Besides, if the latest surveys about the average gamer being a 32-year-old single male who sits at home and plays games all day are correct, then what I am proposing is not going to have much impact at all.
South Attorney General, John Rau, on his proposal to replace the MA15+ rating for video games exclusively with an R18+ rating
No-one buys a ticket to the theatre or concert hall to witness something ordinary, something that can be done by any reasonably intelligent person with a modicum of application and training – like making a computer game or designing an ear-ring.
Richard Mills, Artistic Director of the West Australian Opera Company in his piece on Artistic Vibrancy for the Australia Council
Comments like these are unsurprising to anyone who has grown up with videogames. Clichés like these persist, despite the fact that surveys describe gamers as a diverse bunch of people who just happen to play games – by themselves, with their partners, with their families – and are also looking for experiences which are far from ordinary, weaving themselves into the fabric of their lives in the same way as the theatre or a concert.
At the recent Freeplay festival, we asked a bunch of people to dig out their recollections of games that they’ve played from the extraordinary, the influential, the shaping, the personal, and then – inspired by a similar Emerging Writers Festival event – present them in a Pecha Kucha night of tiny little talks where each slide lasts for twenty seconds. Despite the narcissism inherent in such a presentation – or perhaps because of it – I decided to do one of my own, and in doing so, I discovered an arc that I wasn’t expecting – my own life filtered through the games that I’d played carried me from novelty to escape to boredom and finally to hope, mirroring some of my personal experiences, and – like all art – shining a light on why I am the way I am.
This is what it looked like.
These are the first games I can remember playing – Pong, Airwolf, Icicle Works, Head over Heels, Uridium, Paradroid, Sabateour, Treasure Island. I would have been about 7 or 8 when I first saw Pong for the first time, and was interested, but not hugely impressed. The first game that hugely impressed me was Punchy where I played a strange policeman jumping over Quasimodo, avoiding arrows, and trying go rescue a princess. It came on a tape with an old machine called a Commodore +4. And there was a chunky drawing program – like Photoshop but with much larger pixels – branded with Rolf Harris’ name on the other side.
Once I had my first computer – which I shared with my brother – I played indiscriminately. The novelty was the thing. I flew helicopters, jet planes, was Batman or a ninja, a droid or Santa Claus. I plundered treasure and I shot aliens. I rolled around as a marble and I fought crime.
But it was only when I played a game called Elite that I began to think maybe here was something I could do with my life.
Elite cast you as whatever you wanted, in a universe that only half-cared what you decided to do. From your home space station, you could head out and trade – legally or on the fringes – become a pirate, a bounty hunter, an explorer, or any combination of the above. I played as a trader just on the right side of the law, occasionally getting caught and pursued by police, but never enough to threaten my nomadic existence or pursuit of credits and finding out what was at the edge of the galaxy.
It was, for me, the perfect escape.
My family used to go on holidays to seaside resort towns. I wasn’t really a seaside-resort type of kid, but these places always had some sort of arcade where I could take my daily allowance of about two or three pounds, get it converted to twenty- and fifty-pence coins and try to escape the grey cloudy British summers for a little while. This sort of behaviour obviously wasn’t encouraged, but it was my way of dealing with it all, my way of taking a little bit of control over the situation, and finding pleasure in the midst of the boredom.
But then something happened when I finally got my dream job making games. I found myself doing the same thing over and over again. I started out as a programmer and gravitated, partly through choice, partly through necessity, to writing visual effects code. Sounds kind of exciting, but there’s only so many times you can solve that same problem on different consoles – PC, PS2, PS3, Xbox360 – before it becomes uninteresting, to me at least.
And I found myself having the same responses to games. I was bored. Bored of the same fantasy tropes, the same space marines, the same endless stream of sequels.
But then, I had a rare moment of epiphany when playing Dragon Age. What if, for some of these games, creating boredom was the intent? What if there was a richer and broader range of expression available to us than aiming simply for ‘fun’?
Dragon Age wasn’t doing it deliberately, but Bioshock 2 & Limbo, I think, are. Bioshock 2, in particular, very deliberately uses repetition, drudgery, tedium and boredom in its opening stages to significant emotional impact when it twists in its second half into something wholly unexpected – and something that carries such great emotional impact because as a player you’ve pushed through that boring beginning into something new.
I think we’re in the beginning of a golden age of videogames where technology is no-longer the limiting factor, where we’re moving away from What can we make this new console ‘do’? to What can we say using the structures, rhythms and shapes of games? New designers are appearing, who have grown up in a world where videogames are a fact of life. Artists from visual arts, film, literature, music, or sculpture are becoming interested in the form and they’re creating things that may only peripherally resemble the games of my childhood, but which create emotional experiences unlike anything that’s come before.
And that gives me hope.
Paul Callaghan is a freelance writer, developer, educator, and the director of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival.