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The vicious circle of gaming and its reputation

There are many unconscious assumptions about the nature of the games medium that obstruct it from progressing into new areas. Some of them have already started to be addressed. Games like The Sims challenged the convention of goal-based gameplay, offering sandbox worlds that reflect the more open-ended nature of real life. Other assumptions about the medium relate to its nature being inherently childish. These assumptions influence game development and therefore the perception of the medium. Despite permutations happening from time to time, has the industry really escaped its reputation as being about little more than pressing a button to shoot?

Some games are marketed to revolve around their stories, such as 2010’s Heavy Rain. Unfortunately, when many of these titles are placed into comparison with older means of storytelling, narrative weaknesses become apparent. These games have generally failed to garner serious prestige as narratives. We have not yet entered into an age of gaming in which storytelling can be generally expected to be executed according to the standards of other media.

In considering all genres of gaming, one of the few factors they have in common is interactivity. To say that interactivity is intrinsically childish is a non-sequitur; everyday life is not ostensibly a game, but we regularly see interactivity in social spaces with complex sets of variables and rules. Why, then, are games usually relegated as mere recreation? Part of this may relate to the technology involved. Merely having a control stick and a few buttons to exert control in a game limits the sophistication of the actions one can take. This has been improved in recent years, however, with analogue hardware, touch screens and motion control offering a finer form of input. As the industry adapts to these advantages, the line between gaming and life should continue to be blurred further.

We need to re-evaluate the nature and by extension the potential of games as a medium. Jane McGonigal has explored these aspects of gaming with her book Reality is Broken and her TED Talks. Earlier, Richard Schechner essentially explored the same area coming from the opposite direction in The Future of Ritual: he proposed a conception of real life as being made up of socially constructed game spaces.

The technology now exists for games to interface with real life in numerous ways. A game is no longer a self-contained medium; it increasingly is exposed to the greater context of the world around it through online connectivity. Augmented reality games like Pokémon Go use the game as a mere overlay, allowing us to experience real life with imaginary constructs injected. It is becoming more apparent to the public that games can be more than mindless action; they can awaken our curiosity by making us see that there are different ways of looking at the world. Ideally, it won’t matter that this began in a highly commercialised manner.

Adolescent power fantasies are restrictive of the subtlety that games are capable of demonstrating. Even games like the Batman: Arkham series in which the player character is ostensibly a hero often come with implications of taking out one’s anger on the world. Feeling invincible is a positive emotion, but the fantasy that the world cowers before the player is questionable as a long-term solution to one’s pain. Of course, such premises appeal to young people who may feel weak or frustrated by their lack of voice, and games based on subjecting the world to one’s power may appeal to a person living in difficult circumstances, especially a child or teenager.

Games like these are a form of medication, and the industry exploits this. The industry makes millions from the anxiety that young people experience in an increasingly stressful society. We shouldn’t demand that games ignore the difficulties of life. We have to be honest about the state of the world, or we won’t be able to deal with it effectively. At the same time, the only way for the medium to be about substantially more than killing is to have an honest discussion about the social contexts that make these games profitable. Publishers will make games that sell, but through shifting topics of mass discussion, we can work to increase the demand for more uplifting and stimulating experiences.

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