“Good games will get boring whenever another game one ups them, but good music is timeless.” – reddit user
For five years, I wrote about game design over at my old blog, The Expensive Planetarium. One of my most-recurring themes was that of “game shame“: the idea that many or even most of us who play games don’t believe that they are a legitimate interest in the way that films or music are. Game shame, like modern racism and sexism, is never overly spoken, and probably never even consciously thought. Instead, it seeps in between the lines, but it still has a powerful negative effect on our entire world of games. Games are for children, games are disposable, games are empty, games rot your brain.
Obviously, the premise of game shame is completely false, and many will be reading this article thinking that I’m just making something up so that I can complain about it. So, before I go any further with explaining why we need to be rid of game shame, I will provide evidence to show that it is, indeed, a thing.
Games Are Cool When They are Unlike Games
For the past ten or fifteen years, the coolest thing a game could possibly do is look as much like a movie as possible. Since films are the most popular visual media in our culture (other than games), it’s not surprising that some games would end up doing this. First, we had the Metal Gear Solid thing, where there was this long intro with credits rolling over, and voice acting, and all of that. It was quite a spectacle! “Man, this looks so much like a movie”, we all said.
But then… it didn’t stop, or even slow. Instead it got bigger and bigger, and got to the point where today, if your new game isn’t presented to look like a movie, it better have a damn good reason. This affected even intensely mechanical RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, which I feel very confident would have been turn-based if it weren’t for this idea that games have to look “cinematic”. The Total War series has always had a real-time combat system, despite being obviously designed to be a turn-based game, so that it looks like a scene from Gladiator, or something.
So why is this? It’s because movies are cool. Movies are already well-respected and it’s not considered childish to enjoy movies, so if your game looks and feels more like a movie, then maybe it’s nothing to be ashamed of? Just put the controller under a blanket if anyone walks into the room, and they’ll think you’re watching some really awful movie! Phew!
It’s not just movies, either. The Madden series (and most sports game series) does everything it can not to simulate football, but to simulate televised football. For as much shit as television has gotten for being an illegitimate way to spend your time over the last 30 years, it’s still way more legitimate than games (TV may be finally coming out of its own “shame” period around now).
For this reason, “score” has been basically blacklisted as a mechanism, despite the fact that it’s the only way to have a single-player game be endlessly replayable. Mechanisms are something to hide; a game shouldn’t feel too “gamey”. Games should be fantasy simulations, because even “playing pretend” is less childish than playing a game.
The “Let’s Talk about Games As Art” Crowd
This is the most irritating form of game shame. I’m sure you’ve seen the brand of article I’m talking about: anti-intellectual pretentious nonsense that blathers on and on in the most long-winded way possible about, basically, nothing. It’s all under the umbrella of existential non-arguments that stem from an ill-defined and unclear claim about “some” games being art. Reddit’s /ludology subreddit is jam-packed with this stuff.
Before I go on anymore about how horribly pervasive this stuff is, let me give some examples. Okay, so after I wrote that last sentence, I went to www.reddit.com/r/ludology to look for some examples. The very first link was literally called “Braid Review: Video Games as High Art” (yes, people are still writing new copies of this same article). So let’s take a gander at that one.
I came to the conclusion, admittedly a bit of a cop out, that judging art is an individual, subjective process.
Oh, really? Well, for some reason I feel a bit less compelled to read anything you, or anyone else has to say on the matter, then, because my subjective experience is just as good as anyone else’s facts. I love how he says “admittedly a bit of a cop out”. It’s like when people say “hey no disrespect, but you’re a piece of dog shit to me”. As though throwing the “a bit of a cop out” qualifier in there makes it any less of a cop out, which is precisely what this is. Off to a bad start.
That said, Roger Ebert is dead wrong.
Oh daaaaaaaaayammnn! He done told off Roger Ebert of 2010, after only two full years of almost everyone saying Roger Ebert was wrong (hell, even Roger himself admitted he was probably wrong). So yeah, putting this as its own paragraph is extremely pretentious and stupid.
It takes a certain amount of bravado, even for a celebrated film critic, to declare that an entire medium can never reach the pinnacle of artistic merit.
Really? Because in the first paragraph you said that judging art is an individual, subjective process. So what if in this individual’s gut, they just feel “you know what, the entire medium of videogames can’t be art”. Who are you to say that his existential whims are invalid? You can’t have it both ways. Either there are actual criteria for art, or there aren’t. If there aren’t, then you’re a fool to argue with someone about it, or to even talk to anyone about it.
It’s easy to point to Ebert’s age and believe that he mistakes the old days of fun if story-bare games like Pacman and Donkey Kong for the immersive, in depth, and often narrative world of video games that exists today. But I think that lets Ebert off too easily.
Okay, here’s a giant, golden, crispy nugget of game shame, slathered in wrong-sauce. What’s with the “fun if story-bare”? “Story-bare” implies games are supposed to have a story, and “fun if story-bare” implies that “story-bare” is a bad thing. This is what I’m talking about. This is a man who thinks that a game, being only just a game, is not good enough. Yeah, sure, it may be fun (whatever that means), but it’s frivilous nonsense. Further, it’s clear that he’s saying “well, if Ebert was thinking about those older, story-less games, I would understand, because yeah, those aren’t art”. What criteria is this writer using to determine that those older games aren’t art? I thought it was all just subjective?
At base, anything that tells a story can not only be art; it can be high art, and Ebert ought to know that.
Ohhh high art? Wow! Is that like, when you super-duper feel how arty it is in your tummy? Anyway, I could go on all day about this. I’ve only gotten through the first few paragraphs and this is how many nonsense-geysers have erupted.
But really, I’m not here to write about the pretension, or emptiness of these people’s writing (maybe another day I’ll do an article just about them). The relevant point here is that the reason these people are doing this is so that they can feel proud of their hobby. If they were playing Call of Duty or League of Legends or something, they couldn’t start “waxing intellectual” to protect themselves from the game shame. “Yes, I play games, but don’t worry, I really just like art.”
This whole “games are art” movement is a defense mechanism for those who feel like it’s not enough for a game to just be a game.
(I should quickly clarify and say that I personally think all games are art, because they all require creativity to create. Unlike these other people, I have one very specific bit of criteria for how I define art: that it is the product of human creativity.)
The thing we have to remember is that it is understandable that game shame exists. It surprises me that more people don’t quit playing videogames when they reach their 30s, because frankly, most videogames suck. Even the good ones have clear, obvious problems. In order to find most of the good ones, you have to emulate old consoles or operating systems, find Japanese translation patches, etc. For a normal person who’s willing to put in a normal amount of effort, they just aren’t going to be able to access – or even find out about – anything good.
Like, let’s take a look at the top 5 games of 2011, according to MetaCritic:
Batman: Arkham City – I half-reviewed this earlier on this site. This is a completely idiotic He-Man plot, spiced up with some mashy bullshit combat and some linear puzzles.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Bethesda has always had difficulty with the whole “designing games” thing, but since about 2004 it seems that they just completely gave up. This is an almost totally empty sandbox game with extremely flat and uninteresting “hit point sack” combat, god-awful writing and “High Fantasy Voice” acting. The list of problems with Skyrim is far beyond the scope of this article.
Portal 2: A coherent, mostly solid sequel to Portal. It’s a fine set of puzzles, but if you’ve played the original game you aren’t really missing much, except for some beloved-character-ruining dialogue.
Mass Effect 2 – A crappy sci-fi action RPG that’s mostly just running down corridors, shooting at bots or making false dialogue choices.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – a puzzle game for babies
So, assuming you’ve already completed Portal 2 (which is really a puzzle, not a game, and therefore has zero possible replay value), what are you left with? The games that are even worse than these? Most people don’t know about designer boardgames, roguelikes, or the two or three decent indie games, so what do we expect? How can we expect them to respect this medium, when everything they see is just garbage?
Game shame isn’t going to just go away overnight, but it will go away eventually. As with racism or sexism, the first step to improving the situation is to realize that it affects all of us in subtle ways. Once we can consciously realize that it’s something real, we can start to analyze our behaviors and modify them as necessary. For instance, I think that the word “geek”, which now is starting to become almost totally positive, still has an illogical negative connotation with it. Many people will say something like “god, I’m such a geek” after stating some facts about Ocarina of Time or something. To me, this is, again, that defense mechanism. “Don’t worry, I know how lame it is that I know about video games” is what that language says. For that reason, I never, ever use the word “geek”. Probably the only time I even type it is to link people to boardgamegeek.com.
The concept of “more than just a game” is another example of game-shame. There is no “more than” a game. Games are just as great as every other medium, when they’re games and nothing else.
Of course, the biggest way to eliminate game shame is to make games that we can actually be proud of. I’m working on it, and I know I’m not the only one.