11 Feb 2009

A Little Essay

This was written for print, so excuse the large paragraphs.

games, meaning, and players

The meaning of games is probably not a concept that crosses the average gamer's mind during a post-pub session; something more worrying is how exactly to eat dry roasted peanuts whilst holding a joypad. Games have always had meaning, dating back to the scoreboards and competitive drive of arcade classics such as Pong. Without these motivating factors the full extent of video gaming would simply have been a few blokes tarting about with moving shapes on a screen between beers. Without some reason to play, games simply aren't games, and certainly wouldn't have become the staple of modern culture that they are today.

For years the meaning of video games in general remained static. From the 70s to the 80s, attaining the highest score was the key reason to play, leading to great commercial success in the context of the coin-op arcade machine. With the industry's move into the home came a new focus on completing a set of tasks: finishing all the levels, finding all the ship pieces. This model was clearly successful and appealed to the nature of people who like to be challenged.

As the industry has matured, a growing number have clamoured that games are an art form, and so we've seen the advent of games with meaning and purpose more akin to modern cinema. Titles such as Shadow Of The Colossus demonstrated that a game can be both entertaining as an interactive experience, and still convey a director's message inviting the player to reflect on their actions. The most recent and dramatic exponent of this approach is Braid, which not only innovates by playing with fundamental concepts of the platform genre, but also exploits these fresh twists by using them to invite the player to consider their own existence outside of the game. It is not alone - Metal Gear Solid 4 is widely accepted as a commentary on military politics and the even as an allegory of its creator's career. Expansion of context from looking for meaning within the game itself to the real world has implications for the industry and its audience.

Since the three big console manufacturers realised there was money to be made in mainstream games, gamin has suffered an identity crisis. Much attention is focused on how lowering the barriers of entry to gaming has effected changes in the games-playing demographic, but by looking at the context and meaning of games we start to see a wider change. LittleBigPlanet and Halo 3's Forge have created new meaning in the gaming space by exploring the joy of sharing the fruits of creativity. Every Extend Extra and fl0w have created meaning for those seeking new sensory experiences. Wii Fit has most notably diversified gaming's audience by making its context the player's health. Even a straightforward game like Geometry Wars 2 expands upon the meaning of competition with its tightly integrated friends-only scoreboards, doubtless a result of the age of social networking.

With new meaning come new reasons to play and new players. Just as some audiences prefer action films to philosophical allegories analysing human existence, some gamers will prefer the meaning of visceral arcade games to the reflective experience of Braid.

Is this expansion of context and meaning the death of the traditional gaming experience? Are we seeing the death of the “hardcore gamer”? If the amount of hours spent fighting for high scores on Geometry Wars 2 is anything to go by, I'd wager not. We might just have to get used to being part of a bigger audience: many people will play many games for many different reasons.