How many times have you turned on the television, flicked through the channel listings, and tuned into one of those ‘Top 100’ programmes? Probably hosted by an unfathomably irritating individual whose level of fame is somewhere between that of Jamie Afro from X-Factor and the orange guy who presents those afternoon antique shows. You know, the 'Top 100 Movies of All Time', 'The Top 100 Albums Since Simon Met Garfunkel' or, if we’re really lucky, a 'Top 100 Celebrity Plastic Surgeries Gone Wrong'. The answer for most of us, unfortunately, is more times than we would feel comfortable admitting. However, have you ever seen a Top 100 Video Games show on TV? Top 50 Video Games, perhaps? Top 10?
Why not? We hear so often, from so many different sources, that the video game industry is the most profitable of all entertainment sectors – outdoing film and music with ease. Surely then games must be deserving of the kind of illustrious cultural reward that can only be bestowed via a poorly constructed clip show destined for endless re-runs ? Alas, such reward has yet to materialise. The industry has yet to turn financial success into mainstream cultural relevancy.
Here is where you’d usually write ‘it’s not for the lack of trying’ but, in the video game industry’s case, the lack of trying is a big part of its cultural impotence among society at large.
Part of the problem is that the vast majority of video games are conceived, created and sold with one primary goal in mind; to produce something that's fun to play. Immediately that distinguishes games from most other forms of culture; films, fine art, music, all of these generally aim for emotional impact first, fun later. Games are, generally speaking, the reverse. Poignant yet unsettling films, like Schindler's List, can do very well at the box office – but a game in the same mould is a certain flop.
Of course, not all films strive for such a lofty purpose – there's Steven Seagal's entire back catalogue, for example and you won't see anyone here defending Die Hard 4 (sorry, 4.0) as being culturally important. There are loads of films which defy this rule, but they are usually easy to spot and fit into their own subculture.
On the other hand, there are a few games which stand out for their emotional impact and culturally aware themes (the first Bioshock being a good example)...but the majority are more concerned with providing fun and entertainment on a primitive, immediate level. It's why, a few classics aside, you might find yourself looking back at a game you played on a few months ago and thinking “it was fun, but I can't remember anything else about it.”
This had lead to an unfortunate culture within the video game industry in which we’re always looking to the future, always looking to the next big release, and only very rarely looking back to celebrate the past. We’re always hunting down the next experience because we’ve yet to satisfy our hunger for emotional engagement that, as a society, we’ve come to expect from culturally significant entertainment products.
Blame the Wii. For everything.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, not all output from a given entertainment sector should aim to seek respect and admiration from the masses – or the mass media critics that help shape popular culture trends. Works produced purely for their ‘fun factor’ are valuable in feeding our need for escapism and instant gratification, if only on a superficial level.
The wider perception tends to be that video games offer this kind of superficial engagement exclusively, they exist only to provide fun, neglecting other, deeper forms of satisfaction. To an extent this perception is correct, games have yet to achieve the range of content required for the industry to be taken seriously.
This is somewhat a result of most publishers inability to accurately promote their games to those that don’t follow the gaming press, relying on edgy, generic trailers depicting death and destruction to sell games which have so much more to offer; Aion: The Tower of Eternity, for example. Aion may not be the most emotional engaging and/or provoking game we’ve ever seen, but it certainly has more to offer than the combat the trailer chooses to focus on – replace the character models and the video could be depicting any number of games.
So, how can games prove that they can transcend the limits of fun and actually become important in a meaningful way – and why haven't we yet achieved that in the history of the medium so far? The answer, odd though it may sound, is that we need to abandon the very thing that so defines the games industry – technology.