The problem of writing about games when the audience hasn't played them

Video game critics have long argued about the legitimacy of games as a medium, but is the problem a deeper one?

Mario: The grown-up who can never grow up. (Photograph: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/Getty Images)

Video game journalism has come a long way since being regularly creepy about Lara Croft, and it still has a long way to go. If this was Pokémon, Professor Oak has told it to go on its journey, and it's currently out in some long grass.

Anyone who regularly reads about games on the internet knows that it is rife with articles commenting on the struggle between gameplay and narrative; articles earnestly critiquing the portrayal of women inside and outside games (oh games industry - y u no like women?); and articles questioning whether games can be truly considered art. At the heart of all these discussions is the nagging need to be taken seriously. To be welcomed by the established genre moguls of books, film, art, and music, and to be declared as one of them. It is the quest to be respected and legitimised as a medium. 

Yet, the more I think about it, the less certain I feel that games will ever be taken seriously. 

The stem of the problem is semantic. “Game” is an ugly word. No other medium has appropriated its name from a pre-existing structure. Or rather, no other medium is a homonym. Books are books. Films are films. Music is music. Games, however, can be a multitude of things. It can be what children do outside. It can be sport. It can be evil schemes. And it can be life in Baltimore, like in the Wire -  “it’s all in the game, yo”. Even “gameplay” sounds childish. Separated from “game”, a “play” can be theatre but stick “game” in front of it and it sounds frivolous. It is difficult to take games seriously and see them as “grown-up” when they’re codified in a language that treats them as trivial.

Perhaps we need a new name to describe games. Interactive stories? No. Visual kinetic art? No. Adult toys? Definitely not. Push-button-magic-happen-thing? Maybe. I’m working on it. 

But even if new audiences get over the hurdle of playing a silly “game”, they’re stuck in the increasingly hermetic language of games. The one-on-one street fight waging between gameplay and narrative, in the press and in the industry, is because of this search for legitimacy. Stories are human, stories are universal. Great gameplay will make the best games but a great narrative will translate over to the most people. A move towards more narrative and less orthodox gameplay should entice more people to play. Yet those really exceptional games that have a narrative - not that every game needs to have one - meld bold gameplay and narrative together. The gameplay informs the world, and vice versa.

The actions are afforded metaphor. For example, a crazy hallucinogenic on the run would have an equally crazy and erratic control system. Or the menial job of sifting through documentation would have controls that emulate getting through the documents as quickly as possible, feeling menial (but not uninteresting). 

Games which get this metaphor right through gameplay mechanics are often self-referential and play with the orthodox makeup of a game through subversion. Spec Ops: The Line uses archaic gameplay (by 2013 standards at least) to make you constantly feel at unease and ask whether modern shooters make you “feel like something you’re not: a hero”. But without an established knowledge of first-person shooters, would the clunky controls and easy signposting of enemies really have the desired effect? The guys at Extra Credits do a wonderful job of talking about this:

Wheatley in Portal 2 asks you to speak, but the game only gives you the instructions to jump: hilarity ensues. But it’s only hilarious because you know you couldn’t possibly speak within the confines of the game, particularly as a silent protagonist. Bioshock is a game set in a world where control is at the heart of everything: control over enterprise, control over one’s destiny but (SPOILER ALERT) the player’s control is appropriated and is not wholly their own.

Is this discussion on player agency lost on someone who doesn't play games? Ultimately, the games “getting it right” are doing so because they allude to what has existed before. So, if you don’t already play games, the metaphor may be lost. Not that you’d want to play games anyway, because they’re only games.