Monday, January 16, 2012

A Structuralist Perspective on Form and Content in Video Games: Platypus Nostalgia

My friend, the Game Guru, spent the past weekend with us.  As usual, this meant a chance for me to catch up on the state of the field.  Being the slow-coach that I am, I had to admit that I wasn't bothering with Elder Scrolls VII so much as puttering around with Final Fantasy III/VI.  This didn't bother the Game Guru at all so we popped the old cartridge in and did a little dungeon crawl.  While trying to drill the SrBehemoth, I pointed out that the game was a lot easier than when I was fifteen.  Indeed, all of Square's games have gotten much easier since I've aged a bit.  My friend replied that the versions that were put out in the U.S. were often "dumbed-down" on the theory that U.S. players were young children.  This led to a consideration of what makes a game "adult."  We came down on complexity of story and theme and difficulty of play.

Now, when we talk about media being "adult," those aren't the two things that typically come to mind.  Granted, we often try to shield our children from sex and violence, but don't we also try to shield them from complexity and difficulty?  -or how about alcohol and tobacco?  Our entertainment, then, creates a sort of negative(in the sense of defining something by its opposite) definition of adulthood as those who aren't children because they can/ought to experience sex and violence.  If this is what defines an adult, then it is little wonder that media created for adults continues to import as much sexuality and violence as it can get away with in any given project.  The primary intent may not always be to shock or to titillate, but rather to demarcate something as "mature" and "for adults."  It's like the director who puts a few F-words into a movie just to get an "R" rating and thus get the serious attention of the academy when the Oscars come around.

What does all this mean for video games?  Certainly, there has been an increase in the level of sex and violence in video/computer games over the last twenty years.  An aging gamer population and innovations in the technology have worked in tandem to make ever increasing levels of gruesomeness and titillation possible.  Even The Legend of Zelda series has gotten a bit more risque with its provocative "Great Fairies."  Simultaneous with this development, however, has been a rise in the complexity of the stories that video game designers have attempted to tell and the difficulty of the puzzles and challenges set for players.  Given what we said above, these two trends are not necessarily joined at the hip.  There is no necessary connection between sex and violence and complexity of story and game play.  However, as long as sex and violence are the key signifiers of adulthood in the American mind, they will remain and continue to entrench themselves in the medium as more and more adults begin to play.    


vespreardens said...

You're right. It's unfortunate that we designate media as "adult" simply by adding sex and violence to it. This often causes the youth to glorify it. After all, most kids look up to some sort of adult figure, and the idea of the macho man as the hero is predominant in our culture. As we get into our teenage years, there's often a push to "grow up," to be more adult, more mature. But rather than stress responsibility or expanding our deeper understanding of things, our mark of maturity amongst our peers is based on how drunk we can get, how many members of the opposite sex we've seen naked in person, and how well we can sit through rated R movies. And I daresay this is far worse for guys than it is for girls, since even in our "liberated" culture women are encouraged to keep a degree of innocence.

This is not to say that the media and arts should be devoid of sex and violence. Indeed, sometimes they are demanded by the story, not because they are adult, but because they are part of the world we live in. One can even look to the story of Christ to see this at work. The sexuality of Mary the mother of Jesus and of her husband Joseph is important to the character of the Messiah, as is His rather gruesome death. But these things do not make the story less by their presence.

I remember when I was about 17, a friend of mine told me that often the rated R movies were far better than the ones rated PG-13. I had a rather sheltered childhood, and I think the only rated R movies I had seen at that time were Schindler's List and The Matrix. But for the most part, it seems she was right. Many PG-13 movies are crammed with as much sex and violence as the studios can get past the censors while sacrificing storyline because they know the teenage crowd will flock to them, and unwitting parents will let them go because, hey, the movie's only rated PG-13.

I'm glad the ratings for video games seem less arbitrary. It's amazing to think back ten years and see where games like Fable, Final Fantasy IX, and Knights of the Old Republic have pushed video games since in terms of storytelling, and I look forward to seeing what things like Mass Effect (I know, I'm bringing it up again... sorry) will push things from here.

Yeah, there will always be a niche for over-the-top violent shooters and for games like Dead or Alive: Real Beach Volleyball, but now we also have Portal and Portal 2. The Portal games were never marketed towards kids, but they don't even have innuendo, much less anything else sexual, and the violence is incredibly minimal, and never really doled out by your protagonist. But the games are very complex, both in terms of increasing difficulty and in terms of their often dry humor. I have a friend who is running his five-year-old through the lower levels of the games. No, she doesn't get all of it, but she's always had a taste for the complex, and in this he gets a chance to feed and encourage that desire.

There is hope for gaming yet. It may never be perfect, but occasionally not only we get some real gems, but gems that shine so bright the rest of the gaming community has to stand up and take notice. Because if you're going to spend 120 hours in front of your computer or console, there has to be something to hold you there that's deeper than tits and mindless shooting.

James said...

I have to say I like the level of optomism in this post. While I am a dyed-in-the-wool pessemist, I do realize that pessemism is self-fulfilling. If you think no good will come of something, no good will come of it in as far as you have any say. The gaming industry needs true beleivers who aren't niave about its faults.