Call of Duty, Iron Man & Kafka: Why Comparisons Don’t Work
We’re forever hearing about how videogames need to mature as a medium, how they need to broaden their scope to deal with a wider emotional spectrum, to broach social and political issues and overcome their fetish with explosions and violence.
To an extent, those who call for videogames to aim for loftier heights and to be more ambitious in the variety of subjects they deal with are right to do so.
Who wouldn’t want videogames to offer a wide array of experiences that can inspire thought, elicit emotional responses, or just simply give us a good laugh?
What you’ll notice though, is that criticisms about videogames pandering to the basest level are most often aimed at the games with the biggest budgets and the highest sales. At first glance, that would seem to be reasonable, but in actual fact, those lambasting the Call of Duty’s of this world are barking up the wrong tree.
Is Iron Man Art?
Film and literature are often set up as the ideal for which videogames should strive and, if you were to listen to the harshest of videogame’s critics, you would be led to believe that the fields of film and literature are exclusively populated with sublime works of art that are paragons of sophistication and intellectual rigor.
Do we want videogames to continue to grow, develop and evolve? Yes. But, comparing big-budget titles unfavorably to film and literature as a means of demonstrating their inferiority is a misnomer. Because, film and literature are not mediums patronised exclusively by chin-stroking Sunday-Philosophers.
On the contrary, they are also pitched to the simpleton in all of us, populated as they are with just as many spectacle obsessed, common-denominator chasing, dumb-ass creations as you will find in the videogames charts.
If you don’t believe it, have a look at the top grossing films this year. What will you see? The likes of Iron Man 3, Man of Steel and Fast and Furious 6.
That’s not to say that you’re not entitled to enjoy those films, it’s simply to point out that that dumbassery, big explosions and ostentatiousness are just as an important part of the formula of a successful big-budget film as they are for a successful big-budget videogame.
Also, don’t forget that Avatar is the top-grossing film of all time. Avatar.
The same thing applies to literature. Some of the most successful books this year include notoriously trashy erotic-fanfic-come-mainstream-smash Fifity Shades of Grey and Inferno, written by the notoriously rubbish Dan Brown.
Topping the bestsellers list at the time of writing is a novel written by Janet Evanovich, an author famed for churning out schlocky crime romance novels. We’ll confess to not having read any, but we’re told by reliable sources that even fans of Evanovich see her novels as a guilty pleasure, books that can be enjoyed precisely because they are trashy and a bit silly.
The fact is, film and literature pander to the lowest common denominator, just as often as videogames do. So, to hold up Call of Duty and the likes as evidence that the medium is comparatively unsophisticated doesn’t quite hold water.
Of course, it is possible to seek out films and books that are creative, refined and intellectually challenging. But, guess what? They usually cost less to make (though admittedly, that doesn’t quite translate when it comes to literature) and they have a much more exclusive audience.
Arthouse & Indie Games
Film has its arthouse scene, its independent filmmakers who play with conventions and tropes, broach and explore controversial subjects, who, in other words offer an alternative to the bluster of the summer blockbuster.
Literature too, has its experimental writers. It has novels with a political focus, novels concerned with the pace of change in contemporary culture, novels that are more concerned with the existential than they are with titillating and sensational.
In other words, novels that won’t be mixing it up in the bestsellers list but which will find an audience looking for something with a bit more intellectual meat.
Videogames have their equivalent in the indie games scene. That’s where we tend to find games that are more muted and personal than the games that snatch the headlines. That’s where we find games that are prepared to deal with subjects a large publisher would never touch. That is where you go to play games that are willing to experiment with what the medium can do and the kind of subjects it can tackle.
In other words, if we want to debate what videogames are able to do as an atrtic medium, how they can evolve and grow, focusing on games the ‘AAA space’ is a bit of a waste of time.
That’s not to say those big titles should be free from analysis, because they shouldn’t. But, if you’re going to point to indie games as an example of the kind of things that big-budget games should be doing, your going to be wasting your time, because that approach fails to take into account that indie games are able to deal with a broader range of subjects and to do so in a wider variety of ways, precisely because they are indie.
Mainstream videogames have to appeal to a wide as range of people as possible due to the costs involved in making, marketing and distributing those games.
Those financial realities mean that mainstream games will succumb to the same pressures as mainstream films – that is, they become as much a product as they are a piece of art. They need nice big explosions.
Smaller projects give creators the opportunity to make something free of compromise, whether that be a game, a film, or anything else. Free of the need to turn a multimillion pound profit, those creators don’t have to worry about whether what they are doing will appeal to a large enough group of people or whether their subject matter is too controversial to attract a large group of investors.
In other words, the fact that big-budget videogames don’t meet the expectations of those who wish to play games that push the boundaries of the medium should be no surprise.
Why The Indie Scene Is Fine Where It Is
If that sounds like a defeatist attitude regarding the potential of the medium, it shouldn’t do. If you can find what you want from videogames in the indie scene and not the big-budget space, why not be content to play indie games?
We seem perfectly comfortable with the way that big budget and arthouse cinema co-exist. We seem to accept that the next Dan Brown is likely to make more money than the next Franz Kafka. Why then, can we not accept that the same is true of videogames?
We don’t mean to suggest that there’s not room for this medium to grow and mature, or that there’s no value in considering whether videogames might be a little more narrow in the range of subjects they tackle in comparison to other mediums.
What we would say is that looking towards the big-budget games to someone validate the artistic value of the medium, or, using those games to decry the ambition of creators, is foolish.
We’re willing to bet that the films, books and games that have effected you the most, whether that be in an emotional sense, in terms of giving you a new perspective, or challenging your conceptions of what a medium can do, are not the one’s that cost the most money to make or have had the biggest audience.
That will always be the case, and that’s why we’ll always bear in mind that trash sells just as well in any other medium as it does with videogames.