Will [insert geeky medium] ever grow up?

February 29th, 2008

Kotaku recently compiled a bunch of articles and quotes from critics in a debate about whether games would ever “grow up.” To summarize, some arguments include:

  1. Comics and games are “infantilized” because artsy content is the exception, with most of these media targeted to teenage boys;
  2. But games “have more to achieve” as a medium, and some creators are pushing for that;
  3. Moreover, dominance of the low-brow “isn’t inherent” to these media, but actually is common across all entertainment media;
  4. And in the meantime, part of the problem is that consumers “expect too little” of games (as evidenced by Bioshock, which is not nearly as sophisticated as its reception might have suggested).

My response to this is sort of a follow-up to recent posts addressing the perceived immaturity or unmasculinity of geeky pursuits like games and comics. In short, I agree with just about all of these to some extent, but I’d contend that these stereotypes can be escaped through creative and marketing efforts. Just look at the “graphic novel.”

The work of people like Chris Ware may still be the minority of comics industry output, but I think that the work of a concerted group of creators and publishers has done wonders to transform public perception of comic art. It’s no small feat that graphic novels have won some major literary awards and occasionally see reviews in mainstream magazines alongside literary fiction. Nor did this happen overnight: One comic retailer told me that people used to come into his shop looking for more things like Maus, and it was years before he even had anything else to put in their hands.

I don’t think the video gaming medium has found its Maus yet (leaving alone its Citizen Kane)—a product that not only reaches beyond the typical audience (as the Wii has done), but also commands respect from critics as sophisticated and adult. Part of this is that the closest contenders in gaming are still too much a victim of their medium’s and genres’ stereotypes: I think Shadow of the Colossus was a milestone in thoughtful gameplay and storytelling, but still too steeped in fantasy imagery and the juvenile associations of its medium to reach broader audiences. You can make a bid for respectability and sophistication with fantasy books and fantasy film, but the idea of a thoughtful fantasy game may still seem a bit too childish. Arguably, this is part of why people will happily pay ten bucks to see Spider-man on a big screen, but won’t think of touching a Spider-man comic.

Another part of the problem is that even the most open-minded and intelligent critics could still face technical hurdles in getting to the impressive parts of the most impressive games. A friend of mine who doesn’t play video games—but has good taste in other media—told me she wants to try Shadow of the Colossus. I was glad that word of the game has made such an impression on her, but I secretly worried that, for an inexperienced player, the game might still present too much tedium and too much challenge for its central messages and themes to come across quickly and apparently enough. (I wonder, too, if it might have been a better game with half as many colossi. Perhaps the success of Portal will encourage more games to just get to the point.)

I’m not saying that we need games to be super-easy, or that we need a game about the Holocaust (which, incidentally, I don’t think would be as inappropriate as some contend; see Escape from Woomera, a grant-funded game about trying to escape from a real-world refugee camp). I’m not saying that adults shouldn’t be entitled to juvenile games, either (I think we are). I’m just saying that, if you want Anglophone culture to recognize games as “adult,” take a lesson from comics. Even the most sophisticated superhero comic isn’t about the win a Pulitzer. As cool as Bioshock was, something tells me that gaming’s Maus won’t involve shooting anybody.


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10 Responses to “Will [insert geeky medium] ever grow up?”

  1. Church Says:

    “I don’t think the video gaming medium has found its Maus yet (leaving alone its Citizen Kane)”

    Er, Maus IS the Citizen Kane of comics.

    The trick with a medium’s “CK moment” is that it requires a critical infrastructure that’s ready to acknowledge it. There were plenty of cinematic CKs before (and after) Citizen Kane. But Kane was there when there was a *serious* audience ready for it.

    Video games have a way to go. As I’ve said before, I think Marathon was *a* CK game, but it doesn’t seem to be *the* one. Commercial forces pushed Bungie into doing Halo, which is Marthon-lite. The tide will ebb and flow, the stars will align, and eventually someone will come up with *the* CK game when there’s a *serious* audience waiting for it. It will then be dubbed the Greatest Game Of All Time, even though the final boss is a fraking sled…

  2. Jason Tocci Says:

    Hmm. I guess I imagined the distinction between a medium’s “Maus” and its “Citizen Kane” as the difference between a product that shows it can be “serious” and a product that dramatically rethinks the medium’s formal properties, rather than relying on the conventions of media that preceded it. (I was borrowing this from a great game critics’ roundtable on Slate that I’ve been meaning to link to and dissect since January…) Maus was great and all, but it was far from the most formally trailblazing thing Spiegelman ever worked on. But yeah—it is indeed the comic that got people thinking “maybe these things can be artsy after all.”

  3. Jason Tocci Says:

    Also, Church:

    Absolutely NO google results (yet!) for the search term “Tobogganman.” Greatest game ever, here we come!

  4. Church Says:

    The trick with comics is that the formal properties have been screwed with since day one, so there’s nothing really surprising you can do there. Critical reception is all you’ve got. (Little Nemo and Krazy Kat made the head shop cartoonists look uptight.)

    Thinking on it further, it’s interesting that “Citizen Kane” is the instant go-to for Best Film Of All Time. It probably got that as much because of the promise that Orson Wells held, as it’s actual merits (and we were disappointed later–I’d say that’s another reason Marathon is the CK of games, except that it’s missing the critical reception that cemented CK in popular culture. Also, no sleds.)

    Gaming is interesting because the formal structure is, like comics, all over the place. The CK of games could be a Marathon decendent, or Guitar Hero, or a Wii game where you *finally* get a light saber. I suspect the first catagory has an edge with critics, but half of them are younger than I, these days, so who knows?

    SPOILER ALERT:

    Rosebud was a sleigh (with runners–not a tobaggan, which explains the domain’s availability.)

  5. Jason Tocci Says:

    I don’t disagree that a number of games have already challenged the formal and content assumptions of the medium in revolutionary/evolutionary ways. I do think, though, that any game that really popularizes the idea that games can be “adult” will, in the eyes of critics outside the fold, seem to depart from some major, expected convention that’s easily associated with games being freakish and juvenile. Marathon (which I’ve never played) is still SF; Shadow of the Colossus is still fantasy; both still involve killing enemies. Can we sell somebody on “greatest videogame ever” if it still seems to confirm for them their idea of what games are like?

    I don’t think Maus could have gotten the reception it did if its characters had been drawn as superheroes and supervillains; it had to reach further back in the conventions of comics, to “funny” animals, which wasn’t really the dominant genre of the comic book anymore (but still comments enough on comics’ history to be recognizable to readers). And I don’t think it would’ve worked as an action story, even if it had been focusing on escaping from concentration camps or whatever; it had to be an emotionally complicated biography/memoir. And the result that at least one reviewer proclaimed, “Maus is not a comic book,” because they couldn’t wrap their brain around the idea that this was the same form they had already discounted.

    “Mainstream” comics and games for “hardcore” audiences have tried to become mature by tucking “adult” themes into traditional, action-packed genres. Ken Levine was pretty clear and unapologetic about this on Bioshock because they needed it to sell. But this is not what will reach critics.

    Wii/Guitar Hero have departed from the controller scheme to popularize the idea that games aren’t necessarily exclusionary and antisocial, which is great, but not exactly the same thing as saying that games are sophisticated. When that “adult”/”sophisticated” moment comes for games, I think people will feel a little anxiety about even using the term “game.”

    Rosebud was a sleigh (with runners–not a tobaggan, which explains the domain’s availability.)

    Thanks for crushing my dreams.

  6. Matt S Says:

    So I kind of took the central idea here and ran with it in a different direction. I’m kind of curious to see what you’re thoughts are.

    http://tsuibhne.net/2008/03/15/real-art/

  7. Matt S Says:

    OK, realizing the above looks like random spam. A bit more info. The basic jist of my post is that I see the entire concept of making geeky mediums as a trap. I can understand the motivation, but I don’t see what there is to be gained from it. What I can see is a whole list of things that can be lost.

    Pull quote:

    “…they wouldn’t let us play with them when we were kids. And so we went off and created our own games and played amongst ourselves. Why should we give up our games, to go play theirs, now? I prefer our games. I find their games boring.”

  8. Matt S Says:

    And because 3 makes a nice round number, and I don’t seem to be able to get my full thoughts together tonight, a hat tip for this post. Once again, you end up pushing my mind into some really fun areas of thought.

  9. Jason Tocci Says:

    No worries: took me awhile to get all my thoughts together, too. But now, behold! Verbosity!

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