Saturday, May 15, 2010

Serious Gaming?

I've been really interested by Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent post on Serious Gaming.  He's writing directly about the American black experience and the presence of slavery in gaming, but includes (emphasis mine):

I know this won't happen anytime soon--no gaming company would risk it. But there's a lot of juice out there. I'd love to see a Total War type game, that seriously took on the Civil War, for instance. With slavery included. But one reason why it won't happen because "serious people" believe games to be idle time. Any game that engaged the black experience would be immediately accused of trivializing it.
It's been proven true over and over again that gaming has much the same problem that comics always have: a large subset of the population believes that the medium exists entirely for the benefit of and consumption by children, and has a huge problem with actual adult, mature, or serious material being presented.  And I don't just mean sex and violence that wouldn't be appropriate for young'uns; I mean actual, mature, serious storytelling and topics.

Except we know that a huge number of gamers are now in their 30s.  They got an NES for their birthday in 1986 or '87, or used an Apple IIe at about the same time, and never looked back.  Now they're (we're) adults -- the responsible, contributing-to-society, tax-paying kind -- and they still love gaming.  Many of them (us) are married or parents or both.

So is there any valid reason that a 30-year-old who likes reading books that address serious topics and watching movies that address serious topics wouldn't also enjoy the occasional game that addresses serious topics?  Yes, there's the whole "escapism" argument, and sometimes, that's fine.  I don't watch Spaceballs looking for an in-depth analysis of, well, anything.  But there's a whole arena of documentary film and serious narrative film out there that does exist to impart a message, or to educate the viewer.

When we think "educational" games, we think Oregon Trail or Lemonade Stand or Math Blaster.  In other words, we think kids and school -- and we don't associate much merit or high production values with the genre.  But Coates is right: there's a lot to be learned, for a serious gamer, in many well-assembled modern games.  And they could go deeper.

Is there enough of an audience out there to create an ROI for a "serious" AAA title?  Good question.  But I'd argue that in this era, an indie studio could put together a fairly robust, serious title.  

If there was some kind of "Underground Railroad" game that used mechanics like those in any stealther (Thief, for example), would it be trivializing the story, or enhancing it?  If an RPG truly addressed gay characters, or racial minority ones, or the problems of sexism... would we learn anything, or would it just be another set of mechanics that need to be learned and triumphed over?

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I finally finished Bioshock.  Only, what, three years late?  I've got some thoughts about it, but if you, like me, are a slowpoke, do yourself a favor and do not look below the jump.  There are spoilers galore and I find the game is very much enhanced on the first play by not knowing the twist(s).  I managed to stay unspoiled for those three years (I don't know how), and I recommend you do the same.

So seriously, if you haven't finished it, walk away now.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Multi-Genre Gamer

Talking with a friend today made me think about this a little.

Some people are very dedicated to a genre of gaming. Everyone knows someone who's got every Madden ever released, or who salivates for Square-Enix. Me... I'm not like that.

I've played and enjoyed some shooters, RPGs, puzzle games, old-school adventure games, new adventure games, MMOs, PS3 games, stealth games, board / card game adaptations, PC games, DS games... I've enjoyed "girly" games (a description for another time) and explosively violent games. I like God of War and Metal Gear Solid and Phoenix Wright and Monkey Island and a whole bunch of other titles and franchises.

Honestly, from my admittedly brief (~ 8 months) run as a GameStop employee, and my not-so-brief (~ 20-year) history as a gamer, I think it's useful to see the whole range. No-one's going to enjoy playing everything; I certainly don't. But it's brilliant to see genres kind of cross-pollinate. A game like Fallout 3 draws from the RPG, the FPS, and even at times the old adventure game. And then there are the more indie / avant-garde titles available as downloadable short-form games: Flower, World of Goo, and Braid among them. Those games tend to meld, reinvent, or avoid genre entirely.

I never thought anyone would see me playing a survival horror game, and then I turned out to kick ass at Resident Evil 4 when my ex-boyfriend left the controller unguarded for a while. There wasn't a Japanese RPG on Earth that could captivate me, but then Chrono Trigger and The World Ends with You (both on DS) managed to grab me in for at least 50 hours each.

So I doubt I'll ever enjoy a Final Fantasy game... but once upon a time, I'd never enjoy an FPS, either... and then there was BioShock. Never say never.