Last week, Keith Stuart published an article on what he sees as “the eight most wonderful things to have happened in video games” since he started as a games writer for The Guardian in 2004. In a nice retrospective piece, Stuart looks back on more than a decade in which the games industry changed in important ways. I recommend reading it, but wanted to share a few thoughts on where I agree and disagree with Stuart’s points.
The eight best advances, according to Stuart, include:
- The rise of open-world game design
- The rise of the independent games community
- The rise of the social experience
- The growing influence of games on wider culture
- Greater diversity and representation
- Player creativity and collaboration
- The exploration of new themes
- Some really astonishing games
Setting aside that the eighth point is a little bit of a cop-out (albeit an understandable one, given that he mentions such gems as GTA V, Mass Effect, Uncharted, Breath of the Wild, and more), I agree with most of Stuart’s points.
In reading the article, a consistent theme is diversity. He explicitly names diversity in number five, but it’s present in a number of his points; not just diversity in terms of the people creating and playing games, but diversity of ideas and experiences. In his section on independent games, for example, he rightly argues how they have expanded “the culture, vocabulary and spectrum” of gaming. In his discussion of new themes, he’s discussing the self-expressive nature of game development; this suggests that the diversity of game creators, in terms of not just physical characteristics but also in life experiences and perspectives, creates more intereseting characters, narratives, and worlds for players to explore.
In a sense, what Stuart is describing is really the maturity of games as medium. The rise of independent games means that a wider variety of people can create more varied projects that reflect their personalities and life experiences, without the need to impress or “sell” major publishers. Coupled with a maturing consumer base and the rise of critical analysis of video games, the continued expansion of what games can do, what they can be, and what they can mean is worth noting and, while there’s still a long way to go in terms of diversity and inclusivity in gaming, makes me excited for the next decade.
The maturing of video games that Stuart describes is also related to his point about the growth of games in our culture. Games are now more than the things in which kids jump on mushroom’s heads or senselessly shoot enemies without real reason. Those games certainly still exist, but we now know that games can create meaningful experiences that lead players to question the world around them, view events through a new lens, or exist in a new time or place. In short, they can generate a true reflective experience for the player akin to viewing other forms of art, and thus have earned their rightful place, as Stuart notes, in museums around the world.
There are two issues about which I don’t think Stuart is wrong, but I see somewhat more ambiguous developments. The first is the rise of open-world design. He is absolutely right in what he says that “open-world games have encouraged players to be more curious, creative, adventurous, and collaborative.” Personally, I love open-world games; my favorite game of the year so far is Breath of the Wild, and a favorite of the generation is The Witcher 3. However, the wonder of open-world design has seemingly created expectations that sometimes work to the detriment, rather than the benefit, of many games. Players, expecting a Skyrim-like experience into which they can pour hundreds of hours, may scoff at a linear 10-hour experience as not being “enough” game, even if that approach better fits the creators’ intentions. And developers and publishers may add unnecessary bloat to games in order to reach some arbitrary metrics regarding the size of the game world or the number of hours of playtime. Thus, in my view, the rise of the open-world game is both a blessing and a curse.
Finally, Stuart’s discussion of the social experience is correct, but I fear the implications of such a development. The truth is, we live in a hyper-connected world, and video games, on the forefront of technological development as they are in some ways, have logically moved in that direction. The creation of online social spaces is magnificent in part, creating a way to start conversations and create communities among people from around the globe. However, I have two concerns.
First, these communities are often created without any form of norm enforcement. As online communities are left to police themselves (a difficult task), it is far too easy, and far too common, for such sections of the online world to become toxic circles in which those protected by the anonymity of the Internet engage in hateful, harmful behavior.
My second concern is a reflection on my own childhood experiences and my fear of them dying. Some of my fondest memories from childhood are moments I spent with family and friends, huddled around a television or sitting on the couch playing games with and against each other. I worry that the rise of the online social experience is the nail in the coffin for the couch co-op one. While Nintendo and some indie developers have maintained some level of dedication to it, there’s no doubt that support is wavering. In a world where many people, particularly young folks, are constantly distracted and absorbed in the online world, I hope the interpersonal experience that games can create does not go away.
On neither of these points do I think Stuart is wrong; it’s only that I see both dark and light in them. Overall, I think he highlights several key developments that gaming has seen over the past decade and these make me optimistic for where the medium heading.
There is one final point that I find interesting: the complete non-mention of VR. Oculus launched its Kickstarter in 2012, a full five years ago. In that time, we’ve seen the launch of not just the Rift, but the HTC Vive and Playstation VR, as well as the Samsung Gear and several other simpler VR experiences. We talked about the “year of VR” and how things would never be the same again. Yet, in a discussion about the greatest developments in gaming over the past decade, VR was never mentioned. I don’t disagree with this omission; I had a Playstation VR for a while but quickly moved away from it, and it would not make my list either. But, its omission says far more than its inclusion would have, and is a fact worth mentioning.