A few weeks back I read and reviewed a book by Dylan Holmes called “A Mind Forever Voyaging,” which billed itself as a history of narrative storytelling in video games. The book has a particular political bent, which is legitimizing the study and cultural importance of video games as a whole. Ian Bogost here in his book “How to do Things with Video Games” has the same political bent, but the difference in tact is night and day. Where Holmes is cloying and earnest, Bogost is meticulous and lofty. Where Holmes relies on personal parables Bogost relies on the work of his own studio to make points.
It’s an unfair comparison, really. Holmes is a few years younger than I am and has barely established himself as a blogger in some extremely interesting but still relatively obscure websites. Bogost, on the other hand, is a forty something professor of media studies who also founded a reasonably successful games company and has written several books before this one. I remember reading his writing seven and eight years ago in fairly mainstream gaming blogs and I’ve played a number of his games. Bogost, in many respects, is where Holmes wants to be. In this political movement, however, it’s a comparison that’s gonna get made.
Bogost’s book is part of a series called “Electronic Mediations,” which is a typically self-serving series of academic liberal arts books designed to explore the appreciation and usage of the digital in a discursive cultural context, essentially the sort of legitimacy that Holmes is looking for.
But that’s academia, not the real world. In the real world we’re on the cusp of yet another console generation, $500 machines designed to take what a game is and make them yet bigger and yet better in a march of technological innovation. At the same time we’re watching a medium on the cusp of breaking free from its antiquated industry and reach a broader audience on more platforms than ever before. New models of payment have proven wildly successful and new forms of funding doubly so. Change is in the air, but it’s not quite clear what that change is as 2006’s console war starts anew with a fresh crop of corporate devotees eager to defend the honour of their favorite computer and its associated iconography and handful of exclusive titles.
Cynicism aside, Bogost’s book is actually very refreshing in its approach. The book is divided into chapters based on an answer to the question “what can video games be,” ultimately building an argument not for simple cultural consideration, but for creativity, making the final point that games will achieve the sort of social status they’ve recently been yearning for once they find themselves encompassing a breadth of human expression rather than simply as entertainment products or “timewasters.” He describes examples of each expression, from pranks to drills to relaxation, and advocates for new and more varied ways games can be used in those categories. One of the strongest arguments he makes is that the inevitable taming of gaming’s wilderness, the appreciation of gaming as a medium and not a particular entertainment vehicle, will inevitably lead to the destruction of the “gamer.” Once we reach the point that the average person has some modicum of gaming literacy under their belt and games are used in a variety of contexts for a variety of purposes, the notion of “gamer” will lose its relevance. All people will know how to game, so all people will be gamers.
This idea isn’t new. It’s actually along the lines of what Bogost and a few others have been writing for years. This idea is, however, novel. The games industry as it exists today is very much focused on one thing: making a ton of money for everyone involved. They do that of course by creating focus-tested entertainment products that have a massive overhead and ergo can’t risk innovation or creative expression beyond those expressions that are at least fairly likely to make money. The traditional concept of the industry is in a bad way. Over the last console generation development costs for an average run of the mill game ballooned from 5 million to twenty million plus, meaning that even a few flops can seriously damage the financial standing of a mid-size publisher. And damage it has with the last 5 years party to more layoffs and studio closings or mergers than any time since the video game crash of the 1980s. Part of it has to do with a decrease in consumer spending (and ultimately the long decline in consumer spending power brought about by stagnant wages) and another part has to do with the rise and proliferation of mobile gaming, introducing a platform that traditional publishers were slow to embrace or understand and largely unlimited by the old deals that industry leaders have bargained amongst each other to cut newer publishers out of the big three consoles.
Anyway I’m rambling and my point is this: publishers are shit fucks at taking risks and they have a lot of good reasons for it. Where else can we go? Why, the indie market, of course! Indie games have had a number of shots to the arm in the same timeframe that old-money has had a number of shots to the gut. Stuff like humble indie bundles, the runaway success of Minecraft, Kickstarter, the proliferation of digital storefronts like Steam and Green Man Gaming et al, and most importantly a general sense of disgust, of fed-up-ness with the traditional models. So the Indie world is thriving, with more and more kickstarters for alt-consoles with open platforms and hippy philosophies.
Problem is that many (though definitely not all) of the games that are coming out of this movement bear no small resemblance to the typified entertainment product model of gaming. Games are new and interesting twists on 2d platforming or music games or shooters or 3d brawlers or whathaveyou, but they’re (frequently) not trying to say anything new in gaming. It’s a morose situation, especially when compared to the versatility of other media. In writing, for example, a person can write an instruction manual or a love letter or a novel or a doctoral thesis or a letter to the editor or a news article or a review or a stream of consciousness expression of the internal mental states of anxiety or so on. Games are just as capable of that kind of breadth but historical industrial constructions and the social understanding of games are holding them back from this.
Or so Bogost’s argument goes.