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Videogames are not a young media form, so stop saying they are

Youth

The most insidious idea about videogames ever to be repeated uncritically is that they are a young media form.

They are not. In fact, the very idea that a thing like a young medium can exist and that videogames fall into this category is a flawed, damaging concept.

What people primarily mean when they say that videogames are a young medium is that they consider videogames to be underdeveloped in some sense. Google the phrase: you’ll turn up a huge variety of statements that link the age of videogames with a range of problems.

You might turn up ideas like: videogames struggle for meaning because they’re young; videogames have crappy writing, art and design because they’re young; people don’t understand videogames because they’re young; people don’t make much art with videogames because they’re young; the list goes on. This is almost always used to explain away perceived problems – the ‘young’ argument is rarely invoked to explain the strengths of videogames.

This is a terribly destructive mindset.

It is not the youth of videogames that allows something as puerile and immature as Twisted Metal to be created and lauded as ‘amazing’. It is not the youth of videogames that allows the mainstream media to use videogames as an easy foil for hits and head-shakes. It is not the youth of videogames that makes its depictions of anyone who isn’t a straight, white, able-bodied male routinely unsatisfying and problematic.


There is a kind of naive historicism here that can seemingly only understand media and art through the lens of age-led development. This is the assumption that history is not contingent, but rather the defining factor in questions of development. Media, going by this mindset, develop through the virtues of age and the welfare of time.

Yes, perhaps there are some factors of quality that link in with questions of time and development. Artists often get better with practice, and critical-creative languages do take time to develop. Equally, the economic, social, and creative frameworks that shape the cultures surrounding media forms do shift and change over time.

This, however, is a much more complex set of ideas than what people usually mean when they try to explain problems with the hoary ‘videogames are young’ line.

If other media forms have improved with age, it is because individuals, cultures and systemic frameworks have made it possible to do so.

If we rely on a simple understanding of the transformative effects of age to improve the craft and culture of videogames, then videogames are already dead. Videogames will improve with creative exploration, curiosity, and application, and other highly complex factors. Videogame culture will improve with the understanding of and exercising of power by smart individuals, lobby groups, organisations, and cultural movements.

These things do not happen by themselves, and we cannot wait for them to appear as miraculous gifts produced by the idle passing of time.

However, let’s for a moment take an experiment and imagine that we’re giving the argument some merit.

Even if we cast away all of these problems, even if we fully accepted the problematic ideas that media forms have developmental stages and fixed historical processes, it would be ludicrous to accept the notion that videogames are young.

The identity of the first videogame is another deeply controversial point to engage with; however, for the purposes of this argument, I want to be charitable and give the ‘videogames are young’ idea the best chance of succeeding. So, let’s pinpoint the beginning of videogames as a commercial form of entertainment at 1971 with the first arcade machines. This would place the age of videogames at 41 years. Perhaps this doesn’t seem like a lot, but in media terms, that’s a fair amount of time.

To give further charity to this argument, let’s knock out the idea that different media ecologies have markedly different speeds of development (i.e. the suggestion that videogames have been developed during a period of digital cambrian explosion, while other media have emerged during periods of relative technological stability). Therefore, we’re making a direct comparison between time periods here, to give the ‘videogames are young’ argument the most generous chance to show some merit.

So, let’s compare some media forms. We’ll take the music album to start with.

Sinatra

The first LP record was issued in 1948, and artists quite quickly began to work within the extended, split form to create recordings of thematic and aural unity. For example, Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, often identified as one of the first concept albums, was released in 1955.

The addition of 41 years from 1948 takes the LP album up to 1989. During this time, the album had seen works as diverse as Pet Sounds, Abbey Road, Ziggy Stardust, and Thriller. Not only does this represent a majority of the significant developments in album history, it also almost takes us through to the period where CDs and digital distribution began to reshape the album into a media form with different strategies and needs.

Regardless, the suggestion that the album was a young creative form in 1989 is so utterly absurd that it does not warrant consideration.

Let’s take another example, then. The first commercial television broadcast in the USA was in July 1941. Again, adding 41 years brings us to the ludicrous date of 1982, years after Ed Sullivan, The Twilight Zone, Monty Python, M*A*S*H*, and Doctor Who. Even MTV was launched a year earlier, in 1981.

Obviously these comparisons are very nearly meaningless. There are a whole host of counterpoints that could be made to the claims I have made here, but my overall point is to highlight how much is achievable in the time that videogames have had. Even from the most charitable position possible, it is unimaginable to claim with a straight face that videogames have not had enough time to develop as a mature or meaningful media form.

Clearly, then, the rhetoric of ‘videogames are a young medium’ is powerful because it obscures the fact that these questions are fundamentally tied up in issues of culture.

It is simply easier to talk about age and development as if they are fundamentally correlating factors than it is to talk about political, cultural, social and economic forces that create and sustain problems and nurture success.

Videogames are simply not a young media form. So please stop saying they are.

Game On will continue to explore this discussion later in the week.

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  • 1
    Ruprecht
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    “These things do not happen by themselves, and we cannot wait for them to appear as miraculous gifts produced by the idle passing of time.”

    Too true. The “young medium” label seems to be used as much used as a defense as a criticism.

  • 2
    Scott
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Maybe “young” is not the right word. Just not mature.
    Video Games, like any other product, have a life cycle….Introduction, Growth, Maturity and Decline.
    At the moment, I would say it’s still at the growth stage, but getting close to entering the maturity phase (as it’s getting close to a cash cow).
    Then there will be the inevitable decline as substitutes appear. It has happened to every form of entertainment invented (think books, board games, cards etc)

  • 3
    SteveP
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Video games *are* a young medium, if you focus (as you should I think) on consumers rather than just the producers of video games.

    In the early 1970s, probably less than 1% of the western world (let alone the whole world) was experiencing video games.

    In contrast, when the first record was released, people had still been listening to music for quite some time on the wireless. Listening to music was a pastime that a large portion of people had experienced, developed a taste for etc. Consequently, there were more cultural niches for producers of music to explore and gain some consumers from. And as experienced consumers of music themselves, producers of albums had some mature knowledge of what kind of music would be tasteful.

    Video games are are a young medium, because for most of the 1970s and 1980s, they were a pastime for only a small section of western society. Even in the 1990s, games were still pretty niche/hardcore, though there were more gamers just because gamers who were youths in the 1980s kept playing, while new gamers were being born.

    It is only in the last 10 years that the market base of game consumers has really broadened and exploded. That’s why it was actually news that there is a new genre called “casual games”, because the introduction of e.g. the Wii and app-store games was introducing huge new numbers of gamers to video games.

    I think video game producers – even the ones that have been making games since the 1970s – have had to grapple with the novelty of video games to huge sections of the population. The market has changed a lot as the nature and size of the consumer base has changed.

  • 4
    Mr Ak
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating article. I’m simultaneously in ferocious agreement and furious disagreement. It’s tearing me apart inside. Although that could be the onions?

    Thankfully, I can talk both of them out at once.

    Oz. The position I’d take is all about Oz. I’m Oztrailian. (For this joke, I should also probably be Oztracised.) You talk about TV being all-grown up by 1982. I’d argue that it wasn’t. At least, if you accept the premise of the current “golden-age” stuff as the mature form of the medium. Dr Who and MASH? Both good shows, but both are also characterised by two elements the best of TV has moved away – The return to the norm, and the primacy of the episode arc over the season. MASH, particularly. No matter what happens in MASH, nothing ever really *happens*. The guys accidentally buy a slave at the start? She’ll be back with her family in Korea in twenty minutes. They’re getting courtmartialled? They’ll be let off in twenty minutes. Hawkeye falls in love? He’ll be over it in twenty minutes.

    Even for the early seasons of Buffy, it’s still the case that the episode arc is still the primary narrative shape. Buffy will remain Buffy. She will learn a lesson, which will be forgotten in time for the next week for her to learn it again.

    Where the change begins to take place HBO’s relatively unwatched series Oz. Set in the Oswald Maximum Security Prison, Oz is the show which gave HBO the confidence to run with the Sopranos, which gave them the impetus to make Deadwood and the Wire, and which implanted the idea of actual, permanent character growth in the medium. (It’s also the show where turning up late on set allegedly led to your character either getting raped or shanked. It’s not a *fun* show.)

    Thing is, and here’s where the ferocious agreement comes in, there were opportunities to change before then. Something like 1987′s Wiseguy, or even the 1992 ABC show Phoenix serve as great proof of concept shows for the season-arc format. As to why they didn’t, I don’t know enough to say. But I’d guess the DVD market is a big part.

    And I think I’m getting to the crux of my disagreement with you. You seem to feel that people saying “the medium is young” is an excuse to avoid actually assessing it, that saying that will mean we support its flaws by pretending they’re accidents of a condition that will change on its own.

    I say that it’s an affirmation. It’s about hope. It’s a belief that change is possible, even inevitable. This doesn’t mean that change is automatic, that it happens on autopilot. At it’s most fundamental, it’s a belief people will want more, and better. They’ll want to buy better products, and they’ll want to make more meaningful ones.

    It’s nothing less than a belief in triumph of the human spirit.

    Uh.

    Okay, things got weird, didn’t they?

  • 5
    Mr Ak
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    I had further thoughts. What where they?

    Oh, yeah. Changing the production economics in such a way that meaningful experiences are more likely is the job of people in the industry who want to see the market shift that way. Just saying “oh, it’s young,” won’t help those people.

    Changing the purchasing economics in such a way that meaningful experiences are more likely to be commercially viable is something consumers need to do. Consumers having an optimistic point of view of the medium probably will help this happen. (Of course, having a pessimistic view of the medium also helps. Depends on the specifics)

  • 6
    Evan
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    “Young” is a synonym for juvenile and like it or not, the medium as a whole can generally be characterised by juvenile writing, concepts, and delivery.

    Those who use the phrase “young medium”, in my humble opinion, are trying to rationalise the general lack of narrative / character / conceptual depth in most games. I think they’re wasting their time; it is what it is. It makes a nice philosophical debate, but the market’s, in the main, is a commercial one. People make what sells, not what’s culturally insightful. The exceptions (such as Dear Esther) prove that rule.

    In other words, it’s a defect by design, not by development.

  • 7
    Ruprecht
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    A few more thoughts on this slow burner of a topic…

    Evan, I think your point illustrates that videogames will not “grow up” automatically. As development budgets increase (and therefore the amount of sales required to profit) design decisions become more conservative and the common denominator gets lower, settling in at that 15 yr old “dudebro” level again.

    Maybe Mr Ak’s idea of the economics of insight is possible with lower-budget indie teams that can be more niche and experimental because they don’t need to sell so many copies of the game to succeed.

    Further to Mr Ak’s point, perhaps consumers aren’t discerning enough either. It seems that even the people who want more meaningful experiences from videogames will still likely buy and play a fair portion of the “dumb” AAA titles.

    On the specific idea of the problem with cruddy writing of conversation and characters in videogames:

    I’m not a programmer, but I’ve heard it said that programming a truly interactive conversation in videogames is hard (and therefore presumably more expensive), whereas programming shooting is relatively easy. Although apparently no one told that to Obsidian when they did Alpha Protocol, with its interesting conversation system but substandard shooting…

  • 8
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Some really interesting comments here, thanks everyone. I just want to address a few points as quickly as I can (there’ll be another post on this issue soon):

    Some of you are arguing that ‘young’ is simply a synonym for ‘immature’ in this instance. I disagree. Primarily, the issue I’m hoping to address here is the insistence that videogames have not been around long enough to develop meaningfully. This is, I think, a large factor that underpins the ‘videogames are young’ statement. It is clearly a mentality that exists.

    I also disagree that videogames are immature in a developmental sense. Huge cultures of videogames and videogame design have developed, changed, and morphed over the years. Just because we might not see the kinds of stories we see in other media does not mean that a medium has not developed. Similarly, what we might see as immature videogame cultures are actually the result of decades of development and refinement of style and structure.

    Other comments have been directed at the media comparisons I made. I agree, there are serious problems here, but this is part of the reason I made these comparisons: to draw out the absurdity in the idea that there is some kind of developmental pattern that can be traced across multiple media forms. Humans develop in fairly clear processes (infancy, youth, adolescence, etc). Media do not. Books developed differently from films, which developed differently from radio, which developed differently from music albums, which developed differently from comics, which developed differently from videogames. Any kind of assumption that we can compare developmental stages (as is implied in the ‘youth’ assessment) is obviously faulty.

    A final point, just because it interests me so: Mr Ak – Your analysis of TV history is interesting. However, I’d point you to some of the late ’80s work of theorists like Omar Calabrese (in Italian, mostly, but translated here and there – google Omar Calabrese and seriality), who outlined various types of television narrative structures. There is ample room to suggest that even in the ’80s there were many series with overarching, season-arc narratives that predate the new HBO style by two decades. Very much an aside here, but thought it might interest you!

  • 9
    Cha Holland
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Good piece and I agree with you overall.

    I think this whole discussion is very closely related to the fact that videogames are still working to achieve broader legitimacy. Games aren’t a niche hobby right now, but they’re still thought of more as time wasters than meaningful experiences. I’m not going to do anything today, I’m just going to play videogames. If people are focusing at this level they won’t be considering the broader, continually evolving landscape.

    It’s interesting to consider whether growth needs to be commercially successful and/or broadly recognised to “count”. If there is youth here I think it’s in terms of attitudes and the commercial situation rather than the games themselves. But also that people are looking for benchmarks they’ve seen in the development of other media forms, instead of considering games on their own terms.

  • 10
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    One of the problems with videogames is in no other art form or commercial enterprise do you need to reinvent the fundamental systems every single time.

    To take your music analogy, although the medium on which it was recorded and sold changed when LPS were developed, the actual process of recording didn’t. You still take a microphone and shove it in front of something, press record.

    Same with film. The camera – no matter whether it’s a pinhole camera or the newest 3D digital recorder – is the same as it has always been – you point and shoot.

    Games do not have this. Every time you make a game, you start from scratch. The only thing that remains constant is a computer and a programming language. Every time you make a game, you make the camera, the sound playback, the ground, the environment, the actors, the vehicles, the water, the physics, the particles, the interface – FROM SCRATCH.

    Do you think we’d have such great movies if every time a director picked up a camera, they’d have to reinvent it, or if a director had to reinterpret the way physics interacts with silver particles?

    I think this is what people mean when they say videogames is a young medium. I agree with you it’s a misnomer – it’s better to say it’s an undeveloped medium.

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