A month or so ago I attended a really interesting session in the hallowed halls of Westminster. Hosted by Tom Watson MP, Taking Games Seriously sought to prompt a discussion “on the place of video games and virtual worlds in modern society – the lessons we might learn from them, their dangers, and why the public debate needs to move beyond breathless accusations about violent, screen-addicted young people.”
There was an element of preaching to the choir about the event. The panel and audience were wholeheartedly pro-gaming. It was more Middle Earth than Middle England. No one was there to condemn games as a modern curse that will blind the youth of today. So it wasn’t exactly a balanced debate around the perceptions of an industry that now outsells Hollywood. However, it did get me thinking…
Both Tom Chatfield and Sam Leith raised interesting points around the language of video games. Tom spoke about the need for a new vocabulary. Games, as he put it, have had existing terms re-appropriated to them; games are routinely referred to and reviewed with the same standards as a movie – but this does the unique dynamic of a game a severe injustice. We simply can’t talk about the plot of the latest Cohen Brothers film with the same words that we’d describe the fragmented, multi-layered, individual experience of three hours spent in WoW (World of Warcraft for the less-geeky of you). Sam then touched on the need to have a formal conversation about genre, in his view WoW is more akin to the architecture of a medieval cathedral, than any other cultural artefact. But Little Big Planet, again, couldn’t be described using the same words.
So. Interesting stuff. It struck me that when talking about games, we also need to address what ‘playing’ can mean. You play a boardgame, but no one expects Sunday Times Culture to write about Scrabble. Alex Fleetwood and Hide and Seek have created some incredible real-world experiences that are literally play-full. So if playing is so much fun, then why is there a need for games to be taken so seriously? Well, being a paid up member of the pro-games choir, I’d say it’s because not only is there real artistry involved in the development of a game, but that games are changing how we interact online and in the real world. They are having a societal effect. They’re also changing our perceptions of narrative – influencing the wider arts world in terms of multi-faceted story telling. For those reasons alone we should be talking about games seriously.
As PRs we can learn something from games – how to build multi-layered campaigns that talk to many people on many levels, for example. But as PRs talking about Digital Entertainment and the promotion of games, perhaps we also need to build stories that directly challenge perceptions rather than rely on old, traditional tactics. This is easier said than done of course. Many years ago I tried to pitch a feature looking at how World in Conflict, a game that sees Russia invade America and kick start a Nuclear War, resonated with contemporary Anglo-Russian relations (it was just after Litvinenko). Obviously this pitch fell on deaf ears. But as the media becomes more accustomed to games in the mainstream, so must we embrace new, serious, conversations around them.
As I was sat in Westminster, talking about games, my mind wandered up the river to the National Theatre. Drama is another form of play, of course. So what distinguishes King Lear from Lemmings? Again genre can play a role in terms of perception. For every Oedipus there is a pantomime dame (though arguably if Oedipus was attracted to a man in drag it could have ended very differently). Some plays are taken more seriously than others and the same can be said of video games. However, unlike video games – whether we’re talking about Widow Twanky or Mistress Quickly – all forms of theatre have the power to hold a mirror up to society. In Panto it is pop culture, in Shakespeare it is politics. It’s this fundamental difference that I think prevents video games being embraced by the cultural elite.
Not enough games (if any – though I’d happily be proved wrong) directly comment or offer a new perspective on society. Though the recent Chime – the first game from OneBigGame (a Live Aid for Video Games) – does show that gaming can engage in real world issues, even if only indirectly. [DISCLAIMER: Xbox is a JCPR Edelman client]. So perhaps at the end of the day games won’t be taken seriously, until they start saying something serious. Tom Watson joked that the Houses of Parliament would be an appropriate setting for an MMO – coteries of players, machinations and deceit framed within a Gothic landscape. With a disenfranchised electorate and an election looming it’s not such a bad idea.