A couple months ago, I was talking to a friend in technology media. “Sometimes I wonder why I’m in tech,” he started saying. He paused for a beat. “Then I think, at least I’m not in games.”
He wasn’t even really talking about the Voldemortian “you-know-what” that was indeed the original impetus for our conversation. That’s just the latest example.
Instead, I think he was talking about provincialism.
I don’t just mean the old-hat, stereotypical image of gamers as teenage boys in basements engorging Mountain Dew, although clearly that image is still very much in circulation. Rather, I mean that games have often maintained a separation from other forms of human culture and creativity. And that they—that we—have actively cultured and supported this separation in order to come into our own.
Even as games have become ever more widespread they have also receded further within themselves. And among this community—indie developers at one of a small handful of successful independent games festivals—it’s easy to pat ourselves on the back and say, “but it’s different here.” And it is.
But also, it isn’t.
Think about the ways we distribute and sell games—especially the indie games that are supposedly enacting the expressive revolution we claim. Steam has made independence financially viable at times, but it has done so by recapitulating games retail—the dark, weird, embarrassing game shop recreated as a tiny-text, black-and-gunmetal interface through which all further activity is sieved. One is not even allowed to run games away from Valve’s supervision. Encountering games still requires pledging fealty to gamedom.
That’s an example of what I mean by provincialism.
The downside of having arrived—of having games degrees and games festivals and games retail channels and games communities—is thinking that their influence and their impact extend further than they really do.
Yes, diverse games are here to an extent, lots of people are making games, and some of those games are often reaching substantial audiences. But, like it or not, we are still a niche tricked by the echo chamber of internal success into thinking that we are approaching the mainstream.
The truth is, the general public downloads whatever they heard about from a friend on the App Store, or whatever appears at the top of the charts. The truth is, games have so long wavered between affinity with Silicon Valley and jealousy of Hollywood that they have effectively found home in neither. The truth is, Minecraft is a game for children. The truth is, at the “smart general readership” magazine I write for, an order of magnitude more people read me when I write about the McRib than when I write about Flappy Bird. The truth is, we have to create our own small presses for games writing because you can’t sell a trade book on games like you can sell one on social media or even on Star Wars, because games are considered to have no audience.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem. There’s no reason any art form needs to be mainstream, and indeed it’s easy to argue why one shouldn’t be. But, it’s perilous for our sense of cultural place to be at odds with its reality.
Actually, this isn’t a phenomenon limited to games. In The Washington Post last week, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote about what she calls the “new culture war.” “As the new culture war has widened,” Rosenberg says, “it has also fragmented, turning less into a clash of great powers than into a series of intractable guerrilla conflicts, marked by shifting alliances and the rapid emergence of new players.”
Whereas previously culture fought, won, and lost its battles at the scale of mass media—think of Madonna and Bart Simpson and Murphy Brown—now we do so in isolated pockets of niche media hobbyism. Rosenberg sees this as an unexpected victory. “Everyone can win the new culture wars,” she declares, because “all stories have a chance to be told.”
The problem with Rosenberg’s account is that fragmentation becomes Balkanization, which becomes recuperated into Libertarianism. Mutual hostility becomes “do what you want, just don’t foist it on me.” Pushed to its limits, all fandom becomes apartheid.
Games have come of age—again, I might add—in the age of Rosenberg’s new culture wars. So not only are we fighting civil wars amongst ourselves, we are doing so in a tiny, peripheral, war-torn medium already written off by the “developed” media ecosystem. From outside, people have the same prognosis for videogames that they have about, say, the Sudan.
This state of affairs ought to chasten us. It ought to revise our understanding of the scope of the work before us.
For example: if you want to fight for diversity in games, then absolutely you should fight to broaden representation among players, creators, and characters.
But there’s another kind of diversity: the diversity of our interests and our dispositions, of the company we keep and the influences that inspire us, the people and the groups and the industries and the materials that we contact. It has to do with having dealings enough with the world such that it is no longer possible to be seen as a parochial backwater not even worth opposing let alone supporting.
We have become too comfortable here in games. We have our own dialects now, our own customs via Steam and Twitch and Let’s Plays and festivals and so on.
Before these resources existed, things were worse when they were more nascent, but they were better because it was impossible only to run in the circles of games. We were all here from somewhere else—from painting, from architecture, from advertising, from computing, from systems theory, from toy design, from literature. Sometimes we saw those connections as baggage or even as colonialism, but they also offered grounding. They helped root games amidst broader contexts. They connected us to bedrock.
But here’s the thing about broader contexts: new ones might not be possible anymore. We can’t reject them, we can’t “disrupt” them or ignore them because we have staked out our own little island amidst rising oceans. Games can survive on their own, but perhaps only in the same way that Somalia can—as a world unto itself. There is no games as the dominant medium of the 21st century, because there is no dominant medium of the 21st century. There’s only shrapnel.
We need to stop fighting against this fact as if it were a war we could win, that anybody could. We’ve shoved off from shipwreck desert islands on makeshift rafts to make landfall—on other desert islands. And we can make civilization here. Just look around, this is an amazing community that you could choose to make your only community. The question is, will it be enough? Do we care if people can still get away with saying “at least I’m not in games” and for it to be a reasonable statement that produces knowing nods?
We can be game makers and players without being just game makers and players. And amidst today’s fragmented media ecosystem, it’s even more urgent that we send more envoys outside our circles. Otherwise, it will seem no less perverse to be a maker of games as it already does to be a player of them.