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.

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder