stared at. You’re going to have strained conversation with people who clearly wish they were talking to a rock star, a medical professional, or even a store clerk. Videogames are grown-up, but they haven’t been accepted by a lot of grown-ups. I think that’s the discrepancy that those who are still calling for gaming to “grow up” may have missed.
The whole situation reminds me of how animation was perceived in the ’80s and early ’90s. At that point, animation had already “grown up,” although most of America didn’t seem to realize it. Ralph Bakshi had brought us films like Fritz the Cat, Wizards, and Fire and Ice. Bugs Bunny had impersonated Hitler. Jan Švankmajer had used two animated pieces of meat to show us how to laugh at life, sex, and death. Those films didn’t reach most people, though. In the minds of most adults and children, animation was still Mickey Mouse and G.I. Joe — simple “all-ages” entertainment at best, or cheap commercials for action figures at worst. Sure, people knew that “alternative” animation existed, but few people gave it a chance.
Then The Simpsons came along, and everything changed. By combining universal themes of school, work, family, and interpersonal relationships in a package that was equal parts smart, stupid, cute, and crass, The Simpsons showed the world that animation could be for “normal” adults, too. As a result, we got Ren & Stimpy, Beavis and Butt-head, South Park, King of the Hill, Family Guy, and an entire late-night schedule of programming dedicated to animation for “grown-ups” in Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Later, films that might have merely been “cult hits” in Bakshi’s day — such as Pixar’s Up, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away — managed to capture the respect and attention of American culture at large. It’s all part of how The Simpsons single-handedly changed the way people see what animation is, what it can do, and who it’s appropriate for.
When people say that they want the videogame industry to get its own Citizen Kane, they’re looking in the wrong direction. They’re looking for respectability, in the same way a teenage boy might think that growing a mustache or losing his virginity will make him an adult. Trying to prove that you’re an adult is not the path to true adulthood. Bragging about how grown-up you are only makes you sound more like a kid.
No, what these people calling for “maturity” and “sophistication” in the gaming industry really want is for the videogame industry to be understood and recognized for the wonderful medium that it is. That’s the point of being an adult. It’s your time to finally be your true self and find your true fit in the world. That’s why videogames would be better off with finding its Simpsons than its Citizen Kane.
That said, some would say that videogames have already found its Simpsons. It could be Tetris, Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter II, Doom, Wii Sports, Minecraft, Angry Birds, World of Warcraft, or some other game that has captured the hearts and minds of millions, and we just might not have noticed. I wouldn’t put it past us to miss the fact that we have changed the world’s perception, since we’re completely preoccupied with self-loathing and a desperate need for acceptance.
Personally, I’m happy with where we are as an industry, but there is always room to grow. There are plenty of “alternative” developers out there today who are “sophisticated” and “about real issues” whom I’d love to see go on to become gaming’s Matt Groening. Jason Rohrer, Jasper Byrne, Young Horses, Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, Phil Fish, Edmund McMillen, Jonathan Blow, and Auntie Pixelante are all successful enough, but what if one of them created a game that went on to sell 100 million copies? That would be pretty amazing.
That wouldn’t mean that gaming has learned to grow up, though. It would just mean that grown-ups have learned to videogame.