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Jan 25, 2012

Maturity

Last Saturday morning, Channel Seven’s Weekend Su

Elderly people playing the Nintendo Wii

Last Saturday morning, Channel Seven’s Weekend Sunrise ran a story about videogames. Perhaps weekend breakfast television is not the place to look for deep insight, and mostly, this syndicated story from NBC about the videogame company Zynga didn’t break the mould. There was the usual hyperbole preceding the story, the contextless statistics that are often used to polish the dull handling of videogames in mainstream contexts (“you heard it right, 150 million players!”). There was also the expected low-level banter from the hosts (“Oh, I don’t do any of that stuff…”).

But there was also something different, something unusual about this story. This wasn’t another story about children and young adults doing strange things in front of television sets. The “curious stat”, according to Sunrise presenter Tony Squires, is that the biggest market for Zynga’s games isn’t kids, but “mums”. This was about adults.

The world of videogames in 2012 is a weird one, and in a way, the Sunrise story tells you all you need to know about it. Mostly, things are just plain confusing. Old people and young people alike play videogames, while many at both ends of the spectrum would go to all sorts of lengths to avoid admitting it. Some wouldn’t even recognise what they do as playing a videogame, despite Bond University’s finding that 92% of Australian households have at least one device used for playing games.

Videogames are everywhere and nowhere. They are visible – in sales catalogues, in advertisments on the side of buses – and yet still absent from important conversations of culture, education, and policy. Films like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World seem to reverentially worship videogames, but barely make mention of anything resembling a videogame post-1995. Under the same sway of ‘80s nostalgia, people can buy videogame themed t-shirts from clothing chains without ever playing the game depicted, or even realising what it is.

The contradictions extend to the media, also. Open any newspaper and towards the front you’re likely to find an article linking videogames to obesity, time-wasting and violence. Open the same newspaper closer to the back and you’ll find a buyer’s guide. Very occasionally, you might even see some criticism, too.

A certain mystery surrounds the perception of how videogames are made, as well. For many, an amorphous “they” are the only creators of videogames (“you know what they should do next…”). Yet the Sundance premiere last weekend of Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary about three indie videogame designers, received strong critical praise and the purchase of an option by HBO for a fictional TV series.

And yes, 150 million people play Zynga’s games through Facebook, such as FarmVille and CityVille, and their in-game exploits are posted to Facebook’s timeline as if they’re as uncontroversial as Steve’s latest training run or your neice’s Instagram photos.

You almost want to join in when Sunrise’s Tony Squires complains that Zynga games don’t “involve shooting or driving or hitting a golf ball!” Things would certainly be easier to grasp if they did.

In 2012, videogames are utterly, quintessentially part of mainstream culture. And yet they are also fundamentally outside of, and excluded from the mainstream. Everyone is part of videogame culture, and everyone is outside of videogame culture.

As I said, things are weird.

For the most part, a lot of public engagement with videogames revolves around the question of maturity. Just as Tony Squires expresses surprise that a core demographic of Zynga games is mothers, we frequently talk about videogames on the basis of who we think they are for. Primarily, so we might think, videogames are for kids.

The way we compartmentalise media based on who we imagine might primarily use them is a funny thing. As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, expressions of taste are often made in negative terms, so you are more likely to hear someone criticise someone else for having terrible taste than you are to hear them admire their own. What this often translates into is tacit criticism of culture directed towards the kinds of people we think might like it.

Examples are everywhere. Jane Austen books are for young serious women. Sylvia Plath poems are for even more serious young women. Steven Spielberg films are for sentimental Americans. Godard films are for Arts graduates. Wagner operas for old white men, while Tchaikovsky ballets are for the easily pleased who don’t really know much about classical music. And Twilight, gosh, don’t even get me started on Twilight.

This kind of demographising is even more frequently done for videogames, though with an admittedly blunt palette. Videogames are for socially awkward teenage boys. Except for Zynga Facebook games, which are for bored, stay-at-home mothers. And Wii games, which are for small families. And especially for iPhone games, which are for… well, we don’t really know who they’re for, yet, except for everyone who owns an iPhone.

Yet videogames, like all the things I’ve mentioned, are far more than the surface cliche. They are exhilarating, boring, conceptual, melodramatic, bombastic and subtle. They have their issues – even crippling, appalling issues – certainly, but they are also not worthy of the typical disinterest (or outright derision) they often receive. They are a complex media form in a complex culture, and can be extremely rewarding for those who have the patience to engage with them deeply.

So, for 2012, it’s time for maturity. This is the challenge for Game On. To push past simple understandings of what videogames are, what they can do, and who they are for. I hope I don’t disappoint.

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23 comments

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23 thoughts on “Maturity

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  4. moonkid

    Hi Daniel, great to see Crikey properly attacking games. A really perceptive post, as well!

    I’m one of those mysterious “them” who makes games, or at least I’m in the early stages of becoming one. Myself and a few friends are attempting to launch a game dev business in the game-business desert of Sydney. The indie scene here is really picking up, largely thanks to the growth of the IGDA here, but there are still very few managing to make a living from it. And a lot of that is down to the perception from various quarters that games aren’t relevant.

    One recent example is the discussion paper put out by the State government on the convergence of arts and digital technology. The native homeland of games, you’d think? Well, they got only a brief mention, stuck in down the back of the paper as a sub-sub-branch of “visual media”. I got a little indignant about that and wrote them a corrective submission!

  5. tinman_au

    My wife is into a lot of Facebook games (Word With Friends is like Scrabble, but there’s a heap of other ones like Bingo, various card games, Farmville, etc), you might find something there Susan.

    I also know a lot of women that like playing The Sims (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sims) so that might be worth taking a look at?

  6. Daniel Golding

    bakingqueen – Yes, that’s a very good point. Perhaps ‘mother’ is just as useless a demographic as ‘gamer’. For their part, however, I’m sure that Zynga does extensive market research and breaks down their audience extensively, by profession, income, sex and yes, parenthood status. If you’re interested in the kinds of demographic research conducted about ‘casual’ gamers, you might want to check out Videogames Academic Jesper Juul’s book, ‘A Casual Revolution’.

    Beatrice Crocker and Peter Yard – thanks so much for dropping by! More proof that games are played by everyone. Really pleased to read both of your thoughts on this post.

    Tommy B – Yes, absolutely. Solitaire and Minesweeper have had enormous audiences over the years, so much so that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that Solitaire was probably the most popular videogame in the world at one stage. Fascinating stuff, and too easy to overlook.

    Tinman – thanks for the suggestion of The Older Gamers. Hopefully some people find them useful, they certainly seem like a great group.

    Brown Susan – Really pleased to hear that you’re interested in branching out. But what to recommend? There really is a huge, impossibly large range of games and game genres these days. If you’ve been playing card games, you will probably want to start with games of a similar ilk – so no twitch-reflex games, etc. Perhaps you might start with some other puzzle games, such as Bejewelled, or Drop7. If you want to move into something a little more fully fledged and in-depth, I always have a soft spot for the Civilization series, though you might have to check that your computer can run the latest ones. Anyway, keep in touch, as I’m very happy to keep helping you find the right game for you!

  7. Brown Susan

    I’m retired and have been playing card games online for a couple of years.
    Would like to stick my toe in the water here. How do I get started on video games and what is a good game to start with as a newbie?

  8. Bam Stroker

    +1 for The Older Gamers. I joined their forums a couple of months ago and play on their Battlefield 3 servers from time to time. It’s refreshing to game with mature and courteous players!

  9. tinman_au

    Nice article!

    For those looking to play MMOG’s (Massively Multilayer Online Games), RTS (Real Time Strategy) or FPS’s (First Person Shooters) with other mature folks, The Older Gamers (TOG for short) is a great organisation for people that are 25+ (we have a few that are in there 70’s and 80’s) and it’s free to join.

    I’ve been with them since the early 2000’s and have meet a lot of people “In real life” through them (they organise a lot of game nights in various states). I’m currently playing Star Wars Online with them (Empire side though they also have a Republic guild) and it’s really nice to have so many helpful folks around.

    If you want to check them out the web site is http://www.theoldergamers.com/

    your never too old to play games :o)

  10. Peter Yard

    Great article Daniel. Well now I don’t feel quite so ‘odd’. I am 60 and have been a bit of a gamer for 10+ years, on and off, sometimes work and family were just too demanding to fit it in. These days though age is catching up with me, my reflexes aren’t quite as fast, and I don’t have the stamina to play Starcraft II on battlenet, have to wimp out and play against the AI. I have been playing Skyrim lately, finished the main quests, but now it is time to ween myself off and do something constructive (he says again). I do think I can get addicted and realise the dangers that games pose in that regard. Two worst for that were CivII and WoW. These days however I’m more attracted to deep storylines than action. I guess this is a kind of confessional about my gaming sins. Never been ashamed to admit I like gaming just the amount of time I over commit to it.

    So, look forward to your future articles.

  11. Tommy B

    no mention of Solitaire for Windows? whats its demographic?

    I do spend a large chunk of your time uncovering hidden gems of video games.

  12. Beatrice Crocker

    Great Post Daniel! I loved the Commodore VIC 20 and then later 64 games and the tape deck and catridges that came along with them. As an 11 year old girl playing these games in the ’80’s I’m sure I wasn’t the stereotype or the target audience but I still enjoyed playing them 🙂

    Good luck with your future posts!!

  13. bakingqueen

    I’d like to know how “they” found out the gamers were mothers. Was there a similar question for male gamers about their parenthood status, or is Mother really a profession?

  14. Daniel Golding

    Thanks for all the brilliant comments. I’m especially thrilled to read Clytie and C@tmomma’s thoughts. Though clearly, the cliche of games-for-young-men isn’t true now, I think it probably was never accurate. As you both prove, pretty much any medium or genre shouldn’t be broken down into limited demographics.

    Finally, thanks for all the warm welcomes. I hope you enjoy the blog as it progresses – I’m really looking forward to what we can do with this platform.

  15. FunkyJ

    This column makes me a little sad… Because I wanted to write a column like this for Crikey! 🙂

    I’m really excited though – video games are now ubiquitous but people rarely give them much thought outside the industry, so it’s great Crikey is tackling this huge market and new(?) form of popular culture.

  16. paddy

    Well done Crikey and great stuff Daniel. I’m a totally lame gamer (I make Sophie Black look like a hipster) but this blog has real legs and I’m really looking forward to where you’re taking us all.
    The thought that *finally*, someone is willing to talk about gaming, without talking down to the audience, or treating them as commercial fodder. Bravo!

  17. C@tmomma

    I’m with Clytie. I’m also 53, a mum of 2 and we have all been gaming since we bought our first Playstation 1,a Nintendo 64, a Commodore 64, and Bart Simpson Versus the Space Mutants game. I can still remember the thrill of playing the original Quake, Doom and Duke Nukem, as well as all the Sonic the Hedgehog games, all the Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, Driving games, Banjo Kazooie, ah the list goes on and on and on and still goes on. In fact, I’m off to play a game right now to wind down before I go to bed.

  18. Clytie

    I’m always puzzled by the age-delimited game thing. I’ve been playing computer games since they were played text-only on terminals (I’m 53). My kids grew up with educational and pure-fun games. Now their kids play games.

    (I don’t play sim games: can’t see the point. And we all loathe Twilight. *shudder*)

    Good to see a game blog here at Crikey: I hope you will be following the agonizingly slow government move to create a R18+ rating for games. For my younger daughter, it’s a test case for democracy.

  19. karldoh

    I remember as a videogame-obsessed boy how adults would look down at our 8-bit games with their crude graphics and sound and mindless gameplay. By the time I was a teenager video arcades had mostly disappeared but adults everywhere were literally addicted to the most braindead of all games with lurid colours and pavlovian sounds, and a healthy appetite for $1 coins.

  20. Daniel Golding

    Sophie – thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. There’s far worse places to be stuck that Mario Kart and Donkey Kong.

    Oops! – Thanks!

    Bam – Yes, it’s certainly a sign of the times and somewhat an indication of a generation maturing. Hope you stick around and enjoy the blog.

  21. Bam Stroker

    Glad to see this blog emerge. Finally the generation of kids who grew up with controllers in their hands are maturing and finding their way into positions where they’re able to influence public opinion and be taken seriously. The preceding generation who had sole domain over politics and the media portrayed video games as an infantile pursuit but in the next decade rather than seeing politicians being asked “Have you ever smoked pot?” I hope they get asked “Did you complete Mass Effect 4 as a Paragon or a Renegade?” 🙂

  22. Oops!

    Great post, Daniel. Can’t wait to see what you have to say… maybe even influence and change some of my opinions as a “gamer” myself.

  23. Sophie Black

    Welcome aboard Daniel. I for one am still stuck on Level 1 of Mario Kart, level 2 of original Donkey Kong if I’m lucky, but even an imbecile like me finds this stuff fascinating, great first post.