A screenshot from Journey
I couldn’t watch Charlie Brooker’s How Videogames Changed the World when it was initially broadcast in late November. But I did have one eye on Twitter, following the reaction to this listicle-styled smorgasbord of gaming landmarks.
And oh, the crushing inevitability: here, among messages extolling the virtues of bringing a massively significant sector of modern media to millions, were some Old (Ex-Music) Journalists Now Doing Telly And That, all snorting derision at the whole thing.
It’s the same boring song, sung time and again – those who don’t "game" viewing the whole straddling-the-globe-like-a-colossus industry and its symbiotic, fantastically colourful communities as some kind of joke; Hungry Hippos with motion control, Laserquest with a bunch of faceless scumbags screaming obscenities down a headset at squad-mates. Toys for boys – despite 45 percent of gamers being female – not ready to trade digital culture for vinyl copies of Kimono My House and Honky Château.
Which is inexcusable, particularly coming from critics who should be open to all forms of human expression – new methods of manifesting emotions as art and design, as interactive experiences inviting strangers to the catharsis. So, when I saw one of these Old (Ex-Music) Journalists post a sniggering tweet about a new game, I messaged him: "Do you really dislike games/gamers?"
"I don’t like it when people pretend playing games is important," came the reply. "It’s games. Playing games isn’t important."
Which is inexcusable, particularly coming from critics… Wait, I just did that bit. Instead of repeating myself, I'll let a couple of proper videogames critics answer the question born from this narrow-minded perspective: Why are games important?
Cara Ellison contributes to a variety of publications, including the Guardian, Rock Paper Shotgun and PC Gamer, and was a co-writer of How Videogames Changed the World…
"I used to bring up how games make more money than Hollywood," she said. "But money can’t measure how I changed my perspective on life by playing Merritt Kopas’ game Lim. How playing Tomb Raider as a child was the direct cause of my travelling habit. How educational games I played on BBC Micros had a more profound effect on my imagination than the books I read in the classroom.
A screenshot from Peacemaker
“Play is timeless. It brings people together, to talk or to reminisce. It is a way to communicate, to express something. Games have a very broad use now and can be used to solve some very serious problems in human perspective or research. Peacemaker is one such game – a strategy game made by a former Israeli soldier in conjunction with Palestinians about how to bring about the 'two-state solution'.
“Most of the mainstream media’s coverage of games treats them as if they were invented yesterday and don’t have an audience. Let’s tell the old men in the park that their chess game is meaningless. Let’s ask them why their game is so important.”
Jaz Rignall is an industry legend, the founder of Mean Machines and a regular on TV show GamesMaster, formerly vice president of design at Virgin Interactive Entertainment, ex-editorial director of IGN and currently vice president of content at GamePro Media.
“Are video games important? Only history can answer that," he told me. "But I’ll say this. Players spend billions on them, and put trillions of hours into them. Some people steal them. Some people have killed over them. Some in government think they need to be regulated and banned. Some even think they’re more dangerous than guns.
“Games can be played while waiting in line at the post office. They can make you completely lose track of time. They can be a meeting point for friends – and help you find new ones. They can be the highlight of the week for a busy parent who only has a few precious hours to themselves. They can be used to alleviate PTSD, and to give relief to those with fatal diseases. They enable the deeply handicapped to adventure with others and slay dragons as heroes.
“Games elicit the full spectrum of emotions from pure joy to utter abject rage. They can be an unhealthy obsession. They can be a product cynically designed for profit. They can be a deeply personal form of expression. They can make you think. And, for a few brief hours, they can stop you from thinking.”
Rignall makes a great point on the importance of games helping people, relieving stress and aiding recovery. The Guardian's Keith Stuart wrote an amazing piece on the importance of Minecraft to his autistic son in September of 2013, and its valuable use in schools. Research has been conducted into how consoles like Nintendo’s motion-controlled Wii can improve the health of the elderly at care homes. (It does, significantly.) Jane McGonigal’s 2011 book, Reality Is Broken, tells readers that games can improve our everyday existence – how we all need more “epic wins” in our lives.
A screenshot from Limbo
The importance, the power, of videogames in the 21st century goes deeper than Grand Theft Auto V’s sales figures. Play Journey or Limbo instead of watching a movie – both are short games – and you’ll come away emotionally shattered. Papo & Yo presents the undeniably affecting articulation of one designer’s experiences of being abused by his alcoholic father. Is that game not important to its maker? To those relating to its sentiments?
Ellison adds: “This idea that games are for ‘fun’ only seems tired now.” And perhaps the word "play" needs to be addressed, repositioned for videogame context. We "play" music, but when it speaks to us, truly, we’re living it. It’s inside and all around us – everywhere, all the time, endlessly connected. Games, increasingly, exhibit the same attachments. They are shaping us, sculpting our behaviour into discernable sects, happier relationships, being better people.
Videogames are only going to become more important – as barometers of the society surrounding us, destinations for fantastical tourism, guides to explore our dreams. Brooker concluded his list with Twitter as the most-recent "world-changer". Clearly it’s one where some players need to up their game.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @MikeDiver
Previously: Can Anyone See a Future Without GTA?