From Mario to Master Chief: How Gaming is growing up

Video games as a form of entertainment and as an industry are growing up. The days of the eight-bit sprites and kid-centric marketing are all but over. This maturation, coupled with a tsunami of popularity, has brought with it waves of controversy about guns and violence in a medium just out of diapers. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty have been at the forefront of the debate and will stay there as long as they sell millions of copies. However, this fixation on guns and gore is not what the industry is about. Military shooters and gangster-focused crime are just a small part of what video games have to offer.

As technology continues to improve and the internet creeps into millions more homes around the globe, video games sit at the crossroads. Budgets have ballooned into the billions and Indie game studios have begun their march into the American psyche through games like Bastion, Braid, Minecraft, and Fez. Indie game studios have gone from a niche on the Xbox dashboard to being the push behind some independent consoles like the Ouya. Mobile games on Android and Apple and the Free-to-Play craze have pushed the medium even further into an identity crisis. Should developers get rid of physical copies of their games and go to a digital download format like iTunes? Should studios focus less on budget and graphics and more on the aesthetics of play?

You would think that this crisis affects only gamers and their families, but that just isn’t true. Just like the latest box office blockbuster decides the landscape of cinema so to does the decisions of millions of non-gamers affect the gaming industry. Parents have more of an affect on the gaming industry than I believe they realize. It wasn’t the hardcore gamers who made the Wii the phenomenal hit that it was, it was parents. The landscape of gaming before the Wii and after are so fundamentally different that Microsoft and Sony poured millions upon millions of dollars into the motion-control gaming arena with varying degrees of success.

Looking into the future, studios like Irrational Games (creators of Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite), Supergiant Games (creators of Bastion), Quantic Dream (creators of Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls), and Jonathan Blow (creator of Braid and The Witness) will have close to, if not more, of an impact on the direction that video games take as studios like Infinity Ward (creators of Call of Duty), Bungie (creators of Halo and Destiny), and Epic Games (creators of Gears of War).

This paradigm shift has seen the resurrection of Adventure Games, a genre long proclaimed dead, by Tell Tale Games (creators of the Walking Dead adventure game) which was awarded Game of the Year by GameInformer magazine. Furthermore, the industry saw the rise of the crowd-funding model which has allowed Tim Schafer of Double Fine Games to raise over three million dollars for an adventure games the big publishers said was “not profitable.” This shift has also lead to the departure of many industry leads from big companies to found their own independent studies.

Hopefully, this means the argument will shift from guns and gore to which games deserve to be in museums right alongside the Mona Lisa. Hopefully, this will lead to the drive for the preservation of classic games in the same way Cinema enthusiasts are striving to preserve their own history.

Video games are the perfect medium to explore the human condition and what it means to be good or to be evil. It is the perfect medium to raise the question of choice and whether our free will is an illusion or something that makes us who we are. Video games can include the player in a way that no movie or book can. The current shift of game design has gone from cut-scenes and button prompts to more realistic moral choices and a focus on player agency. This push is overriding the lowest common denominator of meaningless violence and “harmless” fun in mainstream video games. I believe that very soon we will see video games asking bigger questions in more unique ways and evoking more discussion than movies like Inception or the Matrix. Soon it won’t be unusual to see a player craft their own unique adventure that is unlike any other player’s in the entire world.

Gaming is growing up.