The Language of Video Games

May 12, 2016

We need a better way to review and discuss video games. Seriously, we do. In 2011 the Supreme Court affirmed what video game fans already knew, saying that First Amendment protections apply to video games as they can, “communicate ideas - and even social messages - through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player's interaction with the virtual world).” In other words, video games are now legally defined as art in the same way a novel, film, or painting would be. It’s about time we treated them this way.

 

Video game reviews and critiques have been in the news lately. I won’t speak on GamerGate, but rather on the language we use communicate about video games and how we do it. There is much controversy around companies that may pay for – or withhold advanced copies because of – reviews. Go to YouTube. You’ll find video game discussions ranging from hilarious (Angry Video Game Nerd) to simple Let’s Plays (littering the wastes of the internet). All of these those skirt a major issue I see when talking games…

 

We need to take games seriously when we discuss them… at least sometimes.

All other art forms have a myriad of intelligent, well-written treatises, discussions, and reviews. If you head to any library you can find entire collections that are just essays about certain works of art. This is dangerously lacking in the game world. And it’s this dearth of seriously work on the creation of, enjoyment of, and social ramifications of games that allow non-gamers to see them as some kind of “other.” This otherness makes them a target for those who want to pin social wrongs on them or deride them as mind numbing, time wasting claptrap.

 

We gamers know this is wrong. I feel that video games can be inherently superior to television. They are an interactive medium that engages viewers as participants in much the same way that a book or live art might; that somehow is lacking when binge watching Netflix. Yet society allows people to throw games and gamers under the bus for the woes we all face, from laziness to violence, as if games are somehow different and dangerous from any other art form or time waster.

 

When we adopt a better way to have scholarly discussions as well as fun talks about games, then we can finally move past this stigma. Every new art form has detractors that think it’s inferior. Look at the early commentary are films, comics, or television. Eventually the people making these things evolve to understand how to convey their love of them (as film and television has) or suffer the negative consequences of letting other people tell them how they can enjoy that art (as comic books did under the Comic Code).

 

Typing in the term “video game” into GoogleScholar returns roughly 1,700,000 articles. The vast majority of these are on video games in learning, cognition, and behavior. A few deal with economics. Almost none of them talk about the scholarly merits of games. The lack of better reviews, criticism, essays, and books on games from their history to their enjoyment is what can make or break games for all of us. Luckily games have had some strong proponents that have not allowed them to be neutered or ruined by the curtailing of free speech. But, at the same time, great discussion on these games as games fall into two camps: mockery of bad games and basic talk about good games.

 

I propose we start to invent some kind of new, interesting shared language so that we can produce better and better discussions on games. We should be reviewing more than just the veneer of the game and the enjoyment therein. Game reviews should be more than angry rants or basic facts about the game, sometimes coming with the price of pay-to-play. Let’s create truly exciting and interactive forms of essays on games. If Super Mario 3 is a masterpiece, why does it succeed? If Action 52 is terrible, how does it fail? It is here that games and gamers have something no other art form has: the intersection of all other art forms. Games can be as beautiful as a Monet, as engaging as Hemingway, as expressive as Chaplain, and as moving as Mozart. But games have a few extra layers that many art forms don’t have, including programming and interactivity.

 

It’s because of this interactivity that games are often overlooked by scholars and gamers alike as art. And it is because of this interactivity that we need a new, better language for their discussion so that they can continue to be loved and free, open expressions for the rest of our lives. It is also this interactivity that brings a big threat to the continuing talk of games… Will they still be around in 50 or 100 or 1,000 years? Imagine if we lost the game equivalents of Hamlet or the Mona Lisa. We cannot deprive the future of the Dooms and the Zorks and the Final Fantasies of the world and, so, we must be smarter about how we share the good and bad with ourselves, each other, and the public at large.

 

Engage, educate, and enjoy. Now let’s work on a better way to do it that isn’t some percentage rating with a few brief words on physics or mechanics. We should talk about the artists who make these games. We should discuss the visual, the mechanics, the physics, the successes, the failures, the sounds, and the enjoyment.

And we must talk about them as intelligent consumers… Except Tiger handheld games. Those things are terrible.  

 

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