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.