Video games as a legitimate media

One thing that kind of irks me is the fact that you still cannot bring up video games in a serious conversation and expect to be taken seriously. Because video games are nothing but a child’s toy. To be fair, if you were referring Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, Pac Man, Mortal Kombat, or Legend of Zelda, I would agree with you. Even the computer program I am using to write this agrees with you! It keeps telling me that those game titles are incorrect words. Anyway, I could go on and on with that list. Those games, while fun, hardly provide the mind with real stimulation and would probably never be discussed in the same fashion a movie or book would. However, each of the games I just named are from the 1980s and 1990s. Granted, some are franchises and are still around, but that is when they were started.

In the last 10 – 15 years, the technology available to game makers has become much more sophisticated. This has enabled games to become much more narrative in nature. Many current game franchises boast narrative arcs that are in many ways superior to many current TV shows and movies. Some that come to my mind include the Uncharted series, the Assassin’s Creed series, the Mass Effect series, and pretty much anything from Bethesda Game Studios. Honorable mention to the Metal Gear Solid series, but since its plotline is more convoluted than a daytime soap, it is not as accessible as other games.

What I fail to understand is that if I spend an evening playing a video game, I will be accused of wasting my time. However, if I were to spend the same amount of time reading, that is perfectly acceptable. The same would be said if I chose instead to spend the evening in question watching TV with friends. The argument here is that if you are reading, you are engaging your mind. If you are with friends, you are socializing. Well, you can socialize among friends with games as easily as you can with TV shows. Easier even, thanks to online play. And my counter argument to video games vs. books is what I said earlier – many video game franchises now have narratives that are just as good as any book or TV show. So my question stands, how is a game any less legitimate than traditional forms of entertainment? As proof of my argument, I present this clip from Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.

No, that was not one long cut scene. Actual gameplay was being presented as well. I picked Uncharted 3 to illustrate some of my previous points. Sure what was presented in that clip was way over the top, but that is what was keeping me engaged. The action sequences are fun to watch play out. I want to know what is going to happen next to the main character, Nathan Drake. The added benefit here is that I have to figure out how Nate is going to get out of the next set of problems that he will encounter. That is something books, movies and TV can offer in only the most limited basis – interactivity.

Allow me to present another example of how video games have evolved into a more sophisticated form of media on par with books and movies – the Mass Effect series. These games currently set the standard on interactive storytelling.  To quickly summarize, Mass Effect is a trilogy of games that I have followed for the last five years. The story, while not entirely original, was very well presented and very engaging. You as the player are given a large amount of freedom to resolve missions as you see fit. You can be anything from a compassionate and noble soldier, a rough around the edges badass, or anything in between.  Also, the games have a game save mechanic where the choices you made in the first two games carry over and affect game play in the third.  Your previous choices affect the outcome of the story.

The big plot twist at the end of the first game was brilliant. Every element in the story up to that point suddenly came together. The climax of the game had a battle that I would argue puts anything seen in Star Wars to shame. The second game in the series built on the strengths of the first. The story was not as strong as Mass Effect 1, but the game itself was still very compelling and so much fun to play that I spent countless hours with it. Based on all of this, I was very excited for the conclusion to the series, Mass Effect 3. I haven’t been excited for something this much since The Dark Knight movie. Ever since completing Mass Effect 2, I was dying to know how this story would end, and how I would go about doing it.

Unfortunately in the case of Mass Effect 3, I – and countless other fans of the series – was left with massive disappointment at the conclusion of the story. I felt that the resolution of the story did not live up to its potential, robbed the story of narrative coherence, and failed to deliver any meaningful denouement for the series as a whole.

Protip: If you have to rely on a deus ex machina to resolve your plot, you have done a poor job at concluding your story and central conflict. There is a good chance that you have also destroyed any narrative coherence that you had up to that point. A deus ex machina sucked as a literary device in ancient Greece, and it still sucks today. Allow me a comparison. Imagine that you have been reading all of the Harry Potter novels. You have grown to like some characters while despising others. You have become interested in the central conflict and how it revolves around Harry, his friends, and the series Big Bad. You have become generally invested in the story and its heroes, and you want to see them standing victorious in the end. Now imagine that that ending had involved the British government becoming aware of the wizarding world and thought that the best course of action was to drop a nuke on Hogwarts. That is what essentially happened at the end of the Mass Effect series. But just so you understand, the other 99% of the series was a joy to play and brilliant in its storytelling.

But my point here is not to complain about something I can’t control. My point is to illustrate that only a well-crafted story – regardless of medium – can generate that sort of reaction from an audience. A reaction that inspires thoughtful and intelligent criticism (which I hope I just delivered). These reactions can run the full range of good and bad depending on how well the audience feels the story was concluded.

A simple toy cannot do that.

Before I sign off, I do need to address one last point – online gaming. I did not want to stick this in at the end of the post, but honestly, I couldn’t find anywhere else to do so where it wouldn’t seem as if I was going off topic. Anyway, some would argue that online capability has produced nothing but countless iterations of Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.  Call of Duty death matches can be fun, but I would never say that it is my preferred venue for gaming. And I refuse to even touch WoW. Grinding for levels is not my idea of entertainment or active engagement. If I wasn’t already clear, I tend to seek out games that will tell me a story. As such, I do agree that too much online gaming is to be avoided.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Video games as a legitimate media

  1. I think the concept behind these games is really interesting. The problem I have always had with any game any more complicated than Super Mario Brothers is that I find it irritating to memorize all the key combinations, etc. I always like shoot-em-up games for that reason.

  2. williamwickey

    I agree.

    Videogames are not only a legitimate media, but saying there is value in ‘videogames’ is like saying there is value in ‘music.’ Nowadays, there are all sorts of genre and sub-genre of videogames that have diverse applications and degrees of artistic, social, and economic merit.

    In my opinion, the type of story-driven, graph-rich videogames that you talk about here should be regarded as highly as book and film franchises in terms of storytelling.

    Here is a top 10 list I stumbled across a while back that discusses storytelling in videogames. http://listverse.com/2011/05/09/10-best-written-video-games/

  3. Because of the popularity of the Uncharted and Mass Effect series, I think we’re going to continue to see big-budget, big story, entertaining games that will dominate the market.

  4. Ning Huang

    Although I have not played video game before, I would enjoy two aspects of a game. First, it should provide me the true feeling in some condition, like the feeling of triumph in the war, the friendly atmosphere in a family, which would cause me totally engaged in the game. Second, elaboratedly desiged plot is necessar, which would attract me to keep playing and want to know what will happen next.

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