Sign up for news

How long can I go without sleeping, and without not being hung over? Apparently at least five days.  A great GDC, if only for all the cool the people I met and hung out with – I’m a little bummed about the folks I wanted to hang out with more and didn’t get to, though. The one week of the year I turn into a fricking social butterfly, I am no doubt constrained by my limited experience at it, and of course my sloth-like txt-ing speed.

But meanwhile, the debate started by Steve Gaynor has raged on with lots of folks weighing in (and has since settled, though N’Gai Croal never got to his response on my point on realism that he promised at the end of this post – just as well since I’ll have a follow up on that point soon).

One counterpoint I see often in the various threads, is that games are already culturally relevant. By my definition, and obviously Gaynors, they are not.

The counter argument goes, well, people talk about and love the games that entertain them, therefore they must be culturally relevant.

We also, in the course of casual conversation, often talk about the weather.

That does not make the weather culturally relevant.

The weather, and the games mentioned in those arguments, do not talk about us.

9 Responses to GDC, and a short rant on the semantics of cultural relevance

  • Nick says:

    Excellent observation with your last point.

    Today I was told, by a man I really respect, that in order to make a game that sells you can’t introduce a new learning curve, that a successful game is a unique mixing of genres; a shooter with sports elements or a racer with an item system. Players already know those two systems, and when you put them together they have some context.

    That’s all true, and maybe it is what you need to do in order to make a hit and sell a million copies.

    But I wonder if it’s really healthy to establish and adhere to a potentially constricting norm like that so early in a medium’s life.

    Especially when adhering to a norm like that does absolutely nothing proactive to say anything — it’s just trying to mix peanut butter with jelly a million times over. Even if they work together and they taste good, peanut butter and jelly isn’t enough for a healthy diet. I don’t want peanut butter and banana either. Where the hell are the other food groups (I’m not counting the delicious candy treats that are indie games).

    I think I’ve stretched that analogy far enough. I need a sandwich now.

  • Richard Campbell says:

    The weather does, in fact, talk to us. Specifically, today the weather told me: “your plane will be delayed. There is no hope.”

    To address the cultural relevance issue, though: the top 300 comic books combined sell 7 million copies a month. That means even the most popular Batman comic is selling significantly less (I’d do a power law calculation here, but cannot be bothered) as well than WoW, which has 8 million subscribers paying their monthly nut.

    That means that one or two games do have the potential to be more of a water-cooler shared conversation piece of cultural relevance than comic books do.

    And to close out: Friends really didn’t talk about us either. It talked about a certain kind of people, living a certain kind of life. If Friends talked *to* you, then it either showed you something you wanted to be, something you were nostalgic for, something you felt superior to, etc., etc. WoW can certainly show you something you want to be and something you feel superior to (nostalgia, I admit, not so much).

  • Borut says:

    Haha, that’s true that the weather certainly does talk to us, but the distinction I’m trying to make – which kind of gets to your point about Friends – is the difference between a piece of entertainment that trying to convey something about how to live life (as one of its themes), vs. entertainment that does not.

    Now, even if a piece of entertainment, like WoW, does not set out to show you anything particularly profound about life & how to live it (yours or others), that doesn’t mean it won’t affect you at all. At the very least, it’ll give you RSI/carpal tunnel/tendonitis – which is why I don’t play WoW. :)

    And, Nick, I would totally disagree about the learning curve. Even if you’re just combining genres, you’re going t6o have to teach the playter about how those individual genre elements work in a new context. In Ken Perlin’s roundtable @ GDC he had an excellent point that even romantic comedies have to worry about learning curves – you’re learning who to root for (in whatever romantic contest), or mysteries, you’re trying to figure out who is culpable. Each genre has it’s rules that most viewers bring to the table, but even looking at those film genres, following the strict genre playbook is going to fail, so you have to accept that you’re going to be doing some teaching along the way.

  • Richard Campbell says:

    “the distinction I’m trying to make – which kind of gets to your point about Friends – is the difference between a piece of entertainment that trying to convey something about how to live life (as one of its themes), vs. entertainment that does not.”

    See, now you’re putting more baggage onto the term “culturally relevant” than I think it deserves.

    Star Wars was extremely culturally relevant. However, anything it conveys about how to live life is, at best, banal (Trust your instincts. Do the right thing. Control your emotions).

    Star Trek was also extremely culturally relevant. It also conveyed mostly banalites (Prejudice is bad, mmm-kay). That message is shown by Mass Effect in about the same way as Kirk used to preach it, methinks.

    If you’re going to use a definition for cultural relevance that excludes one or both of Star Trek or Star Wars, then I think you’re just genre bashing.

    Which is another question to ask…genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, western) has much the same stereotypes and criticisms about cultural relevance that seem to pervade the computer game discussion.

    Perhaps the real question is, will people ever create video games that are storytelling and yet non-genre?

  • Borut says:

    Ah, but I would say both were culturally relevant – Star Trek because it delved into very sensitive political & social issues (race, communism, etc.) and talked about how we might deal with them. Star Wars was culturally relevant mainly because of how much it followed Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, so it’s culturally relevant in the sense that the hero’s journey is meant to show us how to overcome challenge in real life.

    You might be able to apply that logic of mythology to WoW, but the comparison is a much, much tougher argument to make.

  • Richard Campbell says:

    I think you’re really reaching for the Star Wars monomyth thing. The hero’s journey is not meant to show us how to act in real life…the miraculous conception and birth, for example, is very difficult for most people to pull off.

  • Nick says:

    Right. I think the idea is that it sets a sort of cultural precedence. Nobody is really expected to be Luke Skywalker, but like any myth or fairy tale it’s there to give us something to shoot for.

    I think that’s more culturally relevant than say, Halo. But then you have games like Bioshock. Boring game, but delivered strong messages about moral ambiguity, vanity, greed and hubris, etc.

    Personally I think that all games have the potential to speak to us, and some really do. It’s just that by their nature, perhaps rightfully so, many games focus on the intricacies of actual gameplay instead of concerning themselves with social commentary.

  • steve says:

    Hey Borut, sorry we missed each other at GDC. I didn’t know you’d be at the conference, I would’ve said hi.

    The distinction I’ll make about my original Wager post here is that I’m not really concerned with individual games being ‘culturally relevant’– if I were, then people who said that Halo 3’s release getting national news coverage would have destroyed my point. Similarly, people pointed out that Spider-man comics led to the Spider-man movies, which were culturally relevant from a sheer numbers standpoint if nothing else.

    The real question is how will games become a culturally relevant /form of discourse/ themselves? The vast majority of people today have no interest in integrating video games into their daily lives in a meaningful way– of letting the discourse of games be relevant to them the way that television, film or books are. Ask a city bus full of people “who here watches movies,” and everyone’s hand will probably go up. Now ask “who here plays video games” or “who here reads comic books,” and I’ll bet there’ll be one or two hands at most. Despite how much Halo 3 or Spider-man the movie sells, or even how culturally relevant their content is.

    Anyway, sorry to harp on. It’s a complicated topic any way you look at it.

  • Borut says:

    Yeah, same here, sorry we missed each other, was hoping I’d run into you at the blogger gathering (which was pretty small). Hopefully next year, though. :)

    I totally get that you were meaning games in the larger sense. It’s just one of the threads of argument people would use to counter was saying games are culturally relevant now because so many people play and talk about WoW, which I don’t buy as an argument but it’s hard to break down why – one is for the superficial subject matter, but for the second point you put it better – that one or two popular
    counter examples aren’t really enough prove the entire medium is relevant to a wide variety of people across all social/cultural strata.