Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Grown Ups VS Gaming - Part 1 of 4: Haunted History

Quiz Time

As an adult, how do you consider video games?

(A) - An excellent source of entertainment with artistic merit.
(B) - An excellent source of entertainment.
(C) - A waste of time.
(D) - Childish playthings that grown people should have nothing to do with.
(E) - All of the above.

If you answered A, congratulations, we're on the same page.  If you answered B, then you may find a future Ardent post about "games as art" interesting.  If you answered C, then you may find a future Ardent post about "what's the point of gaming" interesting.  If you answered D, then today's article (and its follow ups) are for you.  If you answered E, you're just being deliberately obstinate but I can admire that.
Honestly though, I have to assume people currently reading this blog are at least somewhat into video games, and are likely grown up.  But that doesn't mean they don't have some level of shame about it.  Even more likely, Ardent's readers know other adults who would think less of them if said adults knew about their gaming hobby. So why is it in this day and age video games don't have cultural immunity the likes of which books, movies, music, and other mediums enjoy?  I propose it's a matter of history, obsolete terminology, and perpetuated misconceptions.  The good news is, all of these problems will erode over time.  The bad news is, probably not before our children's grandchildren grow up.  Anyway, let's address the first issue that causes bias against gaming; history.
Now I'm not about to go into massive detail about the history of gaming.  (If you're interested in that, I'm sure you can find a dozen books about the subject on Amazon.)  I will go over some generalizations however.  For example, most folks know video games started off with very primitive things like Pong.   A game as simple as Pong or even Space Invaders only had a few key merits at their time.  One was technological, the other was mere spectacle, the last was simple fun.  The technological aspect attracted folks interested in how such things worked.  The spectacle aspect attracted even your grandmother, for a moment, and then she walked away.  The simple fun?  It attracted kids.  Anyone who's ever experienced a smiling five year old watch a Disney DVD for the 12th time knows young kids don't mind rote repetition.  That was what video gaming was like at first.  Technology, spectacle, and simple fun.  And these things set many precedents which affect the way the world sees video gaming even today.  But first let's see how they affected things then.

The technology attracted tech loving gurus who in turn took this new medium and got deep with it pretty quickly.  They created and enjoyed stuff like Beneath Apple Manor, Colossal Cave Adventure, and Akalabeth: World Of Doom.  The problem was that although these new games were complicated enough for adults to enjoy, they weren't easy to come across.  You would not find complex CRPGs in your local arcade.  So although there were sophisticated video games in the very beginning of this medium, they were obscure and ran on expensive equipment.  These were geek games for geeks by geeks.  And as amazing as these elder geek games were, being almost clandestine they did nothing to help the public image of gaming.  Your grandma still doesn't know Dungeon existed.

Granny does know what Pac-Man was though.  And that's because it was a huge part of the age of spectacle and simple fun, the golden age of the arcade.  There was a time where arcade cabinets could be found anywhere.  The pizza parlor, the gas station, roller rinks, movie theaters... I wouldn't doubt they were in the rest rooms of Las Vegas casinos at one time.  What this meant was average Joe had massive exposure to the spectacle of video games... but only in the sense of what they had to offer as simple fun.  A successful arcade game had to be instantly understandable to the player, in order to suck a few quarters down before they got bored and walked away.  Or in the kid's case, until the quarters ran out.

Perhaps it was the incessant nagging of kids for quarters from their parents to play these simple arcade games, that began to set a negative precedent.  This situation was made exponential by vendors pushing video game devices as being toys meant for children.  If you go back and look at ads in the early days of gaming, you'll notice the ads often push the "your kid loves this stuff" aspect hard.  Here are some examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5  And if the ad didn't push that aspect, it fell back to the spectacle stance.  Video games were falling from grace as a new medium into simply a lucrative fad increasingly targeting kids and their parents' money.  This toxic mixture of spectacle and simple fun didn't work out so well for the games industry back then, but that's a different story.

What matters today is that the precedent set in parents' heads during that time continues to trickle into our culture today.  "Video games are flashy spectacles that provide simple fun for children."  Many grown folks thought that then, for the same reason they think it now.  Ignorance of the medium and its complexity.  A lack of perspective about the potential of video games.  Well when someone dislikes something out of ignorance, that only perpetuates bias.  Thus a cultural bias in large enough quantity certainly can instill shame in those who defy it.  This bias began decades ago as a side effect, and manages to perpetuate to a noticeable degree even today.

All the same, a bad history is only the first problem video games have as a medium.  A following Ardent post in this series will address the second issue... the terminology itself.  Indeed, video games harbor a default juvenile slant simply due to being called video gamesThe rabbit hole goes deeper than that, but that's where we'll start to dig next.

This series is continued in this post.

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