Radical Gaming Blues

What Games Are recently published an article about the idea of games being radical. Their conclusion—that games aren’t there yet—isn’t, itself, radical. They claim, however, that games are on their way to becoming less conservative, that the only barrier towards games being “about something” is commercial control. Publishers are dooming games to being vapid shoot-a-thons.

I’m not sure I agree with this assessment. It’s based off of two points: one, that games aren’t about things now, and two, that it’s all the major publishers fault because they’re “short-sighted gatekeepers”. They cite Apple’s banning of Phone Story as proof of concept.

This leaves me unconvinced. There are thousands of indie games on the internet, thousands on Apple’s platform, and while few advocate the same kind of “fuck the system!” change that’s integral to Phone Story or a Sex Pistols song, that’s not because of the publisher. Newgrounds will publish anything, no matter how puerile or outrageous, and yet their top games list features only one that’s even attempting to make a point, Fear is Vigilance. Removed from publishers, game developers are making the same kind of games: zombies, nazis, platforms, and explosions.

Given the option of making games with social commentary, they have declared those things as what games are about. Gaming’s most provocative auteur, David Cage, thinks the player as female character stripping is social commentary, when anyone who’s ever seen a movie has seen this a thousand times. It is “edgy” only because of gaming’s second class status. And most games, publisher or no, do not attempt to be radical. Even our serious attempts at games suffer from a homogenation of viewpoint. That is, games aren’t about anything because they’re all made by one group for one group. All our games are made by people like David Cage: even if they want to be provocative, they have nothing intrinsic to be provocative about.

“Gamers”, the kind who play more than “authentic” games, are an extremely homogenous group of people: they are mostly male, white, middle to upper class with disposable income, and living in extreme luxury compared to the rest of the world. The people who develop all kinds of games come from this subset of people. The people who write games, who decide on their mechanics, likely all grew up in a similar background: first world, well taken care of, with wants but without significant adversity.

And games, as a whole, deal with first world problems, usually with a gravitas that belies how unimportant these problems are. Critical darling of the year Catherine deals with thirty year old males living in a comfortable lifestyle but having trouble committing to one of two hot women. My darling Bastion dealt with genocide, but did so in a lightweight way—rather than explore it, the game presents the theme and leaves it hanging for you to “think about”. Braid is about unrequited love, a stalker, and, if you dig really, really deep, nuclear warfare. Bioshock attempts to impress us with the radical but ends up sounding like a seventeen year old lighting an Ayn Rand book on fire and then staying around hoping for free pizza.

The most radical we’ve gotten is Tale of Tales, whose games The Path, Facade, and others have been provocative and radical and about something. They aren’t the Sex Pistols of Gaming, but they might be Iggy Pop and the Stooges. I don’t think they’re the Velvet Underground of Gaming, though I retain the right to change my mind in five years.

But game developers, given a platform to say something, have by and large chosen to say nothing. When they do say something, they do it in an unobtrusive way, or they do it about something where there is no controversy. “War is bad, genocide is bad,” some war games tell us. “No duh,” we respond.

But games, by and large, don’t have anything radical to say for the same reason film doesn’t often have much radical to say: the people working inside it just aren’t radical. Both have extremely high barriers for entry. Buying a computer, even a mediocre one, is expensive. Having internet connectivity is impossible in some corners of the world, expensive in others. Learning to program is another barrier, one which excludes even more individuals. In addition, to make games you ought to pay games, which cost, all told, thousands of dollars. This leaves a very small group of people, and most of them are older and quite comfortable. And what do we have to rebel against, besides that girl in the coffee shop thinking we’re weird or things we know are bad like Nazis and the imminent zombie apocalypse?

Let’s be honest: there are so very few games about genocide in Africa because anyone interested in that field is going to do something simpler, like writing a book about it, instead of learning to make a game about it. Very few want to make games about the economy because, Christ, games have to be fun! Even if they did want to represent the issue through electronic media, why would they want to put up with the inevitable backlash that follows every serious game when they could write a book and have it be a bestseller?

(This raises a different point: whether or not gamers are ready for a radical game. Whether or not we’re ready for games that aren’t traditionally fun. This is a different article for a different day.)

The few games that are radical betray a different sort of problem: not only is there a barrier of entry, there’s an issue of focus. Games like A Closed World are certifiably progressive, but they aren’t games of note. Anyone can make a game about something, but it’s harder to make a brilliant game about something, and the people capable of doing this are, by and large, not interested in telling stories about sexual violence, or homosexuality, or the real costs of war, or anything on that subject. Most smaller studios can focus on the issues or on how the game plays, not both. They can be radical, or they can be fun, and if they are not fun they will fade from consciousness like A Closed World, unfortunately, has.

This, sadly, is why games will be relegated as a secondary art form: no one in gaming wants to change it. Given the choice between a story about something real and radical and one about blowing up zombies, they will always make the zombie game, because even if they have the willingness to make something radical, they don’t have the life experience to consider it.

I’d like to make three comment-like addendums, to clarify collateral damage I’ve caused from this post.

First, I am not saying games cannot be worthwhile without being radical. I find great value in the art games that are being created at present. They are just more like classical music than they are like the Sex Pistols; they are more John Updike than Jack Kerouac. Which is fine: I’d take Updike over Kerouac any day.

Second, I have not talked about female game developers. My uninformed opinion is that they have the best potential to make radical games, but I am not knowledgeable enough about the experience of the female game developers to talk about this topic in any way that is not condescending. I apologize. I encourage you to write a response to this response, both showing me up and making the internet more meta.


  1. GT Walsh

    I really enjoyed this article as it really got me thinking about game development. I agree with you in thinking one of the major problems in creating a more radical gaming experience is simply because it’s rare to get a talented developer who understands how to craft engaging gameplay mechanics and has the funds to achieve the vision. Other mediums like art, writing, and theater have significantly simpler methods for creation and allow the really great minds in their areas the ability to develop something fresh and exciting.

    However, I think games are actually in a pretty good place right now. Unlike television, I can usually find something worth my while and the next few months look pretty promising for new titles.

  2. David

    I know it only by reputation, but I’m surprised that you didn’t bring up ‘Spent’. Granted, it’s more about education, but it’s a game about surviving bad economic circumstances.

    • Re: “Spent” – I thought of the exact same game. A game which I quit playing halfway through because it hit much too close to home and, as was mentioned in the article: “Games have to be fun!”

      There’s also that “Real Lives” game, which I haven’t played, but have heard about– although I imagine that doesn’t really do much beyond give us a quick uncomfortable reminder that “these problems exist”.

      • Tom Auxier

        Spent is, of course, a good example. I got tired of citing it in my articles about learning through games a couple months ago, though. It’s not a particularly fun game, either. A Closed World fills its narrative purpose.

        I would have looked more closely at Spent and Real Lives if I was looking at it practically, from the level of design.

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  4. Doug S.

    I think that I can name exactly one game that was “radical”… Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

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