Games Snobbery – Are We Missing The Point?

Something to ponder before I start another year…

I’d like to take a moment to drop a few quotes here:

  • “Seriously? Do you have NO taste in games?!”
  • “Typical fanboy bulls***. ‘Nuff said.”
  • “This is what is holding video games back people!”
  • “Childish nonsense. Really not what games are about now!”

All of these were used – and some beyond the realms of retyping – when games websites decided to either nominate or award Super Mario 3D World as one of (if not the) best games of 2013. It struck me not that people were criticising the game itself – most of them, I’m guessing, hadn’t taken the time to play the game and had prejudged it either on a cultural stereotype that we have made about the Mario franchise, or based their opinions on trailers and screenshots. Those who had played it were generally unanimous in their praise for the title – which got me thinking; what games DID they think reflected the games industry?

I took a few days to go and read some comments to games that users nominated as the best of 2013. And for the most part, I found myself realising that we, as gamers, consider ourselves of a higher brow than “casuals”, or any other group of games players. People look deep into games; sometimes this turns up fascinating insights into the design of a game, there’s no question of that. Dark Souls has had more critics study its intricacies than most games will ever be subjected to in their lifetime; looking deep into the story, the landscape, the feel and the monster designs themselves. The Last of Us, with its commentary on the state of the world today, has been equally poured over; the interpretations are as diverse as you’d like.

On the flipside, however, I suspect other games get more credit in the “arthouse” department than they should be given; one of last years cardinal sins in this sphere was Grand Theft Auto V. Many forgave it’s ridiculous overt violence and crass misogyny as “a damning mocking of modern scripting.” Here’s the problem though; it’s a modern scripting mocking modern scripting? I never, to be truthful, felt like the game was mocking it – rather, didn’t mind that this sort of thing was normal and accepted. Even then, stooping to the lowest common denominator in your quest to mock something isn’t necessarily the brightest way to try and hold a mirror up to the nature of the market; rather like Lily Allen’s recent “Hard Out Here” music video. You can say it’s sarcasm, or mocking in tone, but you do yourself a disservice by effectively resorting to the same clichés without making any serious point in return.

Super Mario 3D World, on the other hand, has been condemned by most as nothing more than “childish nonsense”. Which personally I think does the game a deep disservice also; the playful design, the quick-fire level progression and the subtle detailing allows for more critical analysis than most games offer; never mind that it’s a Mario game, and bright and breezy. The same could be said for something like Pixar’s eponymous Wall-E, it moves very quickly. But the devil is in the details; and take it as a movie for children and you miss 90% of what the movie is about, and what it says, and how it says it. Super Mario 3D World has plenty of playful adult jokes; from objects that spring up when you touch them to Mario FINALLY getting full-on views up Peach’s skirt (he’s waited long enough!), from stages where the winds go from suck to blow to being able to doodle in the snow (and it turns a yellow hue… hmm…), you miss the nods and winks by quickly dismissing the game based on looks alone. And that’s long before you get to the end-game stages; collecting all the stars is, once again, a challenge that many an experienced gamer will end up cursing to the day they die.

So it’s witty, funny and challenging. But what of another comment; “It doesn’t say anything! There’s no point!”

This kind of underlines a serious issue in the gaming collective right now – that a video game cannot just be mere fun. It has to be more; it has to be a commentary on the world, on life, on something. It has to make you think or challenge your tolerance to certain things. That taboos need to be broken, and video games must always be striving for this in order to have any validity in the market. And this is typical of snobs in any entertainment medium; or even, let’s be honest here, in the art world. We want our artform to be taken seriously. We want people to look at what we have, fold their arms and go, “Yes, now I see what people like about this.”

But we’ve got several hurdles to go before we can even stand on this precarious little podium of “special”-ness. The first hurdle is the big one; cost. You can walk into an art gallery for a nominal fee these days and peruse the galleries. Television is mostly free (although some of us still pay TV licences for public broadcasters). Movies are inexpensive as well; and you can have very different experiences depending on where you go and what you plan to see. Even music is cheap and readily available in a variety of locations. Video games require a £250+ investment, then £50 for each game thereafter. And that’s before you consider extra peripherals for specific genres and games, which all add up. Video gaming is, let’s be honest, the most expensive way of wasting your time – and there’s NOTHING wrong with wasting your time, but let’s at least be honest about how expensive it is compared to other forms of entertainment mediums.

Then we need more widespread acceptance. This is likely to be harder to achieve, considering the volatility in the gaming community at any criticism. It’s true that in any medium, aspiring critics can be the most vicious and cruel; they mark themselves out, need the attention. In doing so, they divide opinion and effectively cause a fight amidst people who otherwise probably wouldn’t get involved. The more that can be offended, the better; page clicks generate revenue thanks to new advertising deals. You just need traffic now; most ad services stopped per-ad-click revenue streams a long time ago, when we started using ad blockers. It’s this childish behaviour which the mainstream press often likes to pick up on; to prove that gamers are just “children in adult bodies”, that we are immature or that our hobby needs more regulation to stop creating monsters. Video games are here to stay; moreso with China lifting the ban on gaming consoles this week, a decision that is likely to delight Sony and Nintendo (but as usual in that neck of the woods, Microsoft may suffer) and see super-charged sales figures. But to get more widespread acceptance from an increasingly conservative society, we may need ourselves to prove that we can clean up our messes.

And then we need to learn that not everything has to be art; it’s fine that not everything is the Mona Lisa, after all. The Mona Lisa is special. It’s got history, it’s got a story, it’s a very alluring portrait. If everything was the Mona Lisa… well, the Mona Lisa wouldn’t be special any more, would it?

If every game had the ability to change us in some way, well, I dare say that we’d be in a pickle. Always moving, never able to stop and appreciate the finer details of what makes a game good or bad. Progress is a combination of movement and stationary reflection; we need to be able to push boundaries, of course. But if we do so blindly, we can often end up in a worse position than we were in before. Taking the time to stop, admire or study your surroundings and then decide on where to go next is how many artists make some of their most sterling work. They take the time to do something that challenges the norm of that time, or reflects the era in which it is created. It’s not always about pushing boundaries; it’s knowing which boundaries to push, and how.

And if we continue to ignore games like Super Mario 3D World, which are fun, we also miss a large part of what these industries are built on; entertainment. We can become so focused on chasing an ideal that it’s all too often easy to forget that this expensive hobby of ours is supposed, primarily, to entertain us in some degree. Be that through tears, laughter or frustration, we’re supposed to enjoy these games at the end of it all. We won’t always agree; critics and cynics rarely do, after all. But we’re supposed to enjoy what we play; and it’s fine that someone doesn’t like a game you like, or likes a game you don’t. We’re all different, and like any other medium out there, there are enough genres and styles covered that you can find something that excites and thrills you. And you can like broader gaming ideals, or be selective and only partake of a small selection. There is enough content to keep most people occupied for some time.

We just need to drop the snobbery; it’s very unbecoming. We’re making haughty faces at anyone who seems to be buying games for the purposes of fun, or to play with their friends, or just because they are curious about it. We need to play bad games at times; it’s by knowing what is bad, that we also learn what we like. We can buy one console; or, like me, you could buy them all over the course of the next ten years of this generation. There’s enough time for our new machines to grow into their skin; and enough space for us to probably end up picking up machines in sales, or second-hand.

We seem to have a desire for our industry to grow; but it is growing. It has been growing for years. Sales are up; genres have diversified. China will no doubt allow more money to pour into companies and allow them a little more leeway with risks for the rest of us. Gamers cover all walks of life; my grandfather played games in his 80’s. Kids play games from a younger and younger age now too (although to be fair, I started at four years old, so you know… this is nothing new, people!). Taking a look back at some of the best games of the last few years, there are dozens if not hundreds of very valid, very worthy entrants into that and a lot of them did very well. Even some of the smaller studios made money. The industry is growing; it’s growing because more people are getting involved, and more money is invariably going to be thrown into the fire.

What we do, with these snobbish comments, is alienate ourselves from the wider market. We limit ourselves; we simply wall ourselves off from the progress outside because it’s not the progress we want, or desire, or hoped for. And more than that; it’s trolling in this day and age. To go into a thread where people are discussing why they like something, only to stand there and turn your nose up and tell them they’re all wrong, makes you look like the idiot. You are the one creating a problem; you are the one who needs to get a life. It’s a terrifying thought that some would so limit themselves from otherwise good things based on prejudices. But, like in life, some people are simply taught to hate. And they need to tell people so. This is what I hate about threads. I don’t care if you don’t like Super Mario 3D World. I did. I do. Your opinion, frankly, means little to me. I’ll either assume you didn’t play it, or don’t normally play this kind of thing. I had a blast playing it. All I feel for you, with your swearing and shouting and anger, is pity. Pity that you can’t find a game that gives you that same warm glow of satisfaction.

Maybe if everyone made a new years resolution to not smack talk people who liked things they didn’t, by the end of this year a lot of the games reviews and forums would have cleaned up somewhat. But nothing drives traffic like controversy; and to do that, you need to provoke strong reactions. You need to find topics or subjects that people will argue over; and then you need to phrase them in such a way that people will often comment without actually reading the content to get any context.

It’s kind of sad we’re that predictable. But I live in hope – that someday, we’ll all accept each others differences. Enjoy what you buy; and stop caring that someone likes something more than you did. If and when you paid money for it; the only opinion that should matter, at the end of the day, is yours. If you loved it, congratulations! If you didn’t, better luck next time. Reviews and commentary should never replace your own thoughts and opinions, because at the end of it all, only you know what you like. Why try so hard to like what someone else likes?

You’ll probably never meet them anyway. So what are you trying to prove?

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