Video games have come a long way over the last forty years. In that time, they’ve grown to become the world’s most successful form of entertainment, surpassing film, television, and books in terms of revenue. With that said, many people fail to see that it has also surpassed some of its limitations. In the beginning, “video game” was an apt term since that is exactly what they were: games in video form. This is no longer applicable to many titles. The term is becoming increasingly restrictive and is minimizing people’s perception of what video games can be.
Although this conundrum is inspired by a recent Twitter debate, I’ve actually been talking and thinking about this for quite some time. Games of the last generation in particular got me pondering about how some titles transcend the term “video game” since they are more than just a game you play on your TV —or monitor. I haven’t forgotten you Master Racers. However, some say that since it is a “game” that it must be “fun.” I don’t subscribe to this notion at all since it reduces and curtails the medium’s true potential.
Similar to the term “comic books”, the usage of the term “video game” is a misnomer that gives off the wrong impression of what to expect. People who aren’t knowledgeable about comics or games see these labels and expect simple, juvenile fun. Though comic books have gained a fair amount of recognition due to the success of movies based on them, people still don’t treat the books with respect because of the name. They only see what’s on the surface (brightly colored superheroes) and aren’t aware of how deep and sophisticated they can be. The same applies to video games. Not all comic books have to be funny and not all video games have to be “game-y.”
The phrase I keep hearing from people is “games are supposed to be fun.” Since that’s the case, let’s dissect what that word means, especially within the context of video games. And yes, I do acknowledge that fun is a subjective word. What one person finds fun, another will not. With that said, there is a universal definition for the word. The dictionary tells us that fun is “ .” In other words, fun means having a good time doing something that makes you happy and brings you joy.
Although the primary goal of video games in the “olden days” was to give people surface level enjoyment, that isn’t the case anymore. Video games have accomplished goals far beyond that of providing simple entertainment to the masses. It’s no longer just about hitting a white dot across the screen, or trying to not be killed by googly eyed ghosts or crazed, barrel tossing gorillas. They have transformed into a sophisticated and nuanced art form; one which grants people the ability to inhabit worlds where characters experience deeply profound life events.
One prime example of a game which proves that “fun” is not always the best tactic for engagement is The Last of Us. The game has been out for a bit, so please forgive me if I go into spoiler territory. In a game filled to the brim with dark and depressing moments, it was the opening scenes which starkly demonstrated to me that this would not be the easiest experience to stomach. Seeing Joel’s daughter get shot was hard enough by itself, but hearing her desperate screams of agony as she died, and seeing the tears run down Joel’s face as he clutched her in his arms, was a moment that almost shattered my ice cold heart. Was this fun? Was I having a good time? Absolutely not, but after that moment, the game had a hold on me that I could not shake.
Fearfully hiding inside of a small, cramped locker while a monster stalks you in Alien: Isolation, forcibly shooting your mentor/surrogate mother in Metal Gear Solid 3, or having to chop off your own finger in Heavy Rain, were all moments that were tough and gut wrenching to experience, but made the respective games great and memorable. These moments may not be as “fun” as whipping at bats in Castlevania, sucking up foes in Kirby’s Dream Land, or jumping on top of turtles in Super Mario Bros., but are certainly more captivating and profound in comparison.
There is nothing wrong with games that aren’t fun in the traditional sense. Video games should encompass a wide variety of subjects, even if they aren’t always cheerful or jovial. Why should they just be relegated to lighthearted experiences? Because they’re games? That’s ridiculous. Video games have evolved, and so too must notions of what they can be. The days of video games providing just laughs and amusement have passed.
When watching movies like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, The Road, or Gattaca, most people will not say they were having “fun,” but rather engaged. If games are considered to be art, then comparing them to other media is not only appropriate, but necessary —regardless of whether the masses believe the comparison fits or not. Yes, one doesn’t use a controller when watching a movie or reading a book, but the same rules apply. Not every movie, TV show, or book has to be “fun,” and neither does every video game. You can be engaged while having fun, but you don’t need to have fun to be engaged.
However, because video games are supposed to be “fun,” and for kids, we run into situations that other media don’t have to deal with. Video Games have the ESRB to decide which titles are appropriate for people of certain ages. This is the equivalent of what the movie industry has with its rating system, CARA. You would think that if people saw an M for mature rating slapped on a box that they would know the title wasn’t meant for a child. However, since it is a video game, they see it as nothing more than an electronic toy, perfectly fit for little Susie and pubescent Johnny. Outrage then follows because the consumer made a false assumption; an assumption born from a misleading term.
Violence in video games is such a hot topic specifically because people believe “games” are for children. Despite the ESRB, opportunistic politicians like Jack Thompson, Leland Lee, and Joseph Lieberman, have tried to regulate and censor games for years. Every time a new Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto, or Call of Duty is released, we all have to hear the same cries of “these games are too violent for our children.” Of course they’re not for kids, they’re rated M for a reason. But again, they see a game and think it’s appropriate for the wee ones.
Moving past violence, the situations with Dragon Age: Inquisition and the Left Behind DLC are other examples of how video games are creatively stifled by its moniker. In both of these cases, controversy arose when two of the games’ main characters were revealed to be gay, simply because this subject is (still) taboo in the real world and other media. Why must these culture wars effect the artistic expression of games? It goes without question that films which possess blatant themes of homosexuality receive far less bias from the masses in comparison to games. Which is a product of the hasty generalizations created by society which claim that games are meant to be simple toys, placed in the hands of children, which could not be further from the truth.
Where does that leave us then if the “game” part of video game is causing people to mentally impose boundaries on what this art form can tackle? Like with comic books which tried (and failed) to popularize the term “Graphic Novel,” it’s going to be hard to come up with a new, all-encompassing term for what we have come to know as “video games.” We also have to consider the titles which are thoroughly “game-y.” The term may not be applicable to some titles (particularly the more story driven ones), but it does apply to many. Interactive Entertainment is probably the closest thing that fits. But, what do you do with that entertainment if not play it? That would lead us back to the original problem all over again. We need a genius to figure this one out. They should also rename comic books while they’re at it.. But I digress.
Video games are growing, and as such, it’s important for people to let go of restrictive boundaries for the medium. Yes, there are still a lot of “fun” video games out there which have you bouncing on top of cute animals, collecting golden carrots, or shooting Eskimos in the face for bonus points, but that is not the extent of what the industry is capable of —not anymore. It is growing up and providing people with experiences that encompass a wider range of human emotion. While the term “video game” isn’t going anywhere, we must not let the “game” part of this classification limit our perception of “what is” and what “could be.”