Some people don't "get" games.
This blog post comes with the risk of sounding pretentious and condescending (god forbid I would ever gatekeep the use of "gamer" as a hobby or form of identification) but it's conception comes from a recurring conversation I keep having with professionals* who are branching out of their art field and into another.
Virtual Reality is a whole new Thing to comprehend and study, but much of its language, expansion, and entire development has grown from gaming; time and time again I find myself chatting with someone who works in interactive, theatre, film, or VR, who has never had the chance to "get" into games, and would like to, and is wholly aware that this is something that would absolutely benefit their practice.
When I say some people don't "get" games, what I mean is that they just haven't played any. And not because they think games can't hold artistic value, but because gaming happens to be an entirely new universe that comes pre-packed with its own culture and assumed-competency, with more than it's fair share of turn-offs even before you've pressed Start.
Here I would like to share some reasons why this happens, and how to overcome the preconceptions gaming comes burdened with.**
NEW STUFF IS SCARY & HARD & RUBBISH
And for those of us who *aren't* dweeby gamer-gal@hotmail goons like myself, starting a game from step 0 is difficult. They take time to play, there are so many, they expect a lot of pre-knowledge, and they require expensive hardware. Sounds familiar?
Much like VR, games are new and scary. Just like how theatres, museums, and galleries can cause theshold fear, starting up a game isn't just about the technological hindrance, it's about the social and economical factors too.
Booking tickets to an interactive theatre event, for this example let's say an Escape Room, means the booker will have many questions before going ahead. First of all, the immediate concern is "What can I expect?" and unfortunately for them, the answer is vague and intentionally unspecific to not spoil the nature of the fun. Like any media, there may be a synopsis or blurb to explain the themes and story, but this is unlike cinema or a book; audiences know the physicality of what to expect in reading and watching, which is passive, no-effort consumption. Wherein something interactive the audience are active participants, and are moving, doing, and playing. Not only just the pure *effort* of interactive engagement, but there are other taxing demands. Escape Rooms have unique implications as a medium to have jump scares, interaction with other people, and changes in the physical environment.
This is much like virtual reality, where all the above also applies, word for word. Why don't we take a step back again, look at this from an even wider perspective, and here we can see how games are congruent to this line of thought, too.
You may be put in peril, the experience is in your hands, you have to act, and not only that but you can act wrong! Notably, this is something you don't get in casual games, mobile games, or something more akin to Candy Crush.
Escape Rooms are live action events that attract thrill seekers and people who are willing to experience time sensitive pressure. Basically, only crazy people will seek them out. I can not stress enough how difficult it is to get non-live-event or interactive-theatre friends to go to an event like this.
In a similar way, a videogame to a new player will also throw them into an unfamiliar alien world, with new rules to learn, and often time sensitive objectives, such as press button to not die. As a new player, it is likely that mistakes will be made, and if anyone is watching (let alone an experienced person), the feeling of failure and shame in inevitable.
In any given situation, the potential of failure is uncomfortable and terrifying enough, and most people will not choose to participate in something outside of their comfort zone.
Is this an obvious barrier? With the widespread adoption of smart phones, you could suggest everyone has access to some kind of game. It's true that the uptake of gaming has increased monumentally. Statistically, consoles have crept their way in millions of homes, and the wider public is seeing VR crack open your window and sneak it's way in too.
The truth is a lot of professionals I speak with may very well have a console in their home, but most often this will be through their children. To someone who watches Fortnite over their kids' shoulders, there may be some explanations as to why the temptation to begin gaming may not be there. There are some stereotypes attributed to a parent-child-technology relationship.
"You spend too much damn time on that machine!!" About 86% of this US studies' parents agreed with this sentiment.
"They're bad for you and make you violent" is another preconception, although rarer these days. It is less common now for gaming to be considered unhealthy, a waste of time, or unsociable, as of the late 2k10's and early 2k20's. Many people living through the Covid-19 era may tell you videogames have been a godsend, a form of socialising, and a healthy indoors activity, especially for their children.
"They're dumb" OK, so I'm theorising on this, but hear me out: If you watch your child play something like Minecraft, Roblux, Mario, or Animal Crossing, what you may see is something appealing for children. Repetitive, cute, simplified, or inane. These are all signifiers that gaming is not for you. These games do not suggest intellectuality, or depth, and nor do they appeal to someone who is looking to maximise their time. Many older consumers may want to play something to take the edge off, and will gravitate towards something easy, casual, and accessible like a mobile game. For someone unconvinced that games can be art, the leap to purchasing a AAA*** epic is huge.
Not to mention games, VR, and anything new will often presume their audience has some technical fluency, digital literacy, or natural understanding of how to use the product. Can you press X without looking at the controller? Hello! - This is a learnt skill! Once upon a time even you, dear reader used a touchscreen for the first time, a computer mouse, and a hamburger menu. Tutorials can help new users, but are not always relevant or paced correctly for first-timers. See Freya's Twitter threads on the trouble with delivering VR to new audiences.
So maybe you've decided you will buy a console and a game, and it's gotta be the big fat game of the year with Keanu Reeves on the adverts, (who is familiar to you, so it must be a trustworthy brand, right?) and you've made peace with the meta jokes, the foreign lingo, the tiny font, and all the learning curves that come with them. What next?
Oh dear god, no!!! How much??? £450 for a PS5 and £50 a game? A Nintendo Switch (which is small and should therefore be cheap) is £200??? OK, well I guess if I play something for 20 hours that's £25 an hour... which is like 20 Escape Rooms... hang on a minute Escape Rooms are overpriced too!!! And an Oculus Quest is £400...! Argghhh!!!
The way I've written the above may look like I'm taking the mickey out of people I perceive as cheap, but these are my sincere sentiments on all techno junk at the moment. I have no judgement towards purchasing fancy new gadgets - any hobby can be deconstructed as a waste of money, time, and worth if you really look for an angle, and if you're a knob. But until interactive entertainment is cheap, accessible, and widely adopted, activities like playing games, VR, and attending theatre and escape rooms will forever be a hangover of elitism and exclusionism, or a once-a-year treat, not only designed for but made by those who have the cash for it. See: Silicon Valley white dudes, designing headsets for quote unquote "the average head".
We know participating in the industry of something spenny is a barrier for the working class, so you can only guess how hard it is to break into. Fewer games being made by a certain demographic, means fewer games being made for the same demographic. But gaming has indeed found a way to transcend this pitfall - the indie games landscape. Independent games are low-budget or small games with no support of a large publisher, and there is a thriving community online to appeal to every individual person. However, this is for those who know where to look...
In this blog post, I am speaking to the ultimate outsider of the cultural universe of videogames: to Mom and Pop, and the lone professional artist.
When someone recommends a Cool Thing, we know that this Thing will take a lot of our time (see: any Netflix series). We, as a collective public want snappy content, our attention spans literally dropping by the year. "It takes a few episodes to get into" or "There are four seasons" is bad enough, imagine someone telling you Assassins Creed Valhalla is the best thing ever and you're totally missing out and don't worry, exploring 40% of the game only takes 90 hours.
Maybe an epic story-led game isn't your chosen poison. Maybe you end up sinking your hours into Crusader Kings 3, a strategic dynasty-simulator. Rather than getting emotionally involved and following a plot, you can let loose and relax. The only problem here, is that it's kind of too good, putting you in a flow state. Think of all the things you could have spent your time doing instead. Productive, useful things. Instead you're knocking up concubines 'til four in the morning.
Greatest of all time-sucks in the world, maybe you have children. You have a job. You have chores. And you have established hobbies that you already are desperate not to side-line in Mental Health Crisis 5000. Who among us can be judgemental of anyone using their free time for a healthy jog, when the alternative may be booting up a virtual virus-driven dystopia in The Last of Us 2?
SOMETHING TO CHEER ME UP...
Look on the Bright Side
So maybe I haven't sold gaming to you so far, but I swear there are solutions to all these problems. Not just on an industry-scale, which you have little to no sway on, but in ways that you can incorporate fun, transformative storytelling into your life without suffering intimidation and threshold fear.
There are games for you, outsider, media lover, layperson who likes art but not Shooty Gun Gun on the Xbox. Here is my advice for you, bullet pointed for those who may skip ahead to this section.
NO CONSOLE: PC games are probably the easiest gateway drug, (heck, you probably work in media), you may know where the computer keys are without looking, and likely you may have a machine that can play something ten years old. You don't have to boot up the most fanciest or newest game in the world, instead why not buy Portal or Portal 2 - even possible to find in CEX or on Ebay if you indeed want a physical copy and have a CD drive - alternatively download Steam from home and try them out here.
LEARNING NEW THINGS IS HARD: There are many titles which are all about storytelling, and forgo the need for digital literacy at all. Having limited controls, no danger, and no way to "do it wrong", these games are honestly some of the best out there. Often titles that fall in this genre may be called walking simulators. But interactive fiction is a more forgiving name, I think. I recommend you play Firewatch, Journey, or Dear Esther.
IT'S A WASTE OF TIME: This is a hard bullet point, because I can't convince you, you are going to have to convince yourself. Books, although great, are worthy of your time. You get lost in them, you put yourself into them, and you aren't distracted by the world around you. In games, this is the same. If someone reads a 700-page novel, are they wasting their life? They certainly didn't gain anything physical from it. It's bad for their eyes to read at the same distance all day! And guess what, they read the book without sharing. Keeping it all to their greedy self. Why didn't they bond with the family over a shared session of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? Surely that maximises everyone's time.
I'M JUST NO GOOD: Hey, no problem. There is a huge subbranch to gaming made just for you: streaming. Either watch someone you like stream games for free on Twitch (Limmy) or put a no-commentary Youtube on in the background where podcast would usually go, for an passive easy-peasy experience. I recommend Half Life 2 and Silent Hill 2, both historically monumental and heavily referenced in all media, both standalone games that need no context from previous titles to enjoy.
MY MONEYYYYYY: See above. Indie games are a great entry point, and low cost. Try itch.io for some hidden gems. I recommend The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit on Steam for free, as well as keeping an eye on their Sales. Not to mention free bundles do actually exist: see here. Recently the Indie Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality saw 1700 indie games sold by way of pay-what-you-want in aid of charity.
THEY ARE TOO LONG TO COMMIT TO: I acknowledge many in-depth games may be hard to drop and pick back up, especially if the story is convoluted and you've forgotten all the buttons since last weekend. My solution to this is The Walking Dead series, by Telltale. They are *chef's kiss* glorious by every design, while using the edgy Walking Dead franchise for a backdrop of zombie peril. The first season is the best place to start, they are episodic, and provide for you a handy-dandy "last time on The Walking Dead" mechanic at the beginning of every episode. These are a cross between interactive fiction and adventure, still incredibly easy and heavily narrative based. A great place to start, if you ask me!
Thank you for reading. In conclusion, there is no excuse for you, decrepitly aging and technophobic Creative, buried under children and intray documents, not to explore videogames, and use the experience as an artistic enrichment to fortify your art-making.
If you are a VR maker, there are many, many videogame practices that will intrinsically apply to your work. I could list them, but much like the explanation to as "why VR is good and worthwhile", it has to be experienced to be really understood.
This article will be followed this week by some more recommendations / thoughtful breakdowns of three interactive fiction / walking simulators.
Got any feedback for me? Drop me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Finicholson on Twitter.
*read: old people
**Why? Only because it is the fastest growing industry ever, and is worth approximately 4bn(more now!) a year in the UK sector alone. Music and Video? What's that, never heard of it. Oh and it's art, that can change people's lives, their understanding of themselves, and their outlook on the world around them.
*** AAA games are blockbuster huge releases, such as the newest Grand Theft Auto or whatever. Numbers of staff within studios can be in the hundreds or thousands.