Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The need for game appreciation

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared on my weekly Game Invader column for The New Indian Express.

All other currently thriving art and entertainment forms benefit from a thriving ecosystem of critique, appreciation and deep understanding. Films, books and music are studied and dissected by an army of critics who look at everything the form has to offer, from the popular to the obscure, and throw light on their many aspects – such as cultural relevance, historical significance, sheer aesthetic beauty, technical excellence and so on. This not only helps us as fans understand and enjoy the arts in broader and deeper ways, it also exposes us to a far wider body of work, and indeed enhances our experiences of these arts.

Why, then, don't we have anything similar for games? Why is there precious little in terms of critique or appreciation of videogames as a bona-fide art form as there is for cinema for instance? We cannot argue that games are in their infancy, because they aren't. Videogames are now well over three decades old. All we have are reviews, which are great, but do not qualify as informed criticism. As Greg Costikyan, the renowned independent game designer and journalist pointed out, a review is a buyer's guide, intended to tell people whether the game in question is worth their time and money. It tells us nothing of the game's cultural context or significance within gaming's canon.

For gaming to gain acceptance as a mainstream entertainment medium and art form, we must make efforts to preserve and celebrate its heritage. A young gamer playing Bioshock 2 today is unlikely to know much about the history of shooting games, and the diverse influences which Bioshock brings together.

We need to look at questions that dig deep into gaming's very soul. How does the history of games that are based on destruction differ from that of games based on creation? How are these games different in what needs and desires they fulfil in the gamer? Where does a game like Spore (which gives you tools to create things that help you destroy other things) fit in to the scheme of things? How do games that let you nurture creations (The Sims, Farmville) differ in basic nature from those which depend on mindless destruction (Borderlands, Doom) to engage the gamer? How do we explain games that lack objectives or winning conditions altogether (The Sims, Flower) ? Are they games at all? There's so much to understand and study and shed light on.

Popular discourse based on questions such as these will only help strengthen the foundations of popular gaming, and create a solid base of knowledge from which who knows what kind of games will spring. The sheer variety of choices available to the public in books, films and music is staggering – and games are nowhere close to offering that much variety. But it's growing extremely quickly, and a better critical understanding will doubtless fuel innovation and experimentation.

We need game clubs where young gamers can play the games which are the ancestors of today's blockbusters. An Age of Empires fan must experience Dune II. A Fallout 3 fan should have the opportunity to play Wasteland. An Uncharted 2 fan should be given the chance to check out the original Ninja Gaiden or Prince of Persia or Donkey Kong.

Music and film fans have access to the hits of yore, the creations that shaped and defined the art through the ages, and to intelligent discourse and critique that helps them experience and appreciate it in context. We must ensure that gaming fans have the same.


  1. Can totally feel you man. Whenever I see anyone who is interested in games and has graduated from the PoP, NFS, GTA trinity, I recommend them classics and such giving them a brief gist of why they should play it and why it is good.

    I've made people play old dos games and even legacy console games, and only after that giving them access to its succesor generation's game.

    I used to call it "Missionary of gaming" and kind of chisel-ed my youngest cousing all the way from Atari to PS1 to PC games, haha, took me lot of years. Not exactly on the lines of what you are saying though.

    But yeah game appreciation club is a nice idea. I liked how Kotaku tried to use its appeal and popularity to get such a thing, Kotaku Game Club, done (for beyond good and evil)

    Also, the part about Bioshock that you said reminded me of this post from Stephen Totilo.

    However, I find such discussions in Forums and their "General Game discussion" boards or things like communities dedicated to classic games (and the like) in big sites like gamespot are loaded with discussions and many knowledgeable people hang out there. I find them to be like the "book club" for games, coz after all, more than "comments on a blog", "discussions on a forum" feels more natural for such things.

    However, yes. Maybe if such discussions are given more recognition... when it is made known that there are such discussions going on, people will start appreciating the art of games more. Why just limit to only enclosed forums.

  2. I agree here. Dota still lives and kicking arse :) How about the oldies like max Payne or tomb raider that ran on pentium 3 ?? i loved em still do. I