September 05, 2014
Caveat lector: I ramble.
The last few years in the culture surrounding video games have been really exciting ones for me, both in my career and as a player of games.
I started this blog back in 2005 to share my excitement about games, but also to look at other media and see what sorts of things they could achieve, and ask whether or not games were capable of eliciting the same sorts of responses. Not the simplistic "Can games make you cry?" of yesteryear¹, which I thought had already been definitely asked and answered; the right story done up the right way with interactive bits in the middle could trigger tears about as well as Hollywood could. I wanted to know whether games could investigate emotions more deeply, and in a way that only games could. And, as an adult² who had been playing games for more than twenty years at that point, I was looking for ways in which games were going to connect with a wider audience. Not a bigger audience, but a wider one.
Because in the late 90s there had been that terrible spate of school shootings³, right around the time I had joined the industry, and in the worst of them, id's DOOM had been targeted. Which was kind of startling, because I had taken a little time off from games in the late 80s and early 90s, and games like DOOM had brought me back, and had in fact made me look at games as a possible career. When Columbine happened and the industry and the hobby were targeted, I wrote a long letter to my family defending my choice of career. I explained that the medium excited me, that I believed that there was something fundamental there that made me believe that they were on the cusp of something great. I believed that as horrible as the shootings were, scapegoating video games was an easy way to circumvent other forms of social culpability4 through demonizing a little-understood hobby. And in fact, just a year or two prior, someone I worked with at LucasArts5 had testified before Congress about the industry's ability to police itself when it came to labeling violence in games, at a time when the ESRB was still quite young.
The greatness of the medium that I defended was still a little while to come.
I grew up at a time when nobody really knew what would stick with video games, and indeed, they headed straight towards a crash. I was lucky in that I was never really stigmatized for my enjoyment; my father, who wasn't someone who enjoyed the hobby long-term, had nonetheless introduced me to it through ADVENT, and my parents bought me an Apple ][+6 in the middle of the fifth grade at what must have been a humongous expense for them at the time. I had neighbors with an Atari, friends with Vectrex, TRS-80, IntelliVision, an Odyssey. I had friends with whom I played D&D every day at lunch at school, sometimes after school, and sometimes on weekends. And I started writing my first programs, many of them games; a program I wrote for a science fair project about aerodynamics won us a prize; I wrote my first 3D renderer (wireframe) in around 1986.
Around that time the hobby had gone into decline, and I had moved, and kind of drifted from games into other hobbies: music, running, my lifelong love of reading, film. The computer was always in my room but tended to get more time with writing up school reports and printing them out in dot matrix. At that time, a deep interest in games might have ostracized me, but I didn't have one and so it didn't.
Off to college, grad school, not tons of video game playing then but occasionally, if someone had a Genesis or whatever; we played a lot of Madden and Flashback, for a month once. I pulled an all-nighter playing Prince of Persia in a computer lab, and a friend and I beat Ultima 7. It was one hobby amongst many I had, and not dominant. But it was at this time that what I had known as a kid had blossomed into Industry, such that it could support a career, and ultimately I followed that dream. I've covered that elsewhere.
Anyway, back to where I started, forgive the ramblings. When I started the blog it was 2005, a time when something called "The New Games Journalism" was still somewhat new and its influence was beginning to be felt. I had just left a company where business concerns had largely forced out artistic ones, and rightly so to a degree, the games had gotten so expensive. The PS2 had been a juggernaut which had allowed, in its enormous ecosystem (but not *overly* complicated or expensive development) for a real variety of experiences, some of which I still treasure today; not quite as varied as the even cheaper to build games of the PS1, but still pretty varied. Towards the end of that cycle, in response to pressures of very real censorship, the industry had grown up a lot, become corporate, found a lot of money and a bigger audience.
And here came this new form of games criticism which sought to personalize the conversation around games, to find a way to try to express the ways in which games uniquely touched us. The Internet had meant that there was room to explore this form of criticism; had we been bound to print still, the time wouldn't have been right, the costs would have been too high. The Internet was democratizing; even then, though, it was hard to know how to pay people to do it. I started this blog more or less to try and explore those same sorts of ideas; my angle was to take other cultural forms and look at what they were doing, and ask whether we could elicit similar responses. I believed then, as I believe now, that we were fully capable of expressing the full range of human emotion, in our own way, that we could stand aside my other cultural favorites, literature and film, as tools for the exploration of just what it means to be human.
I wanted that wide an audience for games. I want that wide an audience for games.
Over the next few years there started to be visibility for games that showed it was possible to tackle deep subjects; Passage came along and in the space of five minutes of play surprised us enormously7, The Marriage sought to put everything in minimalist systems to express its core idea (and I wrote my own response about divorce in the same vein). They were just the tiniest glimpse of what was to come, of what we have today.
Today we've got Gone Home and Papers, Please and Dys4ia and Depression Quest and Sacrilege and Cart Life and The Novelist and a million others. I haven't had a lot to complain about in the blog over the last few years; the recent explosion in tools and distribution availability have meant that real artists have been able to emerge and use the language of interaction that we've been building up for years to try and do something new. The improvements in the technologies have meant that artists can play in the space and create and explore works that address ourselves as human beings, to do all the things I wanted games to do when I started out writing here in 2005, to do all the things I hoped they'd do back when I defended them in 1999 (against a family who was not attacking them).
And so I've largely abandoned the blog, posting only occasionally about what I'm playing or about something someone has asked about like the treadmill desk or whatever8. I'll probably keep doing that, as the mood strikes me or people ask about stuff; maybe I'll launch a more proper development blog to talk about the game I'm making. Games as a cultural medium have established the foothold they needed; they are undeniably a part of a wide cultural conversation, and they are drawing actually interesting criticism.
So, GamerGate, the ostensible subject of this post. For the most part, people aren't saying that your hobby is dead -- that's so obviously not true that it's silly to even say it. There is still plenty of money to be made putting out shooters and what-have-you, and as long as there is money to be made there will be corporations doing it. If you identify as a gamer, you have nothing to fear so long as you keep buying.
But some day you'll be getting a bit older and I can tell you, you'll get bored with what you're playing now, and if you want to keep playing, you'll be glad that there are other sorts of things to play. I'm probably not going to play Titanfall ever, nor Destiny; I've gotten to a point in my life where I've played that sort of thing to death and while I still indulge in that occasionally as a sort of nostalgia, it just doesn't engage me any more. I'm so thankful that games have grown up as I have. We've finally gotten to a point where I can go to games as a place where I might learn something about myself, as I have increasingly turned to literature and film to do alongside my career in games. This is a great place to be; it took comic books and television9 much longer to do it, and I think we have the easy availability of differing voices in criticism and creation to thank for that.
So please, please. Allow these other voices to be heard; stop shouting them down in defense of something that is not under any real threat.
These voices have their own audience, even if you are not their audience today. Some day you will be; having grown up a gamer and cast that aside as an identity, I'm grateful to them.
¹The answer was already 'yes,' by this time, and for quite a long time. The first tear I shed might have been over Floyd in Planetfall, and more recently I had been fairly overwhelmed by Final Fantasy IX's elegantly circular triumphant final scene.
²In 2005 I was in my 30s, and I'm now in my 40s.
³Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
4At the risk of pissing off a more right-wing reader, how a teenager gets his hands on TEC-9s and carbines I'll never understand.
5This was Wayne Cline, who was the first production manager (proto-producer, though not as powerful) on Star Wars: Starfighter. Wayne and I had come up with the original story for that game, some of whose features would come to be a big part of it -- three main characters, one of them a space pirate and another a cadet in the Naboo Air Force. In our original version, Nym (as yet unnamed, just "Pirate Captain") had been raiding in the same sector and that's what brought him into conflict with the Trade Federation. Ah, good times. Haven't seen Wayne in over a decade. Hope he's well.
6When I would meet John Romero many years later, we'd talk about the books that were available for the 6502 instruction set and how terrible they were. It wasn't something I had thought about for years and was just a huge pleasure. What a nice guy.
7I once, during a difficult time for me emotionally, spent six months playing Passage every morning and writing about it afterwards. I'd use it as a memento mori, to prod myself to remember just how brief all of this is, what a ridiculously short time I have. So it'll always have a space in my heart.
8I do have a thing I'll hopefully post over the weekend that talks about one piece of the latest Feminist Frequency video.
9And it's worth noting: no one took away the superhero comic books. No one took away the sitcoms. Mass entertainment stays... but we end up with stuff for smaller audience, enriching material as a result of the growth.
Posted by Brett Douville at September 5, 2014 07:47 AM