For most of its forty year long history, gaming has been a medium bereft of meaning, focussing instead on entertaining the masses with ever more intricate and involving gameplay. However, as the technology that acts as the foundation for our games has improved, developers have sought to give context to the actions that players are performing through narrative, while a small subset seeks to inject sociopolitical messaging into their games. This much has been recognised by a large portion of games-oriented news sources, though analysis and criticism of such aspects remains relatively sparse. Critical Distance is one source dedicated to seeking out the best examples of true video game criticism on a regular basis, while other sites like Nightmare Mode and The Border House offer discussions on video games from very different perspectives than the norm. It should not be this way.
Literary criticism and discussion of gaming should be nigh as prevalent as the reviews that assign a nebulous number to the perceived quality of a game. The reason that it is not is, at least in part, because there is no clear ‘language’ that is applied to the practice. With that being said, it is important to note that such a thing is being created, and will continue to expand and become universal as more people engage in a deeper kind of analysis. As it stands, many tend to utilise the same approach as one would when looking at a film or novel, but this is fundamentally flawed as gaming is not analogous to either of those mediums. It is impossible to wax lyrical on the directed narratives of video games and call it a fair display of literary criticism due to their interactive nature. If discussions are to be had, they must deal with the gameplay and how it serves to augment the story and themes that the developers are seeking to tell and explore. The question of unity must always be asked, as luddonarrative dissonance takes a great deal away from the strength of a game. This is something that I have striven to do with my Lawless Perspective articles – as did Lachlan in his To The Lighthouse trinity – though I admit that I am still struggling to strike the right balance. Being able to actively participate in the story that is unfolding offers an entirely new dimension when compared against the kind of media that we have been familiar with in the past.
Bearing this in mind, is there any wonder that literary criticism of gaming is a fledgling field? It calls for a fundamental rethink of the way that people have written about games and other entertainment mediums in the past. It is an immensely difficult prospect but it is also vitally necessary. Gaming has reached the mainstream. With the combined sales of the Playstation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 to date, falling just shy of three hundred million units, to say nothing of combined sales reportedly in excess of four million units of the PS4 and XBO within less than a month of availability, there can be little doubt of that claim. However, this mass penetration is founded on three core pillars. The first is a market that plays casual games in their spare time; the kind that is easily caught up in fads and propelled the likes of Wii Sports, Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja to success. The second is the ‘-phile’ market that seeks a way to interact further with their much loved hobby; the kind of gamer that prides the likes of Gran Turismo, Madden and FIFA as the crown of their collection. The final pillar is the power fantasy, with Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft being among the better examples. Such games offer players the ability to do things that they simply could not in real life, and so it can become a kind of refuge.
Although gaming is a part of the public consciousness, most are only aware of it through the view of a certain lens. This is why, from Columbine to Sandy Hook, there have been outlets attempting to vilify video games by using them as a scapegoat to explain why mass shootings take place. Far too much attention is paid to ultraviolent games, and even the violent elements of more thoughtful games like Bioshock Infinite, Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us. There may occasionally be a mainstream source that highlights the aspects of such games that are likely to appeal to the intelligentsia, but it always comes with the caveat that there is always the ability to maim, wound and kill. Frankly, as long as this is the image that advertisers put in the public eye and journalists endorse, even unknowingly, things will be unlikely to change and the gaming medium will never achieve the legitimacy that it fully deserves.
There is a school of thought that proclaims that video games cannot be art, cannot contain meaning or a message, cannot present ideas or evoke emotions in the same way that film, literature and sculpture can. Gamers swear to the contrary, often falling back on the likes of Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami and Journey as examples of just how meaningful games can be. And that is fine, but to the uninformed, it is anecdotal at best. It is hardly impossible to find deep and thoughtful analysis of why these, among other titles, are held in such high regard but for their high standing within the gaming community, but it really does seem as though there should be more. These games are classics, and classics in any other medium have had hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of words written about them, justifying their existence and highlighting why they deserve the pedestal upon which they have been placed. Commedia, Citizen Kane, War and Peace, Casablanca; I could go on, but I’ve written on the topic of ‘Classics’ before. You can argue that all of those titles have been around for much longer than video games, and available to a wider audience, but those are hardly valid arguments when hundred-page essays have been written deconstructing those films and novels, while the same has almost never even been considered for a video game (Killing is Harmless, Brendan Keogh’s long-form criticism of Spec Ops: The Line is one of very few examples).
As a medium, gaming needs this or it will be forever mired in this idea that what is popular and in the public consciousness now is what will only ever be there. When it comes to the consumption of media there is a kind of mob mentality. People see a thing advertised and it convinces them that it is a book that must be read or a film that must be seen. Word is then spread to their friends and almost before you know, everyone is flocking to the cinema to see The Avengers or Avatar, or the book store to buy The Millennium Trilogy or A Song of Ice and Fire because they are ‘The Next Big Thing’. Compare that effect to the attention paid to slower paced and more thoughtful films like the recent adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing and Twelve Years A Slave, and the vast majority of novels that launch without fanfare or bluster. So it is with gaming. Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto continue to reign supreme year after year, while the likes of Gone Home, The Novelist and Spec Ops: The Line are largely ignored. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and with the ever rising costs of development, there will come a point at which it will be all but impossible for those aspiring “little fish” developers to get their vision out into the wild, even with initiatives like Steam Greenlight and Kickstarter.
Ultimately, whether people choose to admit it or not, journalists and critics wield immense power in their – and I suppose “our” – ability to talk to and sway the masses, and as such have a duty of care to attempt to influence the direction of popular thought for the better. Some may look down on literary criticism as a consideration for the snobbish and elitist ‘ivory tower’ advocates, but it is not so. It is what gaming needs, more than anything, to show the masses that it is a hobby capable of more than just entertainment; that it is capable of talking about the human condition in a very real and nuanced way; that it can be intelligent; that it can be art; and that there is a culture out there dedicated to creating games that are all of those things.