Mature Play

20 Jul

Rob Fahey’s article at gamesindustry international, “A Question of Maturity,” makes an argument that games are not yet capable of being “mature,” saying that “You can’t make someone experience love through a video game, or sorrow.” On the one hand, no, of course you can’t. You can’t make a (healthy, well-adjusted) player fall in love with an NPC. But a film can’t make you experience love with a character on-screen, either. Not really. But it can approximate it, and – I would argue – there are players of videogames who also feel approximations of love and (certainly) sorrow.

I think that the problem with Fahey’s argument is not that we shouldn’t keep trying to mature games as a genre, shouldn’t keep pushing the limits of our creative and emotional juices, because we very clearly should. Art stagnates when it ceases to push all limits. But I think Fahey is just plain wrong that videogames can’t make people feel complex emotions. I think they absolutely can, and do.

Fahey does make the point that the attitude that videogames just “can’t do it” is wrong: the idea that we should “Make games that are fun – if you want to explore something bigger and more important, go and write a book or make a film,” is reductive and diminishes the artistic and social value of game design, game art, and game narrative. Fahey argues that we should “Keep trying, and try harder.” Okay, I’m with him in this. He’s also right that the “medium is very young and it’s going to make a lot of mistakes.” Yes, it absolutely is. But maturity does not mean a lack of mistakes. There are any number of films out there that are both immature and ineffective.

What really bothers me about Fahey’s argument is that he implies that “core” gaming is immature because “core” games are shooters. There is nothing inherently immature about shooters as a genre, any more than a romantic comedy or an action film is inherently immature. Yes, there are a lot of immature versions of those genres, but that doesn’t automatically relegate every example of the genre to a level of relative immaturity. Fahey’s example of testicle-shooting may be immature (on multiple levels, and one of those is Fahey’s), but that doesn’t mean that Halo or Call of Duty don’t have complex and mature contributions to make to the social milieu.

I think the biggest issue with Fahey’s argument is that it assumes that because games will continue to evolve in content and complexity, that what we have now is somehow not worthy of consideration as either art or social commentary. And I have a big problem with that relegation of videogames to the sidelines simply because they have more future in front of them than they have history. Of course the genre doesn’t have centuries of work in its pocket the way literature does, but that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of making mature commentary.

In fact, I think what bothers me the most about this piece isn’t what Fahey himself is saying, it’s the underlying assumption that so many people are taking for granted – which is that they don’t have to try harder because they have the “free pass” that videogames are an immature genre. I think that if we’ve learned anything from the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle, it’s that fans are no longer willing to accept immaturity in terms of plot and characterization across the board. Certainly, many fans are granting passes to other games that should be doing more in those terms (as I said earlier about Diablo III, for example), but we are starting to notice and starting to expect more – and the more we expect of our games, the more likely they will deliver.

Games may be a young genre, but that is no excuse for immature behavior, any more than we should grant a “free pass” to someone who is thirty instead of seventy. Videogames are past their childhood and adolescence. They have a long life ahead of them, yes, but it’s high time we start expecting adult behavior out of them. To say nothing of out of the gamers who play them.