Listening to the Overthinkers over-think video game culture (last week) and films (this week), I have begun to worry that video games will never be ‘culture’. More generously, I am concerned that video games will never attain the same cultural currency as other art forms.
This is because people do not absorb the culturally significant video games of the past, as they do with significant literature, film, and music.
The Overthinking It podcast this week dealt with The Wizard of Oz and its modern sequels. Although this was a film released in 1939, many generations of people have watched Judy Garland do her thing. It is one of many hundreds of films that are repeated enough to become part of a cultural canon that is regularly shown and experienced by new generations (Casablanca, The Great Escape and Star Wars are other examples in that category). One could make an analogous point about music, literature and art.1
Video games are different. Old games are not ‘repeated’. The only people who buy and play old video games are nostalgists who remember arcades, text-based role-playing-games, 8 bit shooters and the rest. These people who are already embedded in the video game generation. Last week, the Overthinkers discussed Starfox, a game they remember playing as kids. But after listening to the podcast, I doubt anyone will seek out the game and play it again, or particularly impressed by it. If they do it will be briefly and with a sense of irony. There is no wide culture of consuming of old video games, as the culture consumes old films or music.
I am lucky, in that I am of the generation who has surfed the wave of video-gaming, and experienced pretty much every type of platform as a new and exciting technology.2 But what of kids growing up now, who have never known a world without the Internet and connected gaming? Very few will seek out old games or consume the ‘canon’ in a way that gives them an overarching sense of the history of the medium. People of my generation have been lucky enough to absorb this knowledge by osmosis, as the medium grew up with us.
Games machines evolve at such a rate, and demand ever greater computing power, there is an in-built obsolescence of any given game. This is by design and part of the games-industry business model. But it precludes people going back to consume the back catalogue or the archive. In turn, this prevents a deep and meaningful video-game culture from developing in a way that will be sustainable over the generations.
1. Yes yes, I know that the word ‘canon’ when applied to art can be seen as exclusionary or elitist. But I think the argument holds, regardless of the artistic canon you can think of. If we consider the ‘canon’ of horror films, or Sub-Saharan African Literature, or hip-hop music, to name just three, it is always possible for new entrants into the culture to easily delve back into the rich history of what has gone before, and allow that previous artwork to become part of their world. I am not sure this can happen with video games unless we make every kid put in a kind of National Service of at least 100 hours on Super Mario World or the Secret of Monkey Island, before they can buy the new Xbox 360.
2. my personal chronology of systems I owned or played: Sinclair Spectrum ZX, BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Archimedes, Amstrad PC running MS DOS, a Sega Master System, NES, Windows 3.1, Sega Mega Drive, SNES, Nintendo 64, PS2, Wii… and now I do all my gaming on iOS.