Are Games Losing Their Identity?

Games and libraries: rarely do the two mix, but if there are zombies involved, it's fun all 'round.My sister stopped by the family home from university recently; she’s studying English Literature. I spent three years studying video games, and during that time I could barely relate any of what I’d learnt or built to my parents. It seems that anyone can have an opinion or insight into literature, though. Conversation soon bloomed into talk of authors, books set in familiar parts of the world.. even words like “contemporary” manage to creep into the discussion, as it seems society has a fairly mature understanding of literature. Games, however, seem to stifle such talk before it’s even begun.

Every time I was asked about my degree – an inevitable question when having my hair cut – I could rely on one of the following responses:

  • “Oh, my son has a PlayStation 2 – he plays.. oh, what was it? Pro Evo? And Grand Theft Auto, but I don’t know the first thing about games.”
  • “They’re awfully violent, aren’t they?”
  • “I played Pong once, back in the day…”

It still amazes me just how many people actually fill the “I’ve played Pong” stereotype.

I do enjoy a good discussion on violence in games, but most people have their minds firmly set, regarding all games to be as bloody and sadistic as Manhunt. Despite the strong surge in Nintendo’s catalogues for DS and Wii – which are decidedly non-violent – many people seem unable or unwilling to put the likes of Halo, GTA and Street Fighter aside in their outlook. It’s part of a phenomenon which was also remarked upon in The Guardian‘s Tech Weekly podcast this month: consumers regard ‘casual games’ like FarmVille and their mobile ‘apps’ as something entirely separate to games as we know them.

The topic was raised around Edinburgh’s Interactive Entertainment Festival, and the fact it is not labelled as a games festival. I’ve written about online games and worlds enough times to agree that “games” can be a narrow label, and it’s clear to say that the EIEF means to be inclusive to these media. Is this part of a wider dissent though? Are developers eschewing a label which – as I’ve seen first-hand – still calls to mind a scene of violent bloodsports, played in a dingy teenager’s bedroom?

We are witness to the slow decay of the idea of a “gamer”. It used to be that anyone who played games was a gamer, but the medium is now so widespread it is as though players are unaware that they are even playing. The woman who logs into FarmVille twice a day to keep up her harvest does not consider herself a gamer, and nor do those who switch the Wii on occasionally for a family-oriented gaming session. “Gamer”, as speakers on the Guardian podcast suggest, is a term which now sits alongside “film buff”. It describes an enthusiast, rather than a consumer.

So, if self-described gamers like myself are associating ourselves with film buffs and bookworms, what does this suggest about the games we play? Commentators long suggested that gamers would distance themselves from the ‘casual revolution’ of 2007-8, but the opposite seems to have happened. Could it be that ‘games for gamers’ are slipping into cult status, like a Tarantino film or a Greg Bear book?