The Gaming Club

Video Games for Everyone, Even North Koreans
The art of play.
Dec. 12 2007 10:11 AM

The Gaming Club

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Gentlemen,

First I have to say that I in no way believe that N'Gai is really the misanthrope he says he is, even online. I have always thought of him as a warm, caring person.

I agree completely that people play games for an entire variety of reasons. The particular axis of taste that Chris and N'Gai refer to could perhaps be described as differences about just how interactive we want our interactive entertainment to be.

I usually take everything David Jaffe—he of the expletive-laced tirade—says totally seriously and completely literally, but I sense just a bit of hyperbole here. After all, God of War, his masterpiece, can be quite challenging, though evidently not quite as challenging as Ratchet & Clank. Rather than "challenge," we want "a few failures or trial-and-error, followed by a light bulb going off, followed by success, without ever becoming too frustrated"?

That difference, such as it is, sounds more like one of degree than of kind. Some people like harder games and others prefer easier ones, or perhaps it is just that different games are tougher for some people than for others. That's not surprising.

The comments from Penny Arcade strike a bit deeper. N'Gai quotes Gabe saying: "I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don't play games to beat them I play games to see them." This could be read as a fundamentally more passive, perhaps even jaded, attitude than most gamers have traditionally brought to bear. But it could also be read as valuing the chase in a game rather than the goal, which would describe most online games rather neatly.

But these are all people engaged with video games for a living, as are we. I don't think that after putting down $60 of hard-earned cash for a game, most people are mainly focused on consuming a prepackaged experience. They want to do something. If they merely wanted to be presented with amusing sights and sounds, they could see a movie or watch television or go to the symphony, all generally noninteractive experiences that have more in common with one another than they do with games. It would be a mistake for major publishers to make their games less interactive, less dynamic, more scripted.

And luckily, I don't think we're in any danger of that. One of the underlying principles of the recent Activision-Blizzard merger is that a game can be as much a social experience as a static entertainment delivery system.

As Bobby Kotick, chief executive of Activision, told me: "I take a step back and I look at World of Warcraft not so much as a game but as game meets social networking. … It has as much in common with Yahoo message boards or MySpace or Facebook as anything else, and it's very powerful once you start thinking of games in that way."

More broadly, the big story this year was the recognition that games, conceived and developed in new ways, can appeal to a much broader swath of consumers than they have the past. As Stephen points out, this has been the Year of the Wii. And the Wii hasn't been such a huge hit because it can deliver a finely rendered series of electronic "photoplays," to steal a word from Chris.

Rather, the Wii and the DS have each succeeded so brilliantly because they deliver fundamentally interactive, even challenging, entertainment to groups that might not have enjoyed games before. And it's not just Nintendo. Across the industry, the most successful companies are those reaching beyond "core gamers" and taking interactive entertainment to the masses. Retirement communities and cruise ships are installing Wiis. Dance Dance Revolution is being deployed in hundreds of gym classes across the country. Older women have become the bedrock of casual gaming.

As millions of new people come into gaming, some will like hard games and some will like easy ones. Some will like puzzle games. Some will prefer role-playing games. Some will play online. Some will play alone. I'm hopeful that the industry has grown enough to serve all those tastes.

As Stephen mentions, a corporate agility enabled by lower technical expectations is a part of that. But is Carnival Games really a great example of developers, as Stephen puts it, "reacting, through their work, to the real world and to one another with greater speed"?

Stephen mentions that only now are modern combat games reflecting a bit of nuance about the war in Iraq. It is important to remember that the major game consoles are not open artistic media. They are, of course, proprietary entertainment platforms where every bit of content must be approved in advance by the multinational corporation that makes it, namely Microsoft, Nintendo, or Sony. As N'Gai points out in reference to Manhunt 2 and Kane & Lynch, the industry's major powers have not proved shy this year when it comes to throwing their weight around.

There's nothing wrong with that, but it is important to keep in mind if one expects console games to become more topical or politically relevant. After all, there are plenty of mainstream combat games that revolve around the execution and defeat of members of various Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and East Asian nationalities, yet for some reason I doubt we'll be seeing any major console games that revolve around the assassination of fictional American or European politicians any time soon.

Of course, as A.J. Liebling so famously put it, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." That's as true of console games now as it was of newspapers in the 20th century.

But in the Windows world things are less controlled—Microsoft has no veto over who can release a PC game—so perhaps we should look there if we hope to find the real world poking its snout into our digital la-la lands. This year in PC gaming, we saw BP team up with Electronic Arts to develop the model for climate change in the new SimCity, a game about the Spanish Civil War provoke an uproar in that country, and politically oriented games emerge from both Hezbollah and a militant Iranian student group.

Is it possible we could be seeing the emergence of a new sort of cultural competition and dialogue through games, as we have with more traditional media? North Koreans have been rote bad guys in Western action games for years. With the world's most fervent gaming culture directly to its south, how long will it be until North Korea releases a game of its own?

Talk about a broader audience for gaming.

N'Gai Croal is a general editor for technology at Newsweek and blogs about video games at Level Up; he can be reached at ngai.croal@newsweek.com. Seth Schiesel is a staff writer for the New York Times; he currently writes about video games for the newspaper's Culture department. Chris Suellentrop reviews games for Slate. Stephen Totilo is the video game reporter at MTV News and editor of the site's blog about games, Multiplayer.