Monday, 6 May 2013

Forming the Canon and That's It

I think I've pinned down what's been bugging me about videogames for so long. We already know they're incestuous, right? From the esoteric little jokes printed on Insert Coin t-shirts to the impenetrable jargon of online games, videogames are for the initiated only. This an exclusive club (generally for boys) which you have to learn your way into. Figuring out how to use a game controller and how games work is like learning to read, the difference being it's not taught in schools and probably isn't worth the effort. Culturally, games are more like comics or Warhammer than paintings or music. There's a barrier to entry.

That's not what's been bugging me, though. What's been bugging me is that the games of the past two years which have ostensibly been breaking that barrier down are, in fact, strengthening it. I look at work like Spec Ops and Papers, Please, work lauded for tackling subject matter usually kept at arm's length by the gaming industry, and rather than see progress see retreat. These are games which have nothing to say. They show, I think, that the creative voices in games, even those with free license, have nothing to add to the forum. Spec Ops tells us killing is bad; Papers, Please tells us life is difficult for refugees. I'm not wanting to deny the individuals represented by these games, not at all, I just feel their stories are being explored more thoroughly and more carefully elsewhere.

I don't think games really give a shit. I think that rather than want to drill down into or raise awareness of these things,  these games are more interested in propagating the medium. Spec Ops and Papers, Please have just enough sprinkling of adulthood on them to make people think "hm, games are different now" but in terms of teaching us much, I'm not convinced. It feels more like showing off than genuinely caring; it feels like deliberate contrariness rather than substance.

With Papers, Please especially, I look at it and see a game that's almost, just almost, got something to say, but doesn't say it. I see something obvious -  I see a perspective any right-minded person would already hold. It's a new kind of game but it's not a new anything else. It's for the betterment of the medium but not for the increase of general understanding, and the fact it's lauded makes it look just as incestuous as a Toluca Lake hoodie.

Our games are improving but our games aren't improving anything else. If I wanted to learn about 1980s Eastern Europe, Papers, Please would not make for a good reference text. We're not making anything worth putting in a library; we're charting a history of videogaming but not a history of the world. There is nothing specifically in Papers, Please that's relevant beyond the timeline of a closeted, still niche culture called games. In fact, I struggle to think of a single videogame that could plausibly be recommended to history, sociology or art students. Compared to literature, cinema and music, that's pretty sad. You can wheel out the argument that games are still young, but if we take the "start" of videogames as the launch of Pong in 1972, then that's 41 years now. Roundhay Garden Scene, the first film shot on a motion picture camera came in 1888. By 1929, 41 years later, we had October, Birth of a Nation and Der letze Mann - we had work of much broader significance. I don't have an excuse for games anymore. There's been time, technology and talent poured into them. Rather than hand-wringing about what the medium is or isn't, what it can or can't say, it's time they got in the ring.

All this to say Papers, Please is good but only because it's a videogame. Same as BioShock Infinite, there's a thin layer of intellectual pondering about it which, applied to any other medium, would spread very thin indeed. Just as Infinite slips in racial caricatures and mentions of capitalism and expects us to go "woah, games are political heavyweights now" Papers, Please half-explores a vaguely adult topic and expects to become a marker for some new wave.

Thanks to malaise, ignorance and some inherent childishness, games have kept the bedroom door locked against the adult world since they began. I'm glad they're peeking around it at last, but unless you're into videogames, Infinite, Papers and Spec Ops are of little to no worth. They represent the formation of a canon.  That's it.

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