Welcome once again, my friends, to this weekly column of mine. The week’s events have been over flowing with non-gaming related news, but that has not stopped me from percolating an idea about this special industry. And I do mean it is special in that it is exceptional from other industries it is often compared to. Movies in particular are often measured alongside videogames with phrases like “the Citizen Kane of videogames” being bandied about whenever lofty appraisal of a game is attempted. And in recent years videogames have been compared to professional sports thanks to the rise of broadcast internet sites like Twitch and the competitive games they feature. I think that ultimately these two comparisons achieve very different things as well as demonstrate some issues unique to the games industry. For better or worse people will continue to make such comparisons, but in the meantime I think it highlights something worth discussing.
The movie comparison being much older than the sports comparison, I think it shows a much deeper seated thought process many have with regards to games. Videogames have gone through a struggle to legitimize themselves over the last several decades, but, now that the industry has grown to financially eclipse those of older origin and perceived higher artistic merit, the sense of legitimacy in US society is still only slowly developing. There are still remnants of a nerd culture dominating over the scene in a time when nerd culture is the dominant scene in other mediums like movies. A long lasting stigma still keeps in depth conversations about videogames at a lower decibel than that of movies. The tides are changing on this but the comparison itself was always inaccurate to begin with. And the inaccuracy is related to the unique requirement games hold over other mediums: active participation.
In order to experience a game first-hand it is necessary to be an active participant in them and in most cases it is also quite necessary to be good enough to progress. Assuming all the rules of the game are followed (i.e., no cheats or cheat devices are used) it is highly likely that there will be many games an individual cannot complete. Unlike a passive medium which, at most, can require patience and some contextual understanding to fully appreciate, videogames ask of its consumers that they be skilled enough to see everything through. Never mind the increased time requirements, as most games take many times longer to get through than most movies, videogames require that effort be exerted as often this presence of challenge is the only thing on offer. Many, to this day, lack a worthwhile story or art direction that make the five or (many) more hours worth spending. What does make that time worth spending in most games is the challenge inherent in progressing the game. What this ultimately does, even among games enthusiasts, is alienate a lot of gaming that does not cater to a particular skill set. Since games imposes challenges of various natures, from strategy to fast reflexes to memorization or some combination of everything, it is common for games to exclude wide swaths of even professional game critics simply for being what they are.
In movies this can happen to some degree as well, where a critic who does not appreciate a certain genre can be harsher on it than those who do appreciate it, but it cannot be said that both critics could not participate fully in the movie experience. As someone who is naturally abysmal at complex strategy games I cannot be expected to know and weigh in on the experiences of something like the Civilization series or to express the merits of League of Legends with anything approaching completeness. Games like these are not simply outside of my interest, they are outside of my ability to participate. This distaste for that genre of gaming, in my own observation, has lead to an atmosphere of negativity toward games even from within its own culture of gamers. Dismissal and necessarily uninformed opinion spread easily across the internet about games from people who do not, if even sometimes because they cannot, participate fully in those games. By comparison, anyone with enough ibuprofen can sit through a Michael Bay movie and comment on the events therein. It, as with other passive mediums, is exclusionary in a different way. Games, by their nature, are much more exclusionary in their requirement of some manual dexterity and skill simply to participate in even partially.
Whether or not this exclusion is a necessary part of games, and I think it is, games have a new found solution to this that will help to include more people than it ever has. The somewhat recent rise of Lets Plays, demonstrations of games being played by another person, has done a great deal to open the appeal of games beyond the aspect of direct participation. In this way gaming has become much more performative, and the massive (and lucrative) popularity of games as a performance has lead to the next logical comparison: sports. eSports, as they have been dubbed, have grown greatly in popularity on the backs of streaming services like Twitch, now embedded in Sony and Microsoft’s current console offerings, and have opened up the appeal of passively watching games. In this way the comparison to sports, an activity not all can or care to participate in directly (especially on a professional level), has proven much more apt toward gaming as well as much more positive for the industry.
By this comparison, games that require a great deal of practice and skill to participate in at higher levels can be appreciated by more than just those who have reached that level of skill. The broadcasting and organizing of tournaments has opened up more parts of the industry, even just inside the gaming community, to more people. The more exposure it gets the more socially acceptable it becomes and I believe it is through these channels, those that focus on games as performative entertainment, that draw the more accurate and even healthier comparison to games than the comparison to movies ever did. But much still has to be done to legitimize this comparison as often the notion of game players as athletes or of games as sports are waved off in favor of a more traditional definition that involves more physical activity. But at the moment I am not overly concerned by this as the massive amounts of money have helped to push things along. For the purposes of obtaining visas to participate in multimillion dollar tournaments abroad, some nations have declared professional game players as “athletes”. And while this might lead to some scoffing it also leads to the broadening appeal of gaming. And in the US, at least, it still has a way to go.
Alrighty, Lcom denizens of the deep, you know the drill by this point. What are your thoughts on comparisons of games to movies or games to sports? Do you think professional gamers are indeed athletes or is this title taking things a bit too far? Is it just the terminology at fault? Is the broadening appeal of games as a performative medium even a good thing for the industry? I want your responses on my desk no later than five o’clock or you can just walk right out that door!