The Worst Thing to Happen To Video Games Was for Them To Be Called Games
“Activity engaged in for diversion or amusement.” That’s the primary definition for “games” according to Merriam-Webster. “A form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck” is what Google first pulls up. In the case of many video games, either of those descriptions is spot on, but it sets a limitation—an expectation. Games aren’t mature. Games are childish. Games shouldn’t be taken seriously. Games are nothing more than distractions and simple amusements (or the brutish competitive arena of sports, which is another discussion entirely).
The word “games” is now so intrinsically linked to video games that the industry practically revolves around it. Games journalists. The Game Awards. Game of the Year. Game developers. And yet, video games have the potential to be so much more. Art. Entertainment. Experience. The word interactive comes to mind. Interactive art and interactive entertainment both lend a more mature flair than anything involving the word games.
A Taboo Distraction
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to see games as little more than amusing distractions. Having been a games writer (there’s that term again) for more than five years now, I’ve had plenty of conversations with people on the outside of the games industry that know very little of how far they’ve come. When I tell some people that games have made me cry, and have sometimes moved me in ways that no book or movie ever could, they act surprised.
“Imagine the most powerful storytelling medium,” I explain to the skeptics. “Instead of being a simple observer, you’re interacting. You’re making the choices. You’re forced to be a part of every moment.” Interaction is what makes games such an incredible vehicle for delivering strong messages or emotions. It’s what makes them the perfect place for exploring traditionally taboo topics under the right conditions. Interaction can help people face harsh realities. All of this is possible with games.
It’s amazing how desensitized we’ve become. The news is a constant barrage of terrible shit—happening far away and in our own backyards—and yet it’s just another day in the life. Reading headlines and watching news bits goes hand-in-hand with grabbing a cup of coffee and heading off too work. Nothing shocks us anymore, and at the same time, there’s so much that we’re scared to talk about. My wife’s stepdad committed suicide less than six months ago. I was severely depressed as a teen, and still have some pretty bad post traumatic stress disorder following a motorcycle accident that should have killed me 10 years ago. I’ve had some pretty good friends leave this world long before their time. I underwent some amounts of abuse myself—both physical and emotional—when I was a young child.
It all sounds pretty horrible, but I’m not saying any of this to make you feel bad for me. I’m being open about it to get you to reflect. My situation is not unique. As a matter of fact, I think I’ve gotten through life relatively easily compared to others. And yet, as common as these kinds of issues are, people seem remiss to talk about these difficult subjects. Game developers are trying to break down some of these barriers by tackling tough motifs; things like suicide, child abuse, depression, mental illness, and death. They are trying to touch players on an emotional level; trying to get them thinking about things that society is all too happy to tell us we shouldn’t be thinking about.
And yet the problem with it all is that pesky word: Games. A game about mental illness. A game that takes on child abuse. Or, by the dictionary definition: “Activity engaged in for diversion or amusement that takes on child abuse.” Suddenly it’s understandable that when someone outside of video games hears about a game like Detroit: Become Human, and takes the scene shown at Paris Games Week out of context, it becomes nothing more than a form of entertainment that glorifies child abuse. But is it really?
Let’s do more word association. Games are fun. Fun conjures bright images of laughing and happy children. And then we have games featuring child abuse. Games featuring suicide. Games featuring mental illness. And none of those things are fun, bright, or happy. The problem doesn’t lie in the games themselves, but in what we’ve come to call this hobby and passion. Video games. Games are fun, games are entertainment, but as soon as games become meaningful and deep, we have a conflict of terms, at least by the literal definition.
Those within the games industry are well aware of this, and most of us have moved far beyond the literal definition of games. We’ve accepted that–much like movies, music, books, and other forms of artistic entertainment–games have the ability to be both fun, amusing distractions and deep experiences that explore emotional subjects. But I can’t tell you how many times I come across people that have no idea. It’s easy to forget that to many people, video games are just that: games.
Difficult Topics and the Nature of Fun
It’s for this very reason that developers need to be mindful of what they are showing. Gamers may scoff at any complaints over things like the out of context and brutally violent scene that Naughty Dog showed for The Last of Us: Part II, or the most recent Detroit: Become Human gameplay that had child abuse at the center of the conflict. We’re able to contextualize these things around the rest of our gaming knowledge, but try showing those same scenes to someone outside of gaming. Suddenly these are just games about torturous violence or the murder of a child, and difficult or sensitive subjects supposedly have no place in things meant for amusement or distraction.
If games are meant to be, or at least thought of as, fun and entertaining, then it makes sense why there might be some controversy raised over taboo topics in games. The question is raised about whether interacting with those topics is glorification or exploration. Violence, depression, suicide, mental illness, and child abuse should never be “fun, entertaining, or a simple distraction,” but the answer is never black or white. Much like with movies or any other entertainment medium, there can be both. There are certainly games that are still meant to be fun. There are those that tend to glorify violence more than others. And then there are those that are trying to be more than that simple definition.
It’s strictly a matter of perspective, and the word “games” has done no favors for the industry being taken more seriously by those on the outside. Calling them video games conjures up images of children’s play things, and yet the industry moves towards more adults playing video games all the time. Back in 2014, the ESA reported that only 29% of gamers were under 18, with the average age sitting at 31.
The worst thing to ever happen to video games was for them to be called games. It’s simple vocabulary that shifts the world’s perspective of an entire industry, an entire entertainment and storytelling medium. As games evolve and continue to outgrow their limited appellation, we’ll continue to face scrutiny from those who can’t see past the “games” moniker. This industry has never been one to buckle under pressure, and despite the challenges it will face from being called the games industry, I’ve got faith that the brilliance of the creators and their maturity will keep games—my very lifestyle—on the edge of creativity and exploration of difficult subjects. And they’ll also continue to be “fun activities engaged in for diversion or amusement.”