Video Games Aren't Young Any More

It's been 41 years since <em>Pong</em>, and yet we're still at a point where we need an entire web series to explain all the ways games are sexist. Games should know better by now, says Edward Smith.

Video games are a young medium, right? I mean, that's the line we're sticking to. Whenever they're called out for being childish, simplistic or, you know, outright puerile, we, the advocates of video games, can leap to their defence with the insistence that it's only been a few decades and they're still growing up. It's our stonewall argument; it's our insanity plea.

It's also hokum. If we, generously, regard 1972's Pong as the “start” of video games (Willy Higinbotham's oscilloscope breakthrough Tennis for Two came fourteen years earlier, though wasn't launched commercially) then that's forty-one years now. Forty-one years, and where are we? We're at games where you can beat grannies to death with a dildo. We're at games where renaming the NASDAQ the “BAWSAQ” is considered satire. We're at a point where we need an entire web series to explain all the ways games are sexist, and where the presenter of said series will receive a hail of death threats in response. We're at a point where, frankly, I'm embarrassed to tell people I like video games. It's been forty-one years and this is still some of the best we've got.

I'm hesitant to compare video games to films. It's something that happens way too often and is usually done by people who don't understand, or can't be bothered to articulate, the enormous differences between the two mediums. But cinema is an undeniable influence on games. It's the closest cousin. Look at Uncharted.

So I'm going to draw a comparison. Widely considered the first motion-picture is Roundhay Garden Scene, a short from 1888 created by Louis Le Prince. Forty-one years later, cinema had given birth to Intolerance, Battleship Potemkin and The Jazz Singer. It had started with simple, single set-up trick films and evolved dialogue, editing and sound. The cinema had produced films which probed social issues and human emotions, all the while pushing the technical boundaries of what the new medium was capable of.

Video games on the other hand haven't done this. They've pushed the technical, sure – since the seventies, multiplayer, HD graphics and now virtual reality have all blossomed into existence. But as for the emotional, the intelligent, the legitimately worthwhile, they're lacking in good stock.

The youthfulness defence is sounding increasingly hollow; rather than concrete hope, it sounds more like nervous optimism, like we all know things are looking bad and are wishing on a star that in a decade they might have improved. I don't want to sound pessimistic – I make a good living playing and enjoying video games – but as they age, and continually fail to mature, I find myself feeling more like the case for the defence, representing a guilty client.

Other media, namely movies, adapted at a much quicker pace. And while I understand games are a different beast, to which story and emotional resonance don't come inherently, I still feel like it's high time for them to buck up. It's been forty-one years and there is still nothing, certainly not in the mainstream space, that I could present to non-gaming friends without tacking on some caveats.

Even independent games, in which I have a lot of hope, are difficult to justify. Braid's love story or Hotline Miami's violence might seem interesting when compared to the rest of video games, but stacked up against broader literature, they're both nondescript.

And that, I think, is the handle. This is a broad sweep, and there are surely exceptions, but in forty-one years, games have yet to become something you'd could comfortably show to history students – there's nothing in the back catalogue that speaks to the world at large. By 1915, D W Griffith had made The Birth of a Nation, and we can confidently look to that for a study of racial attitudes. Games on the other hand remain niche, inward-looking and ignorant of broader cultural concerns.

Video games are a medium not like any other and they'll continue to develop in ways we can't foresee. But they're old enough to know better. They should have changed more than they have. And continuing to defend them based on youth is to let them off the hook.

Braid's love story seems interesting when compared to the rest of video games, but compared to broader literature, they're both nondescript.

Edward Smith is a writer based in Liverpool. Follow him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.

Harry Styles. Photo: Getty
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How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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