The “game” problem

From time to time, the comics industry frets over the term “comic books” and has a brief spasm of discussion over whether a rebranding will bring mainstream acceptance. If only people could get over their preconceptions of the words “comic book,” the thinking goes, they would see how small-minded they are. Never mind that 90 percent of comic books are still superhero titles filled with splash pages of hyper-muscular and -sexualized characters duking it out to giant typographical sound effects.

Matt Sakey over at IGDA and recently brought this discussion into the realm of video games. Both columns note that “game” and “play” are bad words to most modern American adults. GamePolitics concludes that it’s time to think of a different name for the medium, or at least for games aimed at people older than 17. Sakey contemplates the idea but says it would be “pompous and rather weak,” a cop-out, to change the name. He says that in order to rehabilitate “video game” in people’s minds, we first need to change the way they think about play itself.

Sakey’s right, but I’m more hopeful than he is; I don’t think this task is an “epic ā€“ possibly insurmountable ā€“ undertaking.” It’ll be hard, and require a shift in industry-wide thinking, but it’s primarily a matter of not making the comic book mistake — fretting yet churning out the same childish stuff as before — while also making the positive case for play and video games.

I deliberately used the word “childish” in the previous paragraph. Americans are fine with certain kinds of play — hello, football — as long as it’s not specifically for kids (or geeks, which amounts to the same thing). A big reason American adults view games — as well as comics and animation — as childish is because in this country they are childish.

Part of this is a chicken and egg thing. American kids have grown up for decades playing Hi-Ho Cherry-O, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Careers, Life, Sorry, and more recently, Monster Mash, Fireball Island, Electronic Talking Mall Madness. None of these are the least bit challenging or mentally stimulating if you’re older than 6. After that you can graduate to Monopoly or Risk, which are the province of boring dads and geeks (plus those games are equally unstimulating, repetitive and dull), or party games like Taboo, Trivial Pursuit and Cranium (which I love and which are stimulating, but in a very narrow kind of way). Americans for the most part are unaware of the European board game renaissance, so they don’t know that Settlers of Catan or Puerto Rico are even out there.

The situation in comics is less a chicken-and-egg situation and more a function of business models. Unlike with American board games, there are mature, sometimes prominent alternatives to Superman. Comics and graphic novels like Maus, Love and Rockets, Sandman, Bone, Strangers in Paradise, Joe Sacco’s comics journalism have been trying to break the stereotype for 20 years. But there’s a reason it sticks: Marvel and DC (Vertigo notwithstanding) are in the business of superheroes. Likewise, The Simpsons, South Park, King of the Hill, and recent Pixar have partially changed American perceptions of animation (plus see this month’s cover stories in Wired), but it’s still largely the province of kids.

Video games have the advantage of being relatively new, so the perception isn’t as ingrained as with other mediums. The Pac-Man craze showed how popular video games can be among all ages; it was really the Nintendo Entertainment System that established video games as kids’ stuff. The success of Dave and Buster’s/Jillian’s/Gameworks, casual games, and blockbusters like Myst and The Sims has shown that many adults have a more generous — or at least more elastic — view of video games than we sometimes think.

To change the perception of video games, the game world needs to tap into this latent fondness by showing that the perception of video games is wrong. This doesn’t mean we need to harp on the case for games as art, though that can be a part of it. It’s a matter of showing people that there’s more to video games than first-person shooters, Madden, online deathmatches, and geeky RPG level building. It means developing, on an industry-wide scale, as many Dance Dance Revolutions, Guitar Heroes, Nintendogs, and Katamari Damacies as Quakes and Tony Hawks. The recent focus on casual games can be a part of it, though I don’t think it should be a primary focus (see here and here for why, plus I think casual games — because they’re usually derivative and unimaginative, so unlike the likewise casual Katamari — actually reinforce the image of video games as “just” games).

Then the game world has to take this new focus and sell it to the country. You can’t just change an industry’s focus and expect people to pick up on it; nor can you sell a major image change, as comics have tried to do, when the underlying content is the same.

None of this is easy, but neither is it impossible. In fact, this is pretty much Nintendo’s strategy as it talks about the future . The company constantly talks about trying new things and going after a different audience; actually backs that up with its wildly diverse DS lineup and its plans for the Revolution; and then sells the company’s gameplan to people who need to hear it (advertising in Seventeen and on Oprah).

American adults still like to play games. My shin is sore from a rec league soccer game the other night, where I played against 25-year-olds and 45-year-olds; I’m still basking in a Disney Quest trip, where I launched foam balls at grandparents’ bumper cars and a 40-something couple played a shooting game next to me. We can turn “video games” and “play” from dirty words into fun ones for everyone. But to do it, we need to get excited about more than Ganon’s return and go beyond Grand Theft Auto and Perfect Dark Zero.

— February 24, 2006

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