Brian Green has  a piece on the ‘legitimacy’ of the gaming industry as a medium over on Gamasutra. It’s a couple of days old, and there’s been a lot of discussion on the subject, but it’s taken me this long to put my throughts in order on the matter.

To me the article brings up a couple of valid points, and it isn’t ‘How can we be more like Hollywood?’. Mr. Green is asking a number of different questions on several different levels. More than ‘How can we be more like movies?’, I think he’s asking ‘How can we reach the current level of penetration that movies and music have attained?’, ‘How can we become more culturally relevant?’, ‘How can we get non-gamers to take us more seriously?’. The parallel to movies is drawn because just about everyone in the world who can watches movies. There are movies for all tastes. Try to think of any group of people (men, women, singles, sports fans, etc), and try to think of a movie that group of people might be interested in watching. Chances are you’ll be able to name at least 1 for every category you can think of, except a very few (vegans, wiccans, hmm, this might be a fun game to play…).

The same cannot be said about video games. There are a good number of genres of games, enough to cover almost all the interests of a very specific demographic – the core videogame consumer demographic of 18-34 year old males. Some of these genres overlap into the areas of interest of other groups, or other specific individuals, to a greater or lesser extent, but in the end these are not the people the AAA titles are being made for. Thus, the games we invest the big bucks and the multi-year development cycles – the equivalent of the Hollywood blockbusters – don’t get us any credit among non-gamers. We get no respect from them, no legitimacy. And while it’s true that there are some very thought-provoking indie games out there, the sad fact is that those don’t get the media coverage – or the marketing bucks – to put them on the radar for non-gamers. How many non-gamers do you know who have heard of Passage, or Harpooned?

The question of cultural relevance is easy to answer. The fact is, we are already culturally relevant, to a certain degree. Although not often, Jeopardy!, which I believe is broadcast to just about the entire US, has featured at least two entire categories related to videogames just this year. It’s not huge, but it’s something. Similarly, some games have appeared on TV in various forms, whether it be the ‘Celebrities play Halo 3’ show on TV in 2007 during the Halo 3 release marketing blitz, or the several appearances World of Warcraft has made on various TV shows. Depending on what scale we’re talking, we’re either still in the early adopters stage, or just past it and on our way to the tipping point. Before we reach it, though, there will have to be a couple of major revolutions in the industry (distribution, hardware requirments and penetration, user interfaces), some of which we are seeing the beginnings of now.

Despite this, I don’t think taking the wait-and-see approach is wise. There are people who are going to oppose videogames for political gain, and even if some of the first major vocal opponents of videogames are on their way out, there will be others who will pick up the torch. Videogames are very much at or approaching the crossroads that comic books stumbled on 50 years ago. It is a new medium, not well understood by the majority of the population, but pervasive enough to be making regular appearances on the news, usually portrayed in a negative light, or associated with undesirable events or behaviours. As such, it is vulnerable to demagogues and ambulance chasers. This leads to another question I believe the article is asking: “How do we avoid being regulated – or relegated – to the point where we won’t be able to dig ourselves out of the hole for another 50 years?”.

A couple of commenters mentioned the AO rating. The thing is, though, what counts as AO is very limited, and we don’t really need to do AO to get recognition, to earn respect, or become socially acceptable. Look at the movies, since we already do: what was the first mainstream movie you remember that showed two people having explicit sex? Partial nudity? It probably isn’t more than 30 or 40 years old. That may seem like a lot, but consider that movies have been around for over 100 years. Yes, there was porn even back in the 1900s when movies first came out, but that’s the equivalent to Samantha Fox’s Strip poker on the ZX81. Things were different back then. Nowadays, movies can get away with sex, nudity and gore porn, because they are mainstream. Heck, we get away with violence as explicit as any you see in movies, or more so. As a relatively young industry, we have to dip our toes into the pool before powerbombing in. It’s a fact of life that a romantic relationship will usually end up with two people making love, but if you look at the history of movies, actual depictions of romantic sex – not porn – aren’t that explicit until the last 30 years or so (I think). A lot of people are still bothered by even mild nudity, especially in the US, but it is largely a cultural thing, and while depicting realistic relationships is important and desirable, there’s a lot to be said for letting the player’s imagination do the actual footwork, at least while we’re still trying to become truly mainstream and avoiding the Ban Hammer.

Another point being made is that the ‘for Kids’ stereotype harms the industry: By being regulated on the basis that children are the primary consumers of our products and will have access to any videogame ever made, we are essentially being barred from covering topics which parents might deem objectionable for their children. Even the more mature subjects we do get to make games about have to be dumbed down to the point where little Timmy won’t have to delve too deeply on the Nazi soldier he just blasted in the face with a flamethrower. This, however, is a cultural problem. Children in the US are overprotected. Growing up, I watched a lot of animation. I watched american cartoons like Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, He-man and the Masters of the Universe, and a whole slew of others. I also watched some European cartoons, like Around the World in 80 days, D’artacan and the 3 Musketeers. I watched a whole boatload of anime: Mazinger Z, Dragonball, Dr. Slump, countless others. If I remember correctly, the American cartoons were the only ones where characters never died. In G.I. Joe and Transformers, characters would be shooting each other all day long, and no one walked away with more than a scratch. Meanwhile, in Dragonball, people were dying left right and center. Entire planets were razed. Entire city populations had their essences absorbed by evil robots. Important characters died. Even nowadays, look at American cartoons and Japanese anime. My Gym Partner is a Monkey vs Naruto. Even as an adult there are anime series which I find have intriguing premises, or interesting storylines. The only American cartoons I watch with any regularity are Futurama, Family Guy, and Robot Chicken.

To me, the problem lies in the fact that we need to be able to deal with these subjects in order to become more legitimate / culturally relevant / socially acceptable. Or rather, that we may need to tap into these subject matters at some point when our videogame boom generation turns 50 and decides that yes, FPSes are fun, but maybe it’s time for something that doesn’t tire the eyes and fire up the arthritis so much. Perhaps thinking about this now will help us appeal to other demographics the way the Wii has. What matters, however, isn’t the we are allowed to make games about mature subjects, but rather that we treat the subject matters of our games with maturity. Rather than make another WWII shooter, perhaps we could make a sandbox game where the player actually lives in Nazi-occupied France, and through missions and sidequests tries to cause as much damage to the occupation forcces while at the same time relaying vital intel to Allied spies, and at the same time tries to help refugees get papers or escape the country. Perhaps we could make a game where rather than form a gang and shoot up the neighbourhood, the player is immersed in pre-civil rights US, or even pre-civil war US, and gets to experience the life of an African American slave, as he tries to find a way to escape to freedom, or survive in the wilderness away from society, knowing full well they will be hung if they are caught. Or, perhaps make a game based on the principles taught by the book No More Frogs to Kiss, to help young girls understand that they are perfectly capable of being strong and independent, and there is no reason why they can’t be astronauts, or surgeons, or anything else. Or truly entertaining games that help us learn math, or another language, or how to repair our own car, or how to survive a natural disaster. There are games we can make that can garner us respect and admiration. The question is how to make these games without alienating our consumers, or how to create enough new consumers with these new games that we don’t ever have to make another WWII shooter. We have the distinct advantage that we can envelop our users completely in the settings we create, and give them a part to play in the outcome of the story, and we don’t do it as often as we could, because we’re always tied to the budget and the schedule.

And that is our bottom line. We are a business. We are interested in making money, or at least, we need to make money to keep doing what we do. Enough games flop or fail to break even each year already to risk several dozen million dollars on a game not targeted at our our customers. Such games could possibly bring more people to the fold, but we face the possibility of alienating our core users, those who have brought us to where we are today.  Perhaps the rise of casual games will help us to garner more social acceptability. Perhaps the current economic climate will do for games what the great depression did for movies, if only we can learn to take advantage of the possibilities made available to us.

Time will tell.