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Media snobbery

July 11, 2013

A great many things drive me batty. The way people use expressions that we’ve all hears a million times as if they themselves just thought them up; how some people use the same 60 words to express themselves and then look at you like you’re the weird one for using a word they’ve never heard before; the general overuse (and drastic misuse) of words like “pretentious” and “ironic”… But more than all of that, there’s media snobbery.

Everything has its calibre. Tabloid newspapers in the UK and further afield are designed to be idle entertainment. That is precisely their purpose. The people who read them are not idiots – they are people who love to be idly entertained. As for the people who write the articles, they are certainly not idiots. It takes some skill to talk down to people who don’t even realise they are the victims of mass condescension; think about it – the article is “bad” because the writers think (mostly correctly) that that’s what you want to read. It’s an impishly clever system that will continue to make lots and lots of money for those who don’t mind writing articles that they would never in their right mind consider reading, much less take seriously. I used to be a copywriter, so I know all about that.

Reality television scores a couple of rungs below that in public perception. There is no real reason for this – much as you could argue that the bright box is more obnoxiously noisy and disruptive, or that reading anything stimulates the imagination more that having the audio and visuals fed directly to you. In actuality, most of us realise that a great film is vastly better than a piece of shoddy fanfiction, written word or no written word. The only real reason why we look town on bad television is because we have a ranking system; written materials up the top, radio second (when it is counted at all), television second to last and video games right down the bottom.

This is particularly irksome for me. I will be the first to admit that a game like Tetris, while fantastic for improving your dexterity and filling your dreams with happy music and bright colours, is not exactly an enriching experience. I will also happily admit that video games are “dangerous”, on a strictly suburban-white-middle-class level – that is to say, they are a little addictive and can put you in a bit of a bad temper.

What they do not do is make you go crazy and start killing people in real life. Don’t be ridiculous. If anything, violent games are an outlet for anti-social behaviour, not a cause. And, well, I don’t know about you, but people I’ve met who really love video games are just like me; misshapen, pallid, nerdy individuals with a healthy smattering of eccentric – not in the least bit likely to start a fight with anything more intimidating than a pigeon.

The appeal of video games is primarily the level of interaction. Traditionally a purely male pastime, it made sense that small boys and young adults alike did not want to sit still and be entertained. They wanted to do the entertaining themselves. There will always be something exciting about being in control, particularly for kids and teenagers who have so little control over their own lives. Not only that, but your character is not limited to the same physical or social constraints as your real life self. What’s not to like?

That could be enough, but game designers and gaming writers (where they exist) are fanatics themselves and clever people. They know that, when you play a video game, you want there to be depth and replay value. An excellent plot or concept can be explored with aplomb; the fact that it frequently isn’t is, once again, more a fault of demand than the media itself. Children are not overly discerning. If it involves blowing things up, it will do.

However, a video game doesn’t have to be childish. Just like with any other piece of fiction, you can become emotionally invested in the storyline. Caring about the characters and what happens to them encourages you to make good choices on how they behave, where choices are an option. A good video game will explore these options and indeed, an increasing number do just that.

Games where you press one button and a whole room full of people sink to their knees in pieces will always be popular. Yes, they can be popular for bad reasons, but for good ones also. I have so many fond memories of playing multiplayer with my brothers and it didn’t matter a fig whether we were shooting blocky zombies or driving around in little carts holding colourful characters; there was the same level of enjoyment, frustration, competitiveness, amusement and co-operation. It was more dependent on the originality, the amount of Easter eggs and indeed the level of imagination we could inject into the gameplay – in that sense, it was no less stimulating to the intellect than playing make-believe with action figures.

The overall experience was positive and it is memorable to this day; my brothers and I will still sometimes revisit the games of our childhood (and new games with the same feel) to regain that experience of ultimate camaraderie – it’s a hell of a lot more healthy than joining the army.

Video games don’t rot your brain. I was raised with video games and my brain is tip-top, thank you. You should see me reel off my list of all the States of America. On an equally trivial but less boring note, video games give me plenty to discuss with like-minded people; I love to talk about the design of a game, not in how it looks, but how it pans out. Critics do something quite similar with films and books, I believe. As a writer I fantasise about writing scripts for games and have plenty of ideas to share that would only work in a video game context.

I have heard people insinuate that video games are “useless”. Putting aside for a moment the strange assertion that everything you do is (or should be) useful, let’s examine the purpose of fiction in general. For me, a great piece of fiction is a unique representation of a particular time, place and set of values. Regardless of when it is set, the way it is written can tell you a whole host of things about the time in which it was written.

Video games are not exempt from this; people who make them are affected by the same social and economic shifts as everyone else. As a result, it is inevitable that they will have something important to say that will come out in their work. Video games can paint an accurate portrait of society as much as anything else because they are a relevant part of it; as a section of the entertainment industry that is rapidly increasing in popularity and permeating seamlessly into the mainstream, it is only natural that games could tell you something about how civilisation operates.

Take the lamentable abundance of war and stealth games out there. They are all about the American military charging in and saving the day in their homeland, or “neutralising” terrorists in some remote, desolate country. Ideas of conspiracy theory are also well-used and mirror the trends in the film and television industries. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the reason behind the American infatuation with war and terrorism prevention.

As people living now, in this time period, we might find it rather tedious that certain people cannot seem to stop talking about terrorism. But as time passes, these games will tell future generations something about us – if anybody cares to look. I don’t personally think it is insignificant that, for kids as young as 12, killing zombies, aliens and robots has taken a backseat to killing enemies based squarely on present day planet Earth. There’s a powerlessness there, a sweetly childish wish to do something.

What we would have missed, if there were no video games! The fact is, no media form can be replaced with another. There has always been music, always visual entertainment, always physical entertainment and gentler, community-centred games. Even under those broad headings, the different types offer fundamentally different experiences – as a person who enjoys classical music and hip-hop, films and theatre, Mario Kart and Monopoly, I would be upset if anyone of these were displaced by any of the others. If you think all those things are essentially the same, there’s something wrong with you.

So the idea that we should be reading instead of watching films, or watching films instead of playing video games, is a silly one. Quite apart from anything else, it is plain to see that you cannot completely and successfully adapt either of the former two into the latter one, or vice versa. Did anybody ever watch Tomb Raider? Bad. It’s a film based on a video game, meaning that extra plot points and characterisation have to be shoehorned in, as there is no player element. Video games are a rocky basis for films because they have only the skeleton of a film; they have their own distinctly different intrigue that cannot be lifted and plonked in the unfamiliar territory of film. Video games made from films have not been much more successful, despite the fact that all that really needs to be done is subtracting a proportion of the superfluous detail.

Whether or not either of these adaptations could be done well, I don’t know. For the sake of consistency, I’ll say yes – I don’t want to be a media snob myself by suggesting that a film adaptation of a video game will always be bad, or anything dramatic like that. But the transition hasn’t been successfully made yet, so that implies that there’s something about video games that is so uniquely involving that it can’t be adapted lazily. It takes a bit of care and there is probably no one involved who wants to be bothered – I’m willing to bet that the main reason for game-film adaptations is a quick financial fix and that their lack of focus is due to no decision being made as to whether the film is targeted towards fans of the franchise or towards those who are disinterested in games.

Though, to say that video games are not for everybody is to misunderstand them entirely. I suppose, historically speaking, they have been very male-centric. The fuss blokes made when Samus from Metroid turned out to be female! As a twenty-first century man, the mind boggles as to why anyone cares. I see no reason why owning a pair of knockers ought to make you any less able to shoot aliens. Anyone would think one holds a gun using finely-crafted thorax muscles.

Those days are gone. Like all the best films and best books, the best video games have no target demographic; not male or female, old or young – just groups of people who enjoy good writing, thrills or slower-paced slice-of-life type affairs. In the latter category, The Sims is pretty unisex, as no one can pass up the opportunity to act as the ultimate vengeful God and lead their human lambs astray. Even my mother, who is none too interested in video games (and is the antithesis of tech-savvy) had a whale of a time playing the mini-games from Pokemon Stadium. I can also imagine her playing Animal Crossing, fretting about turnip prices and harvesting apples.

Admittedly, games that are directed specifically towards girls should probably be avoided; if you are female, you could be forgiven for feeling rather disgruntled with everyone assuming that, because you own a vagina, you must naturally be obsessed with pink ponies galloping in the sunshine – a presumption that also offends Bronies the world over. It’s worth noting that this problem is by no means specific to video games – women have been poorly catered to and represented on television for a long time now. It takes a while to break directors and writers into a new way of looking at things. We’re slower that you think.

Nevertheless, things are improving and I am of the firm belief that, if you cut video games out of your life on the basis of ill-thought-out principles, you are denying yourself an experience that is well worth having. There are no media forms that are a complete waste of time and you should no more avoid video games than your should magazines or newspapers. I hate to say it, but unless you are currently the head of a country, I fear your time is not so precious that you cannot afford to “waste” a drop of it on high-quality escapism. All things should be enjoyed in moderation and everything has its use; personally, I find nothing more satisfying after a tiring day out than sitting down and planting a few crops on Harvest Moon.

So, whether you be sister or parent, grandparent of technophobic shut-in, walk a couple of paces in any direction and have a play on a family console. You don’t have to wear those dopey smiles everyone wears in the Nintendo adverts, swishing around the Wii-mote while laughing merrily with Granny. You only need an open mind to new experiences. And open eyes, if you’re playing a first person shooter.

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