Why video games will never be 'culture'

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.

7 Replies to “Why video games will never be 'culture'”

  1. This is fundamentally rubbish. Ocarina of Time has been reproduced on the Gamecube, Wii, 3DS. Metal Gear Solid was reproduced as Twin Snakes. Tetris has had a million incarnations. The most beautiful and artistic game ever, Shadow of the Colossus, has a HD remake. Escape from Monkey Island and other games have had HD remakes where you can play the original version alongside it. Most of the original Final Fantasies have been reproduced as mobile phone versions. Even games as recent as FFX have new incarnations forthcoming. AoE 2 is being sold on Steam again mainly because of its historic sales and solid online community. Even old classic games are now made available for free (look at C&C and C&C Red Alert!)
    Games companies reproduce old games just as often as the film industry reproduces old films (now in 3D / HD / etc). In fact, they are more accessible than old films – they are often free, easily downloadable and part of our collective cultural consciousness.

  2. This reminds me of the Father Jack driving the car – https://www.channel4.com/programmes/father-ted/video/series-2/episode-2/designated-drinker – you are perhaps guilty of assessing things like Father Ted: looking at the front and coming to the wrong conclusion.
    There is an entire indutsry (and a magaizine) called Retro of course, and banks of old consoles at shows dedicated to playing the old games. You are marginally correct in assuming that this is more fashion / geekiness than mainstream.
    But you are entirely wrong in assuming that AAA (new big licensed) video gaming moves forwards without reference to the past. There is a large and persistent indie game market that is continually refering to the past. Much like films, older games simply get remade for newer markets (especially on iOS) because they represent a more varied diet. Kickstarter is real – it is not driven purely by misty eyed oldsters. The Elite Kickstarter asked for lots of money for a revamp and got it.
    People consume past games in different ways (1) on youtube, (2) as referenced by popular developers, (3) from remakes, (4) wikipedia, (6) a hack, (7) and as bone fide culture. Why is this funny to a T-shirt wearing hipster? https://www.threadless.com/product/1838/Magic_Mushrooms
    I watched Visconti’s The Leopard the other day – and appreciated the film (and Claudia Cardinale) despite the rubbish soundtrack and pacing issues. It made me check up on Garibaldi and Italys strange history in that period.
    Now when someone mentions a Jeff Minter classic, I don’t necessarily expect anyone to go off and play the original or order it from Lovefilm, but there are plenty of ways to find out about it. Plenty of ways to appreciate how Iridis Alpha contributed to canon. The difference is they will not revere the artifact itself in the same way as I can still watch The Leopard. I would strongly argue that it is still recognised as culture.

  3. This is interesting – this episode of Extra Credits explores a similar train of thought: https://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/my-name-is-ozymandias (This show is great- if you don’t watch it, I recommend it wholeheartedly).
    It has so much to do with input devices and formats. Perhaps this problem is exacerbated the the fact that since the emergence of videogames as a medium, a lot of the companies distributing them (and the hardware they run on) have been trying to keep their formats as closed as possible. This wouldn’t have been possible with a more established medium like books or films. Even with a world full of DRM, there are still universal file formats that run on almost any device that any example of those two media can be converted to easily and made to run in.
    There’s no such thing as a “most common file format” for a videogame. This is partially because our culture doesn’t really “own” the medium in the way it “owns” film and literature, That said, games are also way more technically complicated to make and port than those things. I hope that our technology can someday provide a more universal way of consuming games, and that our culture someday comes to “own” the medium more too.

  4. In LA at the moment, just woken up and have to rush off to make a T-Shirt so I can be SO COOL at GDC next week. But when I’m back remind me to ramble here. I have things to say which are not TOTALLY aligned with the above (smart, thoughtful) comment. Also let’s have lunch soon! Or a drink. Back start of April.

  5. I see your point Rob, but I think this only really holds true for our generation. Beyond new ways of interacting like VR becoming viable/desirable the curve of improvement is starting to flatten, at some point the games of 5 years ago will look not unlike the games of today. Also there is a trend towards storytelling (eg: The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, Heavy Train) which is making games more and more film like and less dependent on graphical wow factor. TWD game for example is arguably more powerful than the TV series.

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