It has occurred to the staff at GameCritics.com that it is not enough to develop new ways for analyzing videogames within the context of a review. Rather, it is equally important to talk about farther-reaching issues concerning videogames in other forums, especially in a time when they are still largely perceived as children's toys and scapegoated for many of society's ills. If videogames are to evolve and be recognized as a culture and art form, it is important that we be able to talk about how videogames interact within the structure of society at large. This editorial column is devoted to going beyond the current tunnel vision that exists and discussing videogames in a variety of wider contexts.
Videogames Aren't Always for Kids
People are always talking about the problem with videogames: they are becoming too violent, too sexy, and a danger to our youth. But we seem to have difficulty in figuring just what to do about it. In part, this is because the problem with videogames today is not that they are becoming too violent or too mature; the problem is that they are still perceived as being for children, regardless of their increasingly sophisticated subject material. The societal view of videogames is still, despite all the advances the industry has made, that videogames are children's entertainment and are not sophisticated enough for older consumers.
Studies have shown that the amount of older gamers is steadily increasing. The kids who grew up playing Atari and Nintendo have shown an unwillingness to suddenly declare videogames a relic of their childhood, and they've continued to play videogames. This demographic is becoming increasingly active in the market, driving many marketing decisions for game companies. It should come as no surprise that the industry has decided to develop and market games for this demographic, which means more complex and more mature games. What should come as a surprise is that people still regard videogames—all videogames—as something that only children play.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is not a game that children play. Well, all too often, it is a game that children play, but it is a game that children should not be playing. If you heard your children talking about running over pedestrians, scoring some drugs and gunning down cops, would that be behavior that you would encourage or tolerate? Of course not. Why, then, is this kind of behavior tolerated when a child is playing videogames? Because videogames are still stuck in the societal cubbyhole of children's entertainment. Even with the large 'M' on the box, many parents still buy these games for their children and are then surprised when the game turns out to not be entirely appropriate.
That 'M' is more important than we might realize. The industry is working hard to police its titles in terms of content, and doing the same thing as the movie and music industry to let the consumer know exactly what they're buying in terms of subject matter. Why then, does the videogame get more attention in this regard than these other, more established media? Because with videogames, the medium determines the target market, rather than the subject matter defining the market as we see in more accepted art forms.
The onus is on us, as it were, to realize that videogames are capable of being much more than entertainment for children. To be sure, there are, and always will be, videogames that are expressly designed for children, and this is how it should be. But like any other popular media such as books, film, etc., we must realize that we need to draw lines between what is acceptable for children and what is not. The decision must be made at the moment when videogames are bought, not at the time when they are created.
Videogames are both similar to and yet completely different from any other type of art. They are similar to other art forms in the sense that they have the potential to be many things, from gross-out comedy to slasher horror to a poignant reflection on the nature of human existence. But videogames are different because they are a new type of art, a form that is dependent on its interactive nature. And in this time of growth, we need to nurture videogames and prevent their growth from being retarded.
What happens when an art form is not allowed to grow? As an example, we can look at comics in the 1950s. Another art form that was regarded as being the sole province of children, comics were effectively disabled during their growth period by a witch-hunt designed to keep comics from containing mature subject material. Looking at the comics industry now, mature material is a reality, but the market for comics is so small that it's regarded as fringe by society at large. The conclusion that we must reach is that sophisticated material in new media is an un-escapable reality, and that stunting this growth will result in two things: a slight delay before the inevitable development of adult material, and an economic and cultural ostracizing of the art form. And it is important that videogames continue to evolve as art. Not only because of the economic potential of the industry, but because of the artistic potential of the medium.
Videogames are a medium that is only starting to realize its potential. In order to continue to grow and evolve as an art form, videogames need to able to address a wider area of topics and subjects. What this means is that videogames need to mature by becoming more mature in terms of subject matter. If videogames become more mature, we must become more mature in the way that we conceive of videogames. To relegate videogames to the role of only being for children is to damage not only the creativity of the industry, but to damage our children.