Uh-oh. You said "cultural relevance." The forum kiddies are going to start making fun of us now.
Seriously, it's kind of funny. This conversation draws a line between "us," who see games as having meaningful narratives (or at least the potential for them) and "them," the mainstream that just wants to play Madden and Rock Band. From this you'd infer that we're representing the core audience, the early adopters.
But in the core gamer market, there's a lot of push-back against this kind of conversation. We're overanalyzing, we're being pretentious and irrelevant, we're endlessly trying to push art into games without making a compelling argument for why the industry should risk revenue—and overlook fun—in favor of some vague critical consensus on "relevance."
My biggest question as I look back on a year that brought me many games I found fun to play but none that I found meaningful: If the mainstream doesn't care about meaning, and neither does the core, then how big is the audience that does?
Chris Hecker, whose IGDA Leadership Forum talk both Jamin and Chris referenced, is on our side. He doesn't decry mass-market products or the pursuit of revenue, but instead asks the game industry to embrace the idea that there are many audiences to address, not just one or two big ones. The industry's priority goal to reach as many people as possible will ruin us, he says. Developers should instead aim to make games that are—as with any medium—expressions of the creators' whims. Hecker argues that the resulting diversity is the only way to attain cultural value, and I agree.
I think that's part of what Heather Chaplin was trying to say when she pegged adolescent "guy culture" as the main factor keeping games in what Hecker calls a "cultural ghetto." Diverse experiences can only be crafted by diverse development teams, something the game-design profession tends to lack. This brings me to your question, Chris, about being a female gamer: We're setting ourselves up to worsen the situation when we start making a lack of cultural sophistication into a gender issue. That's why I had a problem with Chaplin's talk.
While gaming feels too much like a boys' club for my liking, the goal of "trying to make more games that appeal to women" is problematic. The television shows that attain not just ratings but cultural admiration—like Mad Men—aren't usually created with gender targets, but with the goal of telling a story that captures the nuances of human experience. I would guess women like Mad Men just as much as men do, even though the values of the show's characters are overwhelmingly sexist. Similarly, I don't think gaming will broaden its audience by focusing on subject matter so much as execution and intention—the why that Hecker asks developers to consider in his talk.
We don't just need more women making video games. As Jamin has argued, we need more ethnically and culturally diverse people designing games. And let me add: more people who've read stuff other than Tolkien, who've watched more than just Star Wars, who went to art school because of Paul Cézanne (psst, look at critical-darling Braid) and not because of Stan Lee. To answer your question more directly, Chris: I don't mind playing as a hulking space marine. I'd just like some other choices.
You both brought up football; I'll cop to never playing sports games. This isn't very unusual for video-game-critic sorts like me. No matter how explosive FIFA 10 is on the European charts, no matter how highly rated this year's Madden iteration might be, sports video games have always felt as far away from the world I enjoy as FarmVille does. It's a big blind spot. Would I be more interested in a golf game if, as Jamin suggests, it was wrapped in a stirring narrative about all of Tiger's "mistresses"? Probably not. And just like America will soon care more about Tiger's golf game than his game-game, sports gamers probably don't care about a Friday Night Lights for their favorite genre.
Further on football and FarmVille, Chris compared record-breaking game sales such as Modern Warfare 2's roughly 6-million-unit November to the Super Bowl's 100 million viewers. Well, I just learned that Zynga, maker of FarmVille and other Facebook games, has 100 million monthly unique users. Would 100 million people watch the Super Bowl if it were on every month?
Judging by these numbers, the vision of gaming we're discussing here is not the one relevant to the widest audience. Yikes. I want more diversity, more depth, more art in video games, but especially this year—when even I was won over by simpler definitions of "play"—I start to wonder whether I'm alone. Jamin, you say we need to have these kinds of conversations as a way to promote video-game literacy, but maybe we can never persuade your friend Thessaly to see Left 4 Dead the way we do. And maybe we shouldn't try.
I realize that questioning our "cultural relevance" as critics is a bummer of a way to end a lovely discussion, so I'll switch to an up note: I think 2010 is going to be awesome. BioShock 2! Splinter Cell Conviction! Final Fantasy XIII! New gesture tech! Mitch, what are you most looking forward to?
Thanks again, guys.