Real issues plaguing gamers
The author of "Console gaming systems face threats" stated that the announced on-demand video game platform OnLive is a novel idea but will ultimately not replace the reliability of owning a mostly self-sufficient video game console. As true as it is, there are issues within the electronic gaming industry that are taken for granted, a lot that resemble the issues plaguing old media like television, print and cinema. There are also issues that the industry faces that are unique.
Journalist Heather Chaplin told the gaming industry at a video game developer's conference on March 27 that the industry needed to essentially grow up, claiming the industry was "a bunch of stunted adolescents." The industry, in her mind, has focused too much on a narrow, mostly male, audience. As expected, her statements received its share of praise and criticism. While there are numerous exceptions, much of the American video game industry is focused on making bigger and better sequels to established franchises in the same genres. Video games, to a large extent, do focus on power fantasies.
Yet, as a twenty-something male whose walls are covered with Homer Simpson, Darth Vader and Wonder Woman posters, I concede my cultural taste, broadly speaking, has not changed too much since a decade ago. When it comes to possible solutions to break the "recreate playing games in '80s and '90s as a kid" mindset in the industry, I personally do not know where to begin in pushing for new genres and game in video games. Roger Ebert has controversially said video games are an inherently inferior medium, because player choices contradict what the permits some film and literature to become finer art. While I have in the past developed an audience-character connection in games by default over hours and hours of game play, I do see where Ebert is coming from. The industry prefers sequels, remakes, cross-promotions, and refinement over artistic purity. Yet personally, I find film and television that attempts to project an aura of artistic canon to be alarming to my spin-detector and ultimately unentertaining to my short attention span.
At the last E3, or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, trade show, Nintendo previously tried to communicate a message to its investors that its blue ocean strategy was working — that while it was deviating from the mainstream of the videogame world, it was entering the mainstream conscious of the rest of the world. They repeated the message that if games were made simpler and more practical without sacrificing quality, the industry would be more successful. This philosophy is a 180 on Chaplin's message. While it tries to break from the "bigger is better" philosophy, it does so by simplifying rather than attempting intellectual or emotional deviation from the mainstream. Nintendo will continue pushing the same "enough of the same" message in order to draw a contrast with its competitors, but if the philosophy wins out, it will not happen purely under the banner of Mario's company.
While the cultural values certainly have a great deal in the question of whether videogames are in the mainstream, the real issues still seem to be over the simple fact that it is a business. The "bigger-is-better" approach has indirectly contributed to games becoming pricier. Like in other media, piracy is rampant because entertainment gets more expensive to buy, yet easier to copy. While competition is great, the consumer loses when it is necessary to buy more than one multi-hundred dollar machine to play a wider library of games. It would have been like video not settling on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray formats, and instead participating in perpetual format wars while having less than the full library of entertainment. I play my Xbox 360 as much as my Wii, but I abhor the idea that hundreds of dollars have been — and will be — spent on hardware alone, if the most the machinery will be changing is merely technical specifications.
The rise of smaller budget and downloadable games, to a certain extent, is encouraging. Games like "World of Goo" or "Castle Crashers" are more fun than a lot of $60 games. While they may not be taking full advantage of the expensive hardware, they remain more profitable than their big-budget counterparts. We see as much originality and experimentation as we see cheap remaking and rehashing of old games in this sub-medium.
The American video game industry, in many ways, has eclipsed Hollywood in its size and social impact. Unlike the medium like newspapers, video games cannot make a strong claim to be in trouble. However, it is too old to be considered the "new medium," since multiple generations have already grown up with game controllers alongside cable remotes in their living rooms. While the franchise-driven mindset will surely continue for years to come, I am hopeful the industry will come to their senses; having customers purchase dozens of $60 — not to mention last-minute $80 special editions — games a year will not be a viable model. If that means more technically unimpressive and intellectually unchallenging games so be it. At least it is better than technically impressive yet unchallenging software.
Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. He wrote about videogames today because he's hopefully saving his best ideas for last. His column, "The Echo Chamber," runs on alternate Mondays.