Although a relatively young industry, the world of gaming is unrecognizable from its pixely, simplistic days. Many gamers today will recall their childhoods spent hours in front of a TV traversing a wacky world as a plumber to rescue a princess, or perhaps slaying fantastical baddies to save the world. These stories entertained us as kids not because they were thought-provoking or deep, but for their childlike, almost ridiculous ways of doing things. Who would question why a fat Italian plumber would jump on turtles, ride dinosaurs, and eat mushrooms? We just sat back and absorbed all its silliness.
Games have matured immensely not only graphically but thematically since then. Now we have games that are a little more than slaying monsters or rescuing damsels in distress. A player can be anything from a psychopathic killer to a loving father. Moral choices are now a popular element in RPGs, as well as “open-ended” stories. These advances are not only due to the fact that the industry may now be better equipped to tell complex, powerful stories, but also because the kids who have played Zelda and Mario back in the day are adults now.
Although games have evolved significantly in this manner, there are growing pains associated with their acceptance as a legitimate form of media. To the public eye that is dislocated from the niche, but growing perspective of gamers, gaming can still looked upon as shallow and juvenile, to be consumed not for an experience but for simple fun. Due to this perception of shallow, childish simplicity, we get to the point where there we see a double standard in media where Counterstrike is to blame for violent behavior but your average movie with fights and explosions are not, or homosexuality in Mass Effect was too much while it is socially acceptable in a sitcom. We have gotten past the point of having a big outcry over a sex scene in a certain Grand Theft Auto game, but not by much. No one would say anything about the inclusion of “mature” themes in a movie or book. However, games do not seem to be put on the same level as other media we consume, even though they are gradually reaching the point of deserving of that recognition, if not reached already.
It is understandable that this view might be due to the juvenile way games can portray themselves, even those rated Mature. Modern First Person Shooters might be the biggest example of this, as some of them can seem to be a serious game about warfare, while actually trying to appeal to people through guns and big explosions. So called mature games such as Diablo 3 and Skyrim may be described as having “intense violence” and “blood and gore”, but merely only feature red splats and violence that is one step up from the fantastical stories we played a decade ago. The recent “Ghost Recon: Future Soldier” had an advertising campaign that surprisingly did not feature cool military gadgets and colorful, flashing text, but boobs and ass. This doesn’t help the stereotype that the average gamer is a hot-blooded, teenage male.
While there is nothing wrong with games that exist purely to provide easy, mindless fun, they do not represent the potential the medium has to present complex, intriguing ideas and stories. Games, due to their interactivity, have a unique way of portraying a world, story, or experience that other forms of media do not have. Passively watching moving pictures on a screen or using one’s imagination is nothing like stepping into a vivid game world in someone else’s shoes, or making a decision that changes the outcome of a story. Although games are a form of play, the ability to provide rich experiences that transcend simple “fun” through their nature, should not be ignored.
Games such as The Witcher 2 and Mass Effect feature mature themes in a natural way that allows the player to connect their experience to the real world. They treat mature subjects like it’s a natural part of the story or world, not in a way to entice the player with big spectacles or exposed skin. Stories in these games explore tough questions about anything from racism, religion, to morality in a way that is more personal and visceral to the participant since the player identifies with the world. Moreover, a player actively walking in, influencing, or making the game world can have a deeper experience than simply watching or reading about it. The more these capabilities are seen and accepted, the more games would be taken seriously, and the more game makers would be comfortable with providing games with richer, more complex ideas, resulting in a positive cycle that will better the industry.
The controversy over the alleged rape scene of the upcoming Tomb Raider is evidence that there is still difficulty in accepting the industry’s foray into taboo or serious topics. By knowing the context, it should be obvious that the scene was considered for no reason other than character development. Although it actually isn’t a rape scene (the guy ‘mispoke’), the purpose of it was to have players see what would induce a naive, innocent girl to kill (Knickledger). A situation that is real and traumatic would have Lara believably change forever from an normal, untested girl to the tough badass she is. It is a legitimate plot point given the context, and no developer should feel the need to exclude it just because it is “too much” since its purpose was to progress an important character and have an emotional effect on the player. We should not shy away from serious, mature topics if they serve the purpose of enriching the player’s experience.
Games, as well as gamers, have come a long way. It is important for the perception of gaming to reflect that not only because it is evolving so much, but also because it is such a unique way of providing emotional, relatable experiences. The world should know that gaming isn’t simply for fun, and it’s not just for “young people”. The larger the industry grows and the more advanced gaming becomes, the more important it is to be embraced as a legitimate form of media.