So I know I’m sometimes late to the party with these things, but I have had a film festival and other projects keeping me occupied in recent weeks. I did consider just leaving this one alone and moving on. However, not wanting to miss an extra opportunity to spread the love to another medium, I thought I’d go back a few weeks and revisit the furore around the 12th annual ‘Video game BAFTAs’.
Now the only extensive coverage I’ve seen or read about this event, held at the Tobacco Dock in London, is that of the BBC (mainly from this article), who in the past haven’t typically been the most objective or fair when it comes to video games.
Historically they’ve shown ignorance toward the medium, including once labelling all Twitch users “teenagers, just clicking away, playing their video games all night” (from BBC Newsnight report ‘What is Twitch?’, watch it here). Need I also remind anyone that former London mayor Boris Johnson thinks video games “rot the minds of children”? Forget about even specifying what kind of games exactly (in which case we might be able to have a debate); just ‘video games’ in general. It sometimes astounds me, though only sometimes, how intelligent people can think so one-dimensionally.
The mainstream narrative is usually simple: only immature teenage boys and children play video games. Frequently you’ll see older high-nosed gentlemen – who you know have never properly took a controller in hand themselves – reporting on them, and in not really knowing what they’re talking about, they fall back on out-of-date stereotypes.
This time, however, I was pleasantly satisfied by most of the BBC’s coverage, aside from a rather aggravating Radio 4 interview that we’ll get to later. Of course if you’re taking the time to read this, chances are I’m preaching to the converted anyway and you’d agree that video games are at least worth reading about. I digress with the above diatribe only because I still find it a little surprising that despite the negative press they frequently receive, video games are acknowledged as being worthy of these ceremonial awards at all – though having only started in 2004 I think they were nonetheless late to the party.
Of all the games nominated at the ceremony, only a couple I’ve played myself – Life is Strange, winner of Best Story, and Until Dawn, winner of Best Original Property. Metal Gear Solid V is on my playlist; quite a few others I’ll get around to in due time. After all, it took me a while to catch up on Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, one of my favourite games of the past few years and winner of Best Game Innovation in 2014 (it’s certainly deserving of that award and more).
Needless to say games are more time consuming than films; they’re also more fulfilling in the long run. And it’s vital to experience them in visual over written form; hence why I don’t like over-saturating my written content with game talk. Bearing that in mind, let’s wrap up the main talking points swiftly…
Aside from Best British title Batman: Arkham Knight and Best Game winner Fallout 4, one could consider it a year for the ‘indie’ titles, with acclaimed walking simulator (for lack of a better term) Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture walking away – no pun intended – with Best Music, Audio Achievement, and Performer for Merie Dandridge, who played its lead protagonist Kate Collins.
The Arkham Knight team seemed almost offended when asked in an interview about the broken state of their game on PC and subsequent critical panning of the (frankly abysmal) port. I was surprised this topic was even brought up at a ceremony where everyone’s hanging out and otherwise praising each other for how great a job they’d done; unsurprising was the way in which the team brushed off the question about those problems with the port, instead saying “it’s always really hard when people don’t like what you do”.
Well, no shit. But the problem wasn’t that people didn’t like it per se – it was more that the game was released completely broken and borderline unplayable on PC. Too many major game developers think they can get away with slipping a game out like this before going back and fixing it later; at which point they’ve already got your money. You know what would happen to smaller developers if they tried to pull this kind of thing? They’d go under, as is the case with many companies who don’t deliver working products to their customers.
Speaking of smaller developers, Moon Studios were recognised for their adventure title Ori and the Blind Forest, which won the award for Artistic Achievement. It has received acclaim from critics across the board and is available now for Microsoft Windows and Xbox One.
Her Story is another intriguing title, available on Windows, OS X and iOS, in which players have to put together a series of clues to find a missing man. Sounds a simple premise; in that likely lies the main secret behind its success. It won Best Mobile & Handheld and Game Innovation, along with Best Debut for British director Sam Barlow.
It’s worth noting that Her Story is technically an ‘interactive movie’; a genre many games have been aiming for recently and which certain major game developers (looking at you David Cage and Quantic Dream) consider the future of the medium. Well, how the future for one medium can simply be copying another – that being film – is something for which I don’t quite understand the logic. A positive, bright future for video games is surely the day when they can fully stand alone from films and not be constantly compared to them like some inferior younger sibling. It is younger, yes, but not inherently inferior, and should strive to be different, not the same.
This brings us back again to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and the concept of the ‘walking simulator’; another genre recently linked with ‘modernising’ the medium. It seems this game was one of the most popular at the awards ceremony (having won the three awards mentioned above), and I’m going to estimate that’s mainly because it was seen to be ‘breaking away’ from the usual conventions of violent, action-heavy video games. Does that seem too obvious a conclusion?
Well, a Radio 4 interview (contained in the BBC article previously linked to) with Jessica Curry, co-founder of development studio The Chinese Room, gave me that general impression. It starts out with the host (one of those older gentlemen I earlier alluded to) asking, “what makes this game so different? I mean, obviously they’re not all rushing around shooting each other for a start…” before proceeding to ask “are you concerned with the effect that some of this stuff – some of this ‘other’ stuff – is having on children?”
Pump the brakes right there. That goes back to the presumptive BBC narrative I mentioned before, and I could barely listen to any more of this interview. Curry, to her credit, appears to show awareness that she’s being interviewed by someone who doesn’t really know anything about the gaming scene, and gives some PR line about extremes (like this example) being unhealthy and needing to take everything in moderation. I would’ve preferred her to call bullshit, but I understand she wants to keep her job.
Now let’s say by some chance you’re not too aware of the video game scene yourself but have kept reading anyway; maybe the only exposure you’ve had to gaming before is that which you’ve seen on the news or read online, likely accompanied by a sensationalist headline. Video games across the board are often blamed for violence in teenage boys, for mass shootings in America, for failing performance at school, for men mistreating women, for the general disconnect between kids and their parents. I’ve read articles and watched television programmes or movies that have suggested all of these links and many more. Each claim made without a shred of evidence to back it up, other than “this person played video games, therefore…”
My argument would not necessarily be that video games have nothing at all to do with any of those things – but they are not the cause. Correlation does not equal causation. Maybe (only maybe) they did have an effect at some point along the line. But for as long as games are made the face of the problem, it’s impossible to have a conversation that might lead us closer to the real issue. That’s a topic for another time; for now let’s go over a couple of basic points.
First, not all video games are for kids any more than all films are for kids. Obviously there are films suitable for kids. But you would not show your child The Exorcist as if it were a Disney movie. At least I’d like to hope not.
The trouble is, many parents still look at a game like Grand Theft Auto V as if it were a Disney movie. It is not. That large red 18 rating on the cover is there for a genuine reason; because this is a mature game suitable for adults.
Now even if your child was to play an 18 rated game, that does not guarantee anything. I first played GTA when I was about 12 and have turned out a relatively stable human being, but back then I was also reasonably stable and emotionally mature for my age. It’s worth bearing in mind, there are many children who take longer to mature, and the certification rating is there mainly to cover that age range.
The reason I bring this up as particularly important is because when people such as the Radio 4 host mentioned above ask a leading question like, “are you concerned with the effect these games are having on children?” they are referring primarily to games that have a higher age rating than those children playing them. So even if their clear assertion was based on some factual evidence, all they would really be doing is illustrating how vital it is for parents to follow that rating system.
Second, and this is a small leap when one comes to realise they can be enjoyed by adults too, video games actually have the potential to be highly mature pieces of entertainment. Frankly they’re not just toys to sit your kids in front of; nor some mindless button-mashing addiction, even if that is the form a lot of them take (there’s no problem with them being that either). They deserve as much respect in a mainstream context as films; they are at least capable of tackling the same issues, the same themes, and producing the same kind of hard-hitting masterpieces.
In order to reach that potential, they must be allowed to portray tough imagery and allowed to tackle those tough themes. They should be able to feature not only war (see This War of Mine rather than Call of Duty), violence, and murder, but also ethical and moral choices, mental illness, suicide to name a few, without being degraded and threatened with banning for doing so.
Ultimately that’s why I can’t help but take some interest in the video game BAFTAs; an opportunity for this medium to receive some positive mainstream press, also perhaps a chance for the average person to learn a little more about them and come to realise the points I’ve been preaching above. Yes, video games matter to a lot of us – too often are we left frustrated by them simply being passed off as infantile ‘mindless entertainment’.