Games ARE “Growing Up”!

David Cage, video game designer, is annoying me again, whining about how games need to “grow up” - and my friend Paul Fidalgo at Freethought Blogs has been taken in! Let me tell you something Mr. Cage: I grew up with video games, and they’ve grown up with me. My parents used to sit with us around our old Amiga 500 and play point and click adventure games into the night. Some of my most vivid early memories are of Dungeon Master: the shuffling of mummies as they crept through the stone passageways, the clank of iron doors as he opened into unexplored rooms, and the terrifying wail of Shriekers before you batter them into food are all seared into my memory. Games were bewitching, magical interactive narrative spaces which beckoned me to spend every hour with them – and on some weekends I gave in to their siren call.

But those early games – rich and compelling as they were, and rife with bizarre and wonderful stories (Sam and Max, anyone? Gabriel Knight?) are nothing when compared with the best games of today. Today’s games have given me some of my most profound, enriching experiences of my adult life. From the profound political and personal explorations of Bioshock to the touching, dreamlike meditations of Final Fantasy VII, to the triumphant thrill of a successfully-executed raid against C’Thun in World of Warcraft, games have rocked my world.

Since I’ve been playing games – from pretty much the beginning of the medium – they have “grown up” in countless ways. They have remarkably quickly developed a repertoire of mechanics which would have been unimaginable to those coding Wizball (one of the games which came with our old Amiga). They have dramatically expanded their visual repertoire (games now range from the hyper-realistic to the completely abstract, with stops along the way in impressionism, noire, and other artistic styles). They have revolutionized how we encounter musical scores, with today’s games (as well as featuring some of the best dramatic scoring in all entertainment media) featuring dynamic music which responds sensitively to the situation of the player. And major games frequently tackle deep and challenging themes: Far Cry 3 explores insanity and the corrupting pull of violence, Mass Effect 3 is an extended poetic investigation of the nature of loss and sacrifice, and Assassin’s Creed 3 (to continue the trend of 3s!) takes you inside the American Revolution in a charming (if completely bonkers) way.

Paul Fidalgo notes the grand investment many games require, wondering what the payoff is:

games in particular, they can give even seasoned players, what, 60-plus hours of playing time. Why would you want to waste such a powerful medium on just more shooting and puzzle solving? It’s not even necessary to fill a game with politics or a moral or what have you, but like any great novel or film, shouldn’t the story and the experience enrich you in some way, given all that you’ve put into it?

For me, video games have been powerfully enriching. Games are part of the mental furniture of my life, a set of cultural and experiential touchstones I relate to as others relate to music or books. I find myself thinking “That’s such an Aeris moment”, heading to work with the inspiring riffs of Halo 2‘s “Mjolnir Mix” accompanying my footfalls, and I look back fondly on the times I’ve spent with guilds in various MMORPGs. Games have brought me to tears, made me hunch over my controller in terror, and LOL more times than I can possibly count. It’s true, as Cage asserts, that “many games have absolutely nothing to say” – but this is also true of books, songs, films, poems, and plays. Most art in all media is bad. Yet, in comparison to other media, games have “grown up” remarkably quickly, and the future holds only promise. The only person who seems to miss that is David Cage.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • NathanDST

    InNot a word of disagreement from me! ome games are like a form of interactive literature. And speaking of Mass Effect 3, the forced choice between the geth and the quarians was one of the toughest dilemmas I’ve faced in a game, and left me with a very heavy heart.

  • vorjack

    But those early games … are nothing when compared with the best games of today.

    I’ll hold up the old Infocom games as writing that’s as good or better than most of what’s being produced today. I’ll hold up the original C64 version of Portal as one of the most interesting experiments in non-linear narrative that you’re likely to come across, with ideas that were far ahead of their time. I’ll hold up games like Sundog, Albion, or Wasteland as example of classic science fiction plots. I’ll hold up Darklands, Swords of the Samurai and Castles as examples of historical gaming.

    Go to someplace like Home of the Underdogs and browse through the old games. Remember Sturgeon’s law: 90% of everything is crap. Remember that the games you played as a kid were kids games, and the adults who were writing those games also wrote games for themselves.

    What irritates me about this discussion is that it’s been going on for almost thirty years now, yet every new participant like David Cage acts like they’ve just discovered it. They pay no attention to the history, the social forces or the market pressures.

  • John

    As a 28-year-old man, I grew up with videogames from kindergarten to college, then abandoned them shortly after graduation on the notion that they would impede real-world success. I finally had a homecoming event with them last year, when I spontaneously purchased a used Xbox 360 and a copy of Skyrim at the Gamestop next to my gym, and I’ll never give them up again. Whenever I think about that barren time in my life absent these modern marvels, I hear Morgan Freeman narrating in my head his speech to the parole board in Shawshank Redemption, where he wants to reach back and strangle his younger, stupider self.

    An ex-girlfriend of mine recently expressed disgust that guys would regularly spend so much money on games, and I just had to smile. $60 will buy you dozens of hours in an exotic, enriching world–or dinner for two at a horrid chain like PF Chang’s or Cheesecake Factory. Both are necessary expenditures, but it’s far more fun to hang glide across the lush wilds of Rook Island and cheerfully snipe hundreds of politically incorrect modern pirates than it is to pull into the parking lot of an Outback Steakhouse, crying out those big round yuppie tears all over my pleated khakis.

  • jose

    I like the story stuff of some modern games but why do we have to shoot ducks between story bits? Bioshock can have nice concepts, but I frankly got bored of all the fancy magic powers and shooting and never finished it. Can you imagine if movies were like this?

  • Brian Westley

    Sturgeon’s Law.

  • chicago dyke

    it’s like anything else. too much and you’ve got problems. a balanced number of hours that doesn’t cut into your work, sleep or responsibilities and relationship is just fine. personally, i lost interest in gaming after high school and prefer blog reading as my relaxation time. but i used to live with a guy who was an addict. it was sad, it was hurting his business and relations with friends.