A Rant In Defence of Video Games

flower screenshot

I am sick and tired of listening to people who ought to know better casually dismissing computer games as trash, and lumping them together, as though they were all exactly the same, much as one might say 'books induce violence and anti-social behaviour in the young ' - see how daft it sounds? Although I'm sure people used to say it, especially about 'novels' which in Jane Austen's time were dismissed as the source of so much evil!
Talk to these people and they will tell you that 'no, they have never played a video game, not once, not ever.' They seem quite proud of the fact, in the same way that people seem to be inexplicably proud of the fact that they 'can't do maths to save themselves' but would be ashamed to confess to being illiterate.
I confess that I have a personal interest here. My maths graduate son aims to work in the industry, has already spent two years working on Quality Assurance (i.e. testing) for the industry, has his name on a couple of major titles, and is now studying for a Professional Masters in Computer Game Development at prestigious Abertay University, in Dundee. This course - he's enjoying every minute of it - involves a cross-section of people coming from various backgrounds, including art and programming, but my son is one of only a very small number of people who aim to fill the - also much misunderstood - role of 'designer' within the industry.
When I told people that he had spent most of his Christmas vacation finishing off a number of academic essays and presentations about the industry, most people looked puzzled and then asked 'But what on earth can anyone find to write about on Video Games?'
Having had a look at the many thousands of sophisticated and interesting words he has written about these same games, about the psychology behind them, about innovations in the industry, I could have made some attempt to answer them, but where to start?
Part of the problem is, I think, that for people of a certain age, the term Video Games conjures up visions of  Pacman, or Pong or Space Invaders, early incarnations of extreme simplicity. It's a little as though the term 'television' only invoked those tiny, blurred, black and white pictures set in the middle of massively clunky sets, without taking into account any of the developments of the last fifty years.
Another part of the problem, though, is wilful ignorance. Even among media commentators and researchers who ought to know better, the whole industry is seen as some amorphous mass. The closest I can come to describing it, is - again - to make the analogy with television. Would you judge a contemporary cutting edge drama, a mass market reality show and a children's cartoon, by exactly the same set of narrow criteria? I doubt it! So why do people do this when commenting on Video Games? Don't they realise that times, and the industry, have moved on. That there is a breathtaking spectrum of work out there, everything from multi-million dollar mass-market titles, to small downloads, with everything in between, including games which teach, and games which might well be classed as 'art.' 
Moreover, the tabloid media image of the troubled 'loner' playing in his room, could hardly be further from the truth. This happens, of course, but then didn't it always happen? Didn't some kids always prefer to be alone with their trainsets or their airfix models? They certainly did when I was young! The truth is that with the new games, people of all ages often prefer to indulge in their hobby in the company of other people. Sometimes they will play in groups (either within families or with groups of friends) and often they will play online games, in contact with people from around the world. There is nothing sinister about this. If anything, it makes the world a smaller place, and the effect seems to be very positive indeed.
I have blogged before about a fabulous game called Flower, introduced to me by my son and designed by Jenova Chen. This isn't so much a game as an experience and I have to say that it gives me much the same sensation as I experience when I am deeply involved with a piece of writing, or listening to a piece of music, or experiencing some magical artwork or film. Time passes, I'm not aware of it, but I emerge tired but strangely refreshed at the other end. The world evoked by this extraordinary game, with its accompanying music, has stayed with me, giving me the kind of 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' that is all too hard to achieve. My world would be the poorer if I hadn't experienced it. This isn't a game that appeals to everyone. In fact, I would say that it is a game which probably doesn't appeal at all to the young, male, gamer demographic. They probably don't see the point of it, any more than they would yet see the point of the art, music or literature which I love (although they might come to it eventually). But it's a big market out there, and it's growing all the time.
And what of the role of 'designer'. Well, that's much debated, even in the world of professional video games development. It's easy enough to see where programmers and artists and even producers slot in, but a 'designer'. Too many young people seem to have the perception that the designer sits in a room and comes up with a brilliant design document, which he or she hands over to a bunch of people who then do as they are told and create the game. From the designer's mind to your console or phone, in one easy leap. Of course it isn't like this. Not at all. But when my son was casting about for an analogy himself, I could give him one. Because as a playwright, it seemed fairly obvious to me. The role of designer seems to me to be very much like the role of artistic director, in the theatre. A director could, of course, tell everyone what to do. But it would be pretty disastrous, people would get angry and nothing much would happen. The job of director is, in many ways, as facilitator. He or she has to be able to allow all these talented people to get on with what they do best, while keeping the whole project creatively in mind, and having the courage of his or her vision to be able to make certain decisions - yes, that will work, no, don't think that's quite right, maybe, try that out and see what happens. The buck stops with the designer just as it stops with an artistic director. It is a difficult role, a challenging one - but when it works well, there is probably nothing more rewarding. So all I can do is wish my creative son all the luck in the world. Keep at it. You'll get there in the end!