gamesessay 'Games' is an Outmoded Term

‘Games’ is an Outmoded Term

When we talk about interactive media, we tend to use the shorthand ‘games’ to describe the products on offer. This terminology is everywhere. Games, gamers, gaming. But, while this term is widely used today, eventually its usefulness will deteriorate. Today, already, it’s losing meaning quickly.

Evolutionary of Mediums

Throughout history, media forms have gone through a strict and predictable timeline of evolution. It begins as a technological novelty, designed to awe an audience with its newness. From there, it begins to recreate what came before — the familiar. The familiar eventually becomes old hat, and as a new generation of creators emerges, they strive to create the ‘new’, original works that use the medium to a greater potential.

Once new work is being created in the medium, offerings necessarily diverge, creating not only genres, but types of content that are defined by a different rubric and are not easily compared to one another. We’re not talking “Western” vs “Kung Fu”, we’re talking “Documentary” vs “Narrative”. A period of experimentation follows in which each genre adapts the new medium’s unique properties to advance the effectiveness of its ability to entertain, inspire, attract, and convey human experience and emotion. This goes on and on, in a predictable pattern. Novelty -> Retelling -> The New -> Divergent Use -> Experimentation -> Auteurship -> Meaning -> Distillation -> Self-Reference -> Stagnation.

Obviously it’s a little more complicated than that because each divergent use genre goes through its own independent evolution, new technologies are thrown into the mix during the cycle which adds parallel evolution cycles to the medium as a whole, mediums borrow from one another to stay fresh, etc., so there are multiple evolutionary cycles going on at once. That’s important later, when we get to games.

Novelty

We can trace this throughout film, as an example. The first movie ever shown publicly was called “L’arrivĂ©e d’un train en gare de La Ciotat”, or “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”

Audiences went nuts. For their lives, this was a Michael Bay multiple explosion extravaganza. By today’s standards, worthless. No artistic merit, trite subject matter, absolutely meaningless with regard to inspiring anything deep within the soul. But this is how all mediums begin;

Retelling

The first narrative film made was called “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. It was a direct adaptation of a stage play of the same name, written by Scott Marble in 1896. Film began reproducing the works of literature and theater, adapted to the screen.

Divergent Use

Up until 1922, film was used as a narrative platform until the first documentary was created: Nanook of the North.

This required an entirely different production strategy — Nanook had to be followed; cameras had to be portable, etc. New technologies, methodologies and competencies had to be developed, which evolved over time into documentary filmmaking, a much different discipline than narrative film.

Experimentation

Around the same time, in 1920, narrative filmmaking was entering its experimental phase, where directors began controlling the mise-en-place, adjusting for light and dark, and attempting to use the visual component of the medium to evoke emotions that weren’t possible to evoke from literature or theater that came before it. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari showcases what this era of filmmaking was exploring:

Auteurship

As a new generation of filmmakers emerged who had grown up with the medium and had a more innate understanding of its unique traits, and as technology made production more accessible, we begin to see people who had a distinct vision that they wanted to put to film and an individual style. Fritz Lang is, perhaps, the first major filmmaking auteur, and the best example of his unique style is 1927’s Metropolis:

Meaning

Auteurship gives was to meaning, because once the power of the story is in the hands of visionary individuals, they necessarily begin to create things that are intended not just to entertain, but to enrich the human experience. In other words, now that the medium has an individual voice, that voice eventually decides it has something important to say.

A great example of this is Modern Times, from Charlie Chaplin, in 1936, which was an artistic, funny and thoughtful commentary on the great depression.

Distillation

Auteurship inspires copycats and creators who are less concerned with their own originality, and more concerned with perfecting the formulas pioneered before them. Going from the Charlie Chaplin reference, the popularity of vaudeville based comedy films began to become mass-produced to meet market demand. By the time Chaplin released Modern Times in 1936, 22 years after his first film debut, the genre was filled to the brim — the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle.

The genre calcifies, and tropes develop. They begin to throw out what doesn’t work and retain what does.

Self-Reference

Once the cement has dried and the tropes have developed, the entries into the genre that follow begin to operate on an agenda of entertaining by inspiring nostalgia, as well as recapturing the magic of the formula, rather than creating something new or visionary. Continuing with the vaudeville comedy genre, we can see this in comedies of the 1960s and 70s like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie.

Though it’s self-referential, it’s still inspired. It’s reliant on amalgamating its influences in a graceful way and partnering those influences with some amount of freshness.

Stagnation

Stagnation occurs once there is no new ground to be explored in the divergent genre. It is just a series of works created to appease a slowly diminishing market demand. It’s self-reference without the reverence. It’s what we see in film today and call ‘sequel-itis’.

Why Games is a Misnomer

I know what you’re thinking. “Hey Ryan, that was a great article about films. What does this have to do with games?” I’m glad you made it this far, patient reader. There was a point to all of this.

Filmmaking was the advent of what’s called the visual medium. It took what existed before, theater and literature, and added robust visual spectacle to the mix. Video games, as we call them, are the advent of the interactive medium. They take all that film had, and add the component of interactivity into the mix. But think about that for a moment — when we talk about the visual medium, we’re not just talking about films; we’re talking about any visual content, whether that is a documentary, news footage, political punditry, music videos, and many, many, other types of work, and we don’t call all of those things “movies”.

All sorts of different disciplines existed before the advent of the visual medium, which then adapted to that medium in similar evolutionary fashion to what’s described above. Visual art adapted to the visual medium and gave us blisteringly boring movies like Koyaanisqatsi. Journalism adapted to the visual medium. Political commentary adapted to the visual medium. Storytelling, yes, of course, but also education, recruiting, and a litany of others.

So, too does the advent of interactive media usher in the adaptation of all sorts of disciplines. Video games, for a long time, were defined by technological novelty. You can see this in gamers’ obsession, beginning to dwindle now, with graphical fidelity and technological advancement. For a great deal of its lifespan, interactive media was limited to entertainment in terms of societal demand. The beginning process of the retelling period began with two things: games (the inherently interactive), and narratives (the most evolved use of the existing visual medium). Interactive media combined those two things and created what we now call ‘video games’.

This started a years long debate which you may not be aware of, called the narratology vs ludology debate, where, for years, academics tried to answer the question: should games have stories, or just be games? What is a ‘game’? Is Civ a game, relying on a boardgame style ruleset, or is Metal Gear Solid, reliant on non-interactive cutscenes? Terms like embedded narrative and emergent narrative began to get thrown around. They debated about what a ‘game’ should be and created a false dichotomy where one had to win and one had to lose. But, in reality, this is simply the natural evolution of the medium: this is the divergent use phase.

A ‘game’ like Metal Gear Solid is an adaptation of the storytelling discipline to the digital interactive space. A ‘game’ like Civ is an adaptation of the analog game discipline to the digital interactive space. Simultaneously, we’re seeing social activism adapt to the digital interactive medium, with games like Darfur is Dying and other games from the ‘games for change’ scene. Additionally, education is adapting itself aggressively to the digital interactive medium. Are they all games? They are, currently, but the conflation of every digital interactive product under this large umbrella is creating enormous problems.

Just like how Nanook, the first documentary I described above, required a different set of skills, interests, equipment and production expertise, a ‘game’ like Metal Gear Solid requires necessarily different assets than does a ‘game’ like Civ. Documentaries and narrative films are not judged on the same rubric — no one walks out of a documentary wishing that the CGI was better, for example; so, too, are narrative and ludological games judged on a different rubric.

Where this becomes a real problem is in creation and funding. The old adage applies here: trying to appease everyone is a surefire way to please no one. Because games, in large part, are big budget productions, when ludological games were selected as the winner among American companies due to the lower cost of production and higher return on investment, funding diminished for narratological games. If you wanted to know the secret reason why they spent so much time putting multiplayer in Mass Effect at the cost of its single-player story, this is the behind-the-curtain reason why.

The reverse took place in Japan, which is why we see a lot of story-based games, even American made ones, with Japanese funding sources. Hollywood funding sources, too, have a vested interested in advancing the storytelling medium specifically.

I’m not calling for the disintegration of this paradigm, but I think it will necessarily occur. When we have gaming outlets conflating all games into one popular subculture, they’re doing so against the grain of every medium in history’s evolution. At a certain point, ‘games’, the moniker of the novelty phase of the new media format, will split off into its divergent genre adaptations, as people who like Life is Strange are not necessarily enthused by things like Fortnite, and trying to please the interceding sub-section of people who are fans of both is a surefire recipe to hold both back.

We should do well to remember that as the flourishing environment of independent game developers today experiment with the advancement of the form.

Author

  • Ryan Night

    Ryan Night is an ex-game industry producer with over a decade of experience writing guides for RPGs. Previously an early contributor at gamefaqs.com, Ryan has been serving the RPG community with video game guides since 2001. As the owner of Bright Rock Media, Ryan has written over 600 guides for RPGs of all kinds, from Final Fantasy Tactics to Tales of Arise.

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