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