For a while now I've been thinking about the future of videogames as a means of artistic expression and culture-building. Altering the premium blend that is America Culture is one of my long-term life goals, and I don't believe I have the chops to ever make it as a TV/Movie star, so there's a natural interest in other forms of expression. In addition, I don't think TV is going to be the cultural dominator that it currently is in another 20 or 30 years. Virtual entertainment will still be important, but the interactive forms are far more engaging and potentially impactful.
This is not idle speculation. Videogames, far more than television, can be a force for developing cooperative and equitable social norms and ways of thinking around highly charged issues of the day. At their best they can create a space in which something uniquely human can happen. This is not possible on the one-way street of movies and TV.
Jane of GameGirlAdvance has written a fascinating article about the use of gender in videogames entitled "Genderplay":
Something you hear over and over again in the research around what girls want out of games are themes like "open-ended" and "less-goal oriented" and "co-operative play". These are also the themes which most adult gamers seem to want, too. Talking with my friends who are game developers and designers, they don't want to see bouncy boobs, necessarily (although there's a place for that, sure); they want evolved gameplay, emergent gameplay - with great characters.
Videogames offer a lot more potential in terms of cultural development and nuanced creative expression than any other entertainment form other than (perhaps) participating in team sports. Games offer the ability for users to test and develop their own personas as a creative act in and of itself. They can facilitate identity development and understanding, as the part of Jane's article about how her boyfriend deals with flirtation as a female character in online multiplayer role-playing games illustrates:
In another server on the sunny plains of Albion, Justin has an enchanting enchantress who caught the eye of a young paladin. I asked him whether he responded to the paladin's tentative flirting. "Well, sure," he said. "I would say, 'Thank you for the necklace, milord' and 'Thank you for the necklace - again , milord" because that's part of the game." And who knows? The paladin could well be the avatar of a young woman halfway across the world.
This is happening right now all over the world. Extrapolate five to ten years and integrate people's cell phones, email, IM, blog and other means of digital connection/expression. See the potential? If this sort of safe and creative exploration of roles becomes more of a norm, I believe the impact will be nothing short of revolutionary for our culture. By allowing users a means of understand social interactions from different perspectives, albeit in a simplified and fantastic context, the world of gaming can contribute to the development of more open-minded and well-rounded individuals.
A few weeks ago I was taking a car trip with two gentlemen I do occasional work with, Peter and Robbie, both of them fathers. They were talking about how videogames were toxic to children, Robbie having a nearly-grown son who he feels plays too much Xbox and Pete having two kids too young to play anything, yet.
"I'm never allowing it in my house," Peter says, as I bite my tongue. I understand the desire to not have a vidiot child. However, putting aside the fact that prohibition is the quickest avenue to producing keen interest, my belief is that videogames are a potential source of good things as well as bad. I tried to hint at this point of view, but it was clearly a sore spot for the two of them. I was suddenly in the awkward position of being across a generation gap from these men -- we might have been 45 years back in time and talking about Rock and Roll.
On a certain level, they have a point. Just as Rock and Roll was correlated with drug use, teen pregnancy and dropping out of college, heavy gaming often correlates with a shut-in lifestyle. At least, that's the popular perception. There are many happy, healthy, well-rounded people who play videogames; I'd go so far to say they're the majority. And while there are certainly game addicts and a number of otherwise socially stunted individuals who find a questionable and isolated solace in the virtual world, these phenomena are not necessarily caused by gaming itself. Far more likely these phenomena reflect pre-existing problems that are brought to the surface vis-a-vi videogames. Better the Playstation than gangs, drugs, spousal abuse, etc.
Furthermore, especially as games evolve to become more interactive, cooperative and open to user-instigated forms of expression, they could very well have the opposite effect: contributing to the development of more worldly and experienced adolescents and providing adults a meaningful way to engage with each other and have fun with their own identity. Games could be healing. They could be agents of progress. What actually comes has yet to be seen and is far from certain -- it's conceivable that games will become even more of a cultural sewer than cable television -- but I think the possibilities here are quite a bit more culturally exciting than those of American Idol.