Video games have come a long way in recent years. What once was the domain of geeky kids in their parents’ basements has taken the world by storm. “Gameification” has become one of the biggest trends of our generation, and the gaming industry is well on its way to matching–if not surpassing–the booming Hollywood film industry. One area that video games have had slightly less success breaking into is the wider realm of art. No matter how many indie or triple-A games there are that try their best to push the boundaries of what a game can express and what it can impose on the player, the arts do not seem that interested in a medium that requires a screen and a controller. One man is trying to change all that though. I recently got to chat with Boston Globe journalist Jesse Singal to discuss the core of a recurring series of articles that focus on how video games affect the arts and culture at large.
Nate Hohl: In what ways (if any) do you think the gaming world will evolve in the coming years now that we’re entering the next generation of consoles? Will there be a bigger push towards family-oriented games? More and more realistic graphics? Will virtual reality become a household gaming option?
Jesse Singal: There’s such a vibrant market for all sorts of games at the moment. So yes, I think there will be a bigger push toward family-oriented games, but also puzzle games, cerebral indie games, and shoot ’em ups. It’s a pretty remarkable time to be a fan of video games—there is always so much awesome stuff coming down the pipe.I think we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns here. We’re just not seeing the quantum leaps we used to see.Graphics-wise, yeah, they’re going to keep getting better. But I think we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns here. We’re just not seeing the quantum leaps we used to see (think about how Nintendo 64 looked compared to Super Nintendo). When you get to a certain level of HD graphics, you’re just pretty close to bumping your head on the ceiling. It’s also worth pointing out that tons of developers—mostly indie ones—are going out of their way to have graphics that are pretty and crisp but nothing spectacular, and some very successful games (Super Meat Boy, just off the top of my head) do not feature incredible graphics. Especially if you’re a smaller studio, it makes sense to pour more resources into other things. So yeah, AAA titles will continue to look better and better, but will we really be able to distinguish how PS7 titles look from PS6 ones? I’m not so sure.
As for virtual reality, I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic. I feel like we’ve been hearing about how it’s just around the corner for a couple of decades, and yet for whatever reason it never fully catches on. I know there’s been a lot of talk and excitement about the Oculus Rift, and in general about headsets that can do cool eye-tracking tricks, but I just think the current combination of standard controllers and motion controllers is too entrenched for anything to take that large of a bite out of it. It’s also hard to make a VR set that is durable, easy to use, and comfortable, and I think that’s part of the reason we’re well into the 21st century and haven’t seen a huge amount of mainstream success for VR.
NH: So, with the next generation of consoles and games soon upon us, do you think the indie game-development community will eventually grow big enough to match or even possibly overtake the AAA games market? The stereotype that indie games aren’t able to garner the same amount of financial and critical success as big-name published games is rapidly shrinking but what will this mean for both indie developers and major AAA developers?The best indie games benefit from very non-indie distribution platforms.JS: Well, what’s going on now is kind of interesting, because increasingly you’re seeing the best indie games benefit from very non-indie distribution platforms. When indie games get picked up on Xbox Live or Steam, they suddenly have access to a much bigger audience than they might otherwise, as well as enhanced legitimacy in the eyes of gamers and critics. So I think AAA developers will always have major advantages — obviously, if you can get commercials for your game broadcast during the Super Bowl, it will help with sales — but indie developers have more opportunities (but also competition) than others.
NH: Well, now that we’ve discussed the games themselves, let’s discuss an issue which is no doubt much more relevant to the non-gamers out there. What exactly is your take on the whole women against video game tropes debate? Are critics like Anita Sarkeesian who prefer to just focus on the negative aspects of female portrayals and presence in the video game world actually doing any meaningful good? Or are they just adding more fuel to the anti-female fires?As a guy, it can be hard for us to fully understand what it’s like to be a woman involved in gaming or game commentary.JS: I think Sarkeesian’s great and my column coming out this week is actually about her. As a guy, it can be hard for us to fully understand what it’s like to be a woman involved in gaming or game commentary, and that’s why her videos are important. They’re just very well-presented, well-researched, and well-informed. I can’t honestly say I’d given a huge amount of thought to how flat, expendable, and frequently brutalized female characters are until I’d watched her videos on the “Damsel in Distress” meme.
Obviously, one can have good-faith disagreements with her arguments, and there are pieces here or there I don’t 100% agree with. But I think some of the nastier, more vituperative things people have said about her—let alone the highly sexualized threats she receives on a daily basis—really speak poorly of a segment of the gaming community. I hope it’s a tiny segment, but it’s definitely there, and it’s definitely ugly.
Jesse Singal talks in his articles about how he hopes to make the world of video games more relatable to a non-gamer audience. To get a better sense of Singal’s work, you can read articles like this one online at the Boston Globe‘s website.