While we often joke about what makes a “hardcore gamer,” I would argue that you don’t become a real gamer until you stumble across your first argument over whether video games need to “grow up.” Ever since video games gained an ounce of notoriety, general society has taken it upon themselves to try and “improve” the medium, usually by ostensibly removing the bits they don’t like. And while Phil Owen’s eighty-seven page editorial disguised as a book, WTF is Wrong With Video Games, is not the most egregious, it does serve a nice summary of everything wrong with the arguments against video games. On a greater level, its serves as an example of society’s issue with art. Not with video games as art—art in general. I read the first chapter preview on Polygon, deceptively presented as a third-party advertisement even though Owen himself is the author of that article. I nearly made myself hoarse groaning at the pompous argument made that essentially amount to “Why does this video game have all this game related stuff in it?”
So I looked up the author and found on Twitter that this noble knight here to rescue video games from themselves seemed oddly dismissive of any criticisms towards what he no doubt considers his magnum opus. Always seeking a challenge though, I picked up the book. Surely there is more substance than presented in this first chapter.
There was not.
The primary argument in WTF is Wrong With Video Games is an argument I personally find more annoying than a hundred Jack Thompsons. One which has haunted not only gaming but every new medium since the beginning of time. The age old argument “Why isn’t this new thing more like this old thing?” It seems the author here can’t resist comparing video games to film, in particular, droning on for far too long about the fact that The Last of Us contains gameplay.
Now, there is one valid argument to be made, that is regarding games where the story and gameplay are made exclusive of each other. But this is not a new argument, and the author seems to believe gamers have never noted or complained about this. However, it is a common complaint—gamers are not brainless. We can recognize when the gameplay is utterly pointless in the grand scheme of the story, and AAA games have improved on this if anything, finding more ways to involve the players in the story and evolution of their character. I’m reminded of reviewers like Yahtzee Croshaw, who regularly point out flaws like these. Croshaw, known for Zero Punctuation on The Escapist Magazine, is a very popular reviewer and while hyperbolic, most viewers appreciate his opinions, which are often valid. So to pretend that this one valid argument is ignored by gamers is ludicrous.
So now that we’ve covered the one thing this book gets correct, albeit while wrongly assuming that one thing is something novel, what does the book get wrong. This will be presented in a list format, because to paraphrase Owen, “It’s my article, I do what I want.”
Video Games Are Not Films
This may seem an obvious statement, but it’s shocking how many people seem to think video games are just movies-lite. Just an off-shoot for the huddled masses who don’t have the attention span for film (because clearly, the test of attention span is on whether you can sit through a 2 hour movie, not complete a 40-hour epic). WTF is rife with these comparisons. The first paragraph kicks it off describing the movie San Andreas, and from then on it does not improve.
Owen makes the argument that we cross-compare mediums all the time, but he seems to miss how those comparisons happen. Imagine if a lifelong bookworm saw a movie for the first time and complained that the characters must all wear masks because giving them faces removes the imaginative quality. Or if a stagehand said films are too cinematic and the camera should stay still on each scene, as in a play. This is essentially the argument being made by Owen—that an aspect crucial to the expression of the medium needs to be changed. He argues it is because it takes away from the “story” typically, but in how he presents it, if you remove everything he dislikes, you would have a movie. He picks on The Last of Us in particular, poking fun at the crafting system and the idea of “video game logic.”
Video games have some comparison to film, particularly AAA titles of the modern age. They’re cinematic, they weave a story throughout, they’re a moving, visual medium. And indeed you can criticize the story of a game in similar ways you can to a film, but there is a bit more too it. Unlike in a film, the player is expected a modicum of involvement in the story you would not get from film, via the gameplay and from at least an illusion of choice in the outcomes. Film is straightforward; it requires no involvement at all from the audience. They are simply the viewer. Games rely on this—even the most basic of walking simulators require a player. So the frequent comparison made not only by Owen but many other critics of the gaming industry is meaningless.
Owen talks a decent amount about the state of the industry, and how everyone seems to fit into the industry. To my knowledge, Owen has never actually worked in the gaming industry as anything besides a freelance journalist. He comments that most people seem fine with it until he gets them drunk, which he takes as ultimate truth (because it isn’t like any drunk person is at all impressionable, or that there’s a bit of unprofessionalism in happily airing what people say while drunk as fact in your book). Again, he draws the comparison to film, asking why the hierarchy is so different, complaining about the condescending way writers are supposedly treated (this happening very shortly after he is dismissive of the arguments used by the legendary writer Amy Hennig). He takes particular issue with the status of “writers,” complaining that, shockingly, writers may have more responsibilities than just writing. He talks about how Jeffrey Yohalem, of Far Cry 3 fame, refers to himself as a “designer,” and complains about writers needing “practical skills:”
Yohalem, see, is not just a writer. He’s really, he told me, a game designer. Whether that’s literally, textually true might be up for debate (it can be difficult to track these things from the outside!), but in terms of how game developers talk about what they do, it’s an accurate descriptor for Yohalem’s role in addition to that thing where he types many words in sequence to form sentences and paragraphs that make sense. What he meant, really, in specifying that he’s also a designer in addition to being a writer, is that he actually had some meaningful influence. He wasn’t just a writer, because in the video games industry proper, someone who is designated as a writer does not have any power. But Yohalem felt he had real say in the development of the games he worked on, which meant it was important for him to note he was also a designer. (Location 424)
This is not only a ridiculous thing to complain about, especially since even in Owen’s impression Yohalem is proud and even fine with the title, but a bit insulting to fiction writers. A good video game writer will also be acting as a designer, because they are writing and creating the world along with the team. Video games are not exactly linear stories, especially big-budget AAA titles. If all you’re doing is writing the script, then you aren’t writing enough for a video game. Most games have a deeper lore than that. It is perfectly reasonable and even expected that writers end up also taking the role of designers, and this isn’t something degrading to writers.
Why would any writer of fiction complain about having more input in something they no doubt care deeply about? That would be like complaining that a writer having their book adapted to film gets to consult, instead of just stand back and have their creation used at the director’s discretion. Especially when he goes on to say “but the writer is just there to fill in gaps”. Yes, of course. Because throughout the game, the player is the one controlling most of the action. Not the writer. This would explain why writers take on roles as designers as well, to help weave the plot more efficiently and create the lore that surrounds the world. He seems to devalue it, as if to say writers who aren’t just writers must not be very good (ignoring of course that Yohalem has a degree in English Literature from Yale and likely understands writing at a far deeper level than Owen could imagine). But writing is much more than just putting words on paper.
Owen starts off pretty much every chapter by bringing in the comparison to film again, and it makes the message crystal clear: “Video games need to be more like movies.” What he neglects in this comparison is that there are a lot of terrible movies. In fact, there’s a lot of terrible art in general. The ratio of good to terrible art most likely leans more towards the latter, though it’s obviously difficult to measure since art is mostly subjective.
But why on Earth should video games seek to emulate film? What is it about film that would make it a picture perfect example—a medium riddled with issues of entitlement, sale based on namesake, and constantly leeching off the ideas of other mediums (including video games). Video games have adaptations and suffers from the same issues of sequel overload, but at least video games begin from an original idea far more often than film does nowadays. Video games that are popular begin as original ideas. Movies that are popular begin as adaptations of novels, comic books, children’s cartoons, and so forth. The problem at Owen describes would not be solved by making video games MORE like movies. If anything, video games need to strive to be LESS like movies.
You Can’t Ignore Indies
Owen says in the introduction that he isn’t going to cover indies but makes a broad statement that most of what he says will probably apply. For the most part, it doesn’t of course, since what he talks about for the majority of the book would only apply to projects with larger staff. Then Chapter 5 comes, and it becomes clear Owen didn’t consider indies at all. Chapter 5 has nothing to do with gameplay, games as art, and is almost a complete non-sequitur in the context o the book itself. It’s titled “The American Dream” and begins with Owen, essentially, complaining about capitalism (which is amusing, since he made a crack at communism earlier in the book and the idea of a project allowing ideas to come from anyone). Of course he breaks out the age old “gaming is nothing but white men” even though, of the people named in his book, women represent nearly half (he mentioned Amy Hennig and Jade Raymond by name).
Owen goes on to complain that “you aren’t becoming a creative professional, you’re just getting a job.” But this argument doesn’t make sense in any large scale creative medium. This is something video games actually DO have in common with film—it takes many people of varying skills. Not every person who works the boom mic is an artist. Does that mean film is no longer art? Not every stage hand is an artist. Does that mean plays are no longer art? The rest of that chapter seems to be the same cynical thing you can read for free on Tumblr—a bitter white guy complaining that other white guys are doing well.
He even recalls a story where he realized “I only have this job because I’m a white male”… a conversation he recalls having with a female peer. Mr. Owen, not to trample a dead horse I already beat into the ground a while back, but if you’re going to degrade my hobby, could you be a dear and not also bring my gender into it as some kind of weapon to bolster your own self importance? It would be greatly appreciated. This argument is so tired I felt physically exhausted reading it. I had to put the book away because I could not actually stomach the thought of reading yet another blatant attempt to gain appeal for your argument by catering to supposed “oppressed groups.” Meanwhile, he regularly criticizes people who dare to work in the industry that enjoy games (and seems to imply there isn’t an overlap between the two).
The Video Game Dream is the means of continuing that cycle by scaring off folks who don’t fully buy in to the way the industry does things. To succeed in video games, you have to really, really like video games. (Location 662)
Moving forward, indies are the great defiance of this idea that gaming is “hard to break into.” This is another area where gaming would falter if it tried to imitate film. Independent films are a niche, even among film buffs. It’s exceedingly rare for an independent film to reach critical success. Indie games, however, are a booming business. The vast majority of Steam titles at this point are independently made, and independent titles often receive as much notoriety as many mainstream games. While they usually can’t compete with large budget titles, they’re often on equal playing ground to AAA games with more moderate budgets.
Gaming is more like literature in this area; in the same way anyone can write a book, anyone can make a game, given enough time and dedication. And they can put that game on Steam, and from there, it is about how they market it and whether players want to play the game. You can find at least some kind of market for any game of course, though some will perform better than others. And for the most part, the name behind the game is unimportant. No one vets the creators of their indie games before buying to make sure they’re exclusively buying from straight white men. Anyone can make an indie.
Can they still fail? Yes, but that isn’t a fault in the industry. Art is not always profitable; in fact, most often it is not. As with all entertainment and art, it is about risk. It is risky to make a game, no matter who you are. It is risky to dedicate those hours to a project that perhaps no one will see. If you don’t like that risk, then frankly my dear, you probably shouldn’t dedicate yourself to any art medium.
Games Journalism Has a Problem – It Isn’t What you Think
Being a “freelance gaming journalist,” of course Owen had to bring up what he views as the true issues within gaming journalism, but actually identifying them in the word jumble he concocted is difficult. Essentially, he seems to believe that the gaming community is totally averse to anyone being critical of their hobby (though, contradicts himself by also saying the community was the one supporting him when his editors didn’t support his work). Now, this is preposterous since some of the most popular gaming related entertainers make their living off being cynical and critical of gaming, not just individual games but as a medium. They just do it far better than Owen does.
There are cases where gamers may defend certain topics and games to the death, but this isn’t an issue specific to games—this is what we call “fandom.” And it is everywhere from games to movies to books to sports to politics. That is human nature. We defend the things we like, often irrationally. Any critic of any level should be ready for those people, as they’re easy to pick out. As for the idea that the games press is a place people are “terrified of breaking consensus”, again, that is true. But you’re on the wrong side of that one Owen; the gaming community at large happily disagrees over everything. It is places like Polygon and Kotaku where uniformity is required.
Given that we in the games press are, by and large, terrified of breaking from the consensus, reviews for higher profile games are, either intentionally or subconsciously, tailored to what the critic expects the consensus will be for that game. We don’t want to make waves and bring the shitstorm of angry fans and PR down on us, so we take a guess at what will be a generally acceptable opinion and score, and roll with it. (Location 845)
He also brings up editors nitpicking his work, telling him not to write certain things. And I will admit, it is a problem. Not one I’ve ever come across. My editors will make sure my argument is well made and my work well-written but even if we couldn’t disagree more, I can sleep soundly know they would never pull a piece because they didn’t like it. Oddly enough, one of the sites he took issue with where this occurred was Kotaku.
Besides that, where he takes issue is with the idea that people may actually like things that he is critical of. How dare they. This is not an ethical concern though. For the record, I have never been threatened no matter how disagreeable my opinions be, nor how critical I am of a popular game. I know the idea of a woman having an opinion, and facing only snide comments as a result, may appear shocking, but even if I were receiving threats over my writing, I would take them about as seriously as I take threats on League when the Mid goes 0/10 and the Jungler doesn’t gank but they still blame the Support. As in, you laugh at them and move on. (You certainly don’t dedicate an entire chapter in your book to complaining about them).
Again, this isn’t a problem solely with video games. This is universal. You’ll find it in literally anything where there might be a division of opinion. The majority of Twitter threats probably come from teenage One Direction fans. To act like this is a phenomenon specific to games is absurd. And yes, this chapter does mention the infamous hashtag revolving around ethics. And yes the argument is as tired as every other argument. Owen himself acts as if he takes the role begrudgingly, and seems to not be a fan of gaming journalists who have the audacity to actually like games. Evidently, we should all take jobs we dislike, lest our bias in favor of enjoying our work sully the position.
Gameplay is Art
Owen makes a frequent clarification between gameplay and “art.” How he repeats this is no doubt meant to emphasize that, in his eyes, the “art” is strictly in the story and cinematic elements, and that the gameplay is meaningless. He points to the Supreme Court declaration that video games are an artistic medium and protected speech, and assumes that this refers to the story. What doesn’t strike him is the fact that the protected speech is not just the story, but the gameplay itself. Grand Theft Auto is the frequent target of critics as the sign of the cultural apocalypse and the fall of all man kind, and is usually the go-to title for those who seek to censor games for their violence or sexual content. While there are plenty of objectionable events in the stories of any Grand Theft Auto game though, that is not the speech that is protected. It is the choices given to the player in how to behave in the world. The gameplay, the mechanics, the ability to mow a semi-truck down a crowded street while shooting a rocket launcher out of the driver’s side window. That is what is protected.
That is the norm, and we’ve been evaluating games thinking that’s how it should be for as long as video games have had stories. I used to say I play games for the stories, and what that meant was I would struggle through the gameplay to get to the art. Most of the time I didn’t enjoy the act of actually playing a game, at least not for long, but sometimes I liked the stories enough that I could convince myself it was worth it. (Location 190)
Now, I won’t argue that act in itself is artistic, but there is an art to gameplay. Often requiring creativity on the part of the player, a level of skill, and a hand in weaving the narrative throughout. It is the gameplay that makes the game. Thus, if games are art, it is the gameplay itself that encompasses the art. Owen’s problem seems to be a very limited scope of what is art—a definition far too narrow and specific.
In its broadest sense, art is about immersion. Art is the act of creating a new and impressive world, one which regardless of the differences and distortions, can appear real to the viewer or listener. This is the one thing all artistic mediums have in common, and it is the factors which create this immersive world that make a medium “art.” Music, performance, literature, even the simplest paintings, all seek to create something meant to convince the purveyor that it is truly real.
Video games are all about immersion; it’s a core factor in their existence. Good games can make a player forget about their real world, often for long periods, and become completely enveloped in the creation before them regardless of how “realistic” it is. Owen starts off saying he wouldn’t include multiplayer games in the book and implies that they’re not art by default because most don’t have an explicit narrative. But most decent multiplayer games still take a great deal of time to invent the world in which everything takes place. No games exists in a vacuum and assumes the player will just step up and accept everything. All games worth their salt will have some kind of lore, an explanation, a setting to place the events of the game in. That is their story.
Owen tries to criticize the process of development for video games, complaining that developers try to “invent video games all over again” every time, and don’t just reuse the same mechanics. Ignore the issue with patents and intellectual property, and consider again this assumes the main art in a game is the story. Not to mention, wouldn’t it just be more agonizing if every game had identical mechanics? While you don’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel every time, creators pride themselves in trying to perfect new ways to explore the worlds around them.
This is why the industry goes through phases—everyone wants to show they know the best way to make a sandbox, or a first-person shooter, or a MOBA—in the same way everyone wants to write the best young adult post-apocalypse story or make the next best superhero movie. It’s repetitive, but it is every creator trying something new, and every once in a while, something revolutionary happens and that becomes the new way of doing. The sandbox setting, the physics engine, they’re the equivalent to the advent of sound in movies. (This is a pettier idea, but he also makes an analogy about a puzzle, saying “you have the pieces already, you can make anything.” But you can’t make anything with a puzzle. You can make a pre-designated picture, and nothing else, unless you get incredibly creative with it.)
Developers don’t often create a game with the unified intent to make one single piece of art. The development process as it exists today — and I’m particularly focusing on large productions because the more people involved, the worse the splintering becomes — is scatterbrained to the point of comedy. We’re lucky to play any major release that even had key thematic concepts behind it when development began. More often than not, development begins with a gameplay concept or concepts and everything is slapped together as the project goes along, typically with endless revisions until the product ships as cobbled-together nonsense. (Location 274)
It is particularly insulting that most of these arguments come from advocates of movies, because this same argument was once used against it. Film, at one point, was also said not to be art. It was frequently compared to literature and the stage, which both scoffed at it as a layman’s form of entertainment. They did not believe it could ever be used to tell a serious story, or portray anything society narrowly views as “artistic.” Now they are a quintessential artform. And now they have decided to give video games the same treatment.
But this is not simply an artistic argument—it’s a change in generations. Video games are new, they’re competition, they’re frightening. Clearly this will never reach the level of sophistication presented by my medium of choice. And yet, video games have proven themselves time and time again to be effective at telling engaging stories, in far more varieties than film or literature ever could. Of finding the most truly immersive method of throwing a player into an entirely new environment, created by hand with as much care as any movie. And this is only when you take society’s definition of art because when you get right down to it …
Art Can Be Fun
This argument, the idea that “fun” and “art” are these intrinsically separate concepts, boggles and infuriates me. It is not simply for games though. I grew up with a fond love of Disney. It is in my blood. And one of the most irritating things I hear is the idea that “Disney is just for kids.” This has been used against animation in the same way it has been used against video games; this idea that animated films are childish. True art must be serious and pretentious of course. Disney films on the other hand contain color, and music, and humor. Clearly those can never be art, because apparently someone has decided that art can never be entertaining. A film can’t be art unless it’s boring. Games, under this definition, can never be art because they just aren’t “serious” enough.
The truth is you can make a game about any concept or story, should you have the will, creative gumption and ability to do so. But Ken Levine disagrees because the game industry’s concept of “fun” comes first and foremost. (Location 387)
It’s a preposterous statement. Owen makes this distinction between “art” and “fun” frequently, and it hits the ear like a gong every time. Beauty and the Beast is not suddenly lesser art because it is pretty, humorous, and enjoyable. The Last of Us is not lesser art because it has gameplay mechanics you may not enjoy. At the end of the book Owen makes what I imagine he views as his big speech atop a hill, telling people “don’t agree with the establishment.” Mr. Owen, you are the establishment. You are exactly the establishment—the argument that things must be perfectly categorized, that labels must be attached at every turn. The establishment which insists what “adulthood” looks like, which has told gamers from the beginning that their hobby will never be permitted, that their ideas are childish. You are the one presenting an argument made by the crotchety old men of the world. For all your talk of “fighting the power” you are the one trying to maintain a status quo by insisting games conform to the constraints of a pre-existing medium and that everyone be just as cynical as you, as if cynicism is some unnatural trait.
I would argue, though, most people are cynical. They’re just apathetically so, having given up on the idea of the world being any good. They aren’t accepting out of fear, or passion, or a desperation to defend what they enjoy. They’re accepting because who cares. Because “well it isn’t art anyway.” The solution to the issues in gaming is not cynicism, it is passion. There is a true novel idea. To combat issues by creating yourself, by proving them wrong, by thinking in ways which are actually new and exciting. I have interviewed developers who are truly afraid, who fear this actual establishment. They do not fear what you say is to be feared (and for the record, I didn’t have to get them drunk first). And developers like those are why gamers stand against you. It is not because your opinion is some grand attack, or you’re an intellectual and we simply can’t handle your utter brilliance. It is because you seek only to remove. To take away. To limit.
True art should never include limits.