Saturday, August 16

What is the cultural relevance of games?

Games have always been a little controversial. After all they're a time waster with no productive output nor any meaningful relevance to the real world. Demonised by those who don't play and don't understand them, games fulfil a niche of irrelevance in our society. However, more recently, those who know something of games have examined them more closely and it looks as though things are changing.

Before I continue I need to mention that I don't consider games to be either art or to be culturally significant. Not yet. With perhaps the exception of cosplay I see no extension of games into popular culture - no projection of gaming consciousness beyond viral marketing and other tricks or techniques directed by marketing companies designed to sell games to those who would probably buy them anyway. While characters in film and books resonate with individuals in highly personal ways, even becoming role models, I have never met nor read about anyone who cites Mario as their personal role model. The idea is preposterous. Yet if games are going to reach a state of maturity that elevates them beyond time wasters then they need to find some meaningful way to engage with their audience that relates to their lives. Their REAL lives. Meaningfully.

The signposts of possible change are all over the interwebs. Resident Evil 5 attracted controversy because of its possible racial connotations, not from just the ignorant demonisers, but from industry professionals. The controversy was warranted because the images portrayed in the promotional material lacked context beyond the "video game" label. The context now exists and the controversy surrounding this title has evaporated. When somebodies and nobodies alike start to take notice of something then it's possible that it's becoming culturally significant.

Resident evil 5 is not the only example. Leigh Alexander, formerly of GameSetWatch, then Kotaku and now back at GSW, explores issues with Fat Princess and SoulCalibur IV. She's an industry somebody, an online journalist with credentials and "fame". She has a personal blog called SexyVideogameland and it's one of those blogs I've wanted to reference for quite a while. Lots of thoughtful, provocative and arousing material there. I have a problem with Ms Alexander's rhetoric though. She frequently requests that those who comment not use the "it's just a video game" defense. My understanding of this request is that she seeks meaningful discourse on her discussion topic that is too easily dismissed by the IJaVG defense. Assuming that my understanding is vaguely close then this would require video games to be meaningful, to be have a cultural consciousness that is both significant and relevant. I just don't believe that they do. I honestly don't believe that anyone sees the Fat Princess as real, as an example of someone to be feared or pitied. I honestly don't believe anyone considers Ivy's endowment to be anything more than fan service, nor would anyone be inspired to have a breast enlargement to compete with this fictional character. Leigh's very own article on Cosplay (cited earlier) demonstrates my understanding of how relevant a video game character is to real life. Is the person playing such a character even real, as many an observer does not treat the real person as such when in costume.

Games are at a crossroads. Their financial weight is generating interest in economic circles. They are reaching more people than ever before. How many of us are proud of our status as gamers? Is it something we declare to others? And if we do, perhaps citing how important Mario is to our life ethic, what sort of response do we get from others? I don't declare my status as a gamer to others, a nerd maybe, someone who loves technology perhaps, but a gamer? - one of the most poisonous social claims I can make (and I do so from time to time to just see the response). I cannot expound the virtues of games to others, they are still time wasters. Sure Folding at Home contributes to "society" in a meaningful way, but I'm not "playing" it. Even fashion holds more significance, more meaning and more relevance to today's society than video games. WiiFit demonstrates that games can be productive in some way and still be popular (if perhaps a little lacking in the artistic department) and perhaps this is where games will find relevance.

The Citizen Cane of video games is still a long way off.

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