It’s not a generational thing

by Malte Skarupke

I’ve often heard that for games to be properly accepted, we just have to wait a couple of years until those people who haven’t grown up with games are no longer in positions of power and then we’ll be fine.

I no longer believe that. I think that a large part of the current generation of young adults actually has a pretty bad opinion of games.

When I talk to parents about games, they always seem really interested. They either used to play games themselves, or they knew people growing up who used to play games, and they think that it’s probably a really exciting field nowadays. They don’t understand games (anymore), but they get that they don’t understand games and they wish they understood more because they expect that this is some cool thing that they are missing out on.

When I talk to a girl my age and tell her that I’m learning how to make games, I usually get a “whatever”-like response. And then recently I got a response which got me thinking in this whole direction, and that was “I don’t like games” after which she mumbled something about zombies and turned away from me before I could say anything about my favorite games not including zombies or exciting art games or anything to save me. Which is a pretty bad experience, but I was prepared for it, because games kind of have a bad reputation.

The perception of video games among the current generation of young adults is that they are a) games where you shoot people in the face or b) games where you shoot zombies in the face.

Obviously I’m oversimplifying. Everyone knows that there are plenty of games where you hit people or monsters on the head, and that there are plenty of kids’ games and Facebook games and dancing games and then there’s Solitaire and whatever. But the perception is that real games are those where you shoot people or zombies in the face. Which doesn’t appeal to a whole lot of people.

I think the older generation actually has a slightly better opinion of games than the current young adults. Those among the older adults that grew up playing games played Myst and Pac Man and Leisure Suit Larry. (all games my father, 55 played) And then they stopped playing games when they got kids and no longer had time. But at least their perception of games is frozen in a time in which Adventure games were king and shooting games were less successful.

So the current generation of young adults has a bad perception of games. (And I don’t think it’s a gender thing. In my experience there are plenty of men who don’t like games.) So what’s going to happen when people with this bad perception get into power, say at a mainstream television station. Do you think they will want to cover games? No.

But what about the rise of social games? And the Wii and Kinect and everyone’s mom and girlfriend is playing dancing games… Well those people don’t consider those games real games. In fact it’d be sad if they did, because those are really shallow games. Cityville is just a replacement for Solitaire for them. If those games were real games my mom would be more of a gamer than I am because she plays so much Solitaire. Those people don’t value games. They don’t care if the Supreme Court rules in favor of games, because they don’t identify as fans of the medium. To them games belong in the same category as Barbie toys and Lego. In fact games are probably below those. If I told a girl I was designing Lego models she would think I was awesome. But should television cover when a new Lego model comes out? No. Should televions cover when a new game comes out? No!

Zynga with it’s Farmville and Frontierville and Cityville is doing about as much for gaming as Microsoft did with Solitaire and Minesweeper. Same thing for Nintendo with the Wii.

Everyone has had the experience of watching an amazing movie that moves you and that you want to talk about for hours after leaving the theater or maybe just be quiet about and contemplate. Very few people have had a similarly cool experience with games.

So what do we do? We can make this a generational thing. With the next generation. Let’s give them awesome experiences that are more than just “I shot someone in the face that had been really annoying on voice chat.” I think there’s hope. Minecraft is cool. And people are actually moving in that direction now. Also a big thank you to Quantic Dream for Heavy Rain and to Valve for Portal and Portal 2. I was really happy that those games were successful. Unfortunately everybody thinks that those games were anomalous successes, whereas Call of Duty is something that can be copied and whose success can be repeated. Despite the success of Portal and Braid and Heavy Rain, people still think that a game without violence is less likely to sell. Let’s get rid of this perception. It’s actually fairly simple. Just stop acting like you believe it. If the common perception on blogs and message boards was that Activision is stupid for still not having announced a Heavy Rain clone, then that’d slowly change the industry.

What else? Don’t put any faith in social games. The companies that make social games don’t care about the medium. They think that their audience doesn’t want anything better. Which is fine. Demanding that those people make games that move the medium forward is like demanding that the producers of American Idol start making art movies.

So what of the media? Well there are now people in the mainstream media who are doing a good job of covering games. The main problem is that no matter how hard they try, occasionally they will have to write about games where you shoot people in the face. So we are in a good position here with people that can be advocates for us as soon as we are ready. But we have to change first and give those people enough material that they can be excited about without being embarassed.

So core developers: I could write many pages worth of opinions about what we should do, but let’s keep it simple: We have to make more real games where the primary mode of interaction is not shooting. I think that that’s something we can do and that other change mechanisms (more women and cultural diversity in the industry, better press coverage, broader audience) will follow from that.

It’s not a generational thing, but we are in a good position to make it one.