It’s that time of the year again when Video Games Are Bad, the latest argument being Video Games Are Boring, a piece I won’t critique too hard for fear of sounding rather mean. I don’t really mean this as a response to Brie in particular, but this mindset I keep seeing pop up. This just makes a nice catalyst.
But there’s one thing I have to pull apart here first. In their effort to introduce “non-gaming” friends into “gaming” the started with Journey (reasonable), then when Journey was too violent they eventually turned to suggesting Skyrim (I’m sorry what?!).
I know a lot of gamers can’t really imagine Journey being “violent”, but there are things that attack you. That’s scary. Not everyone wants scary. Not everyone wants adversity, especially for their very first experience. It’s a bit hard to emphasize with that if you started gaming in the 8-16 bit eras like myself, but if you step back, it’s not hard to find games less violent than Journey (AbyssRium, Beglitched, Noby Noby Boy, and those are just games I played literally yesterday).
I really can’t ignore the absurdity of suggesting Skyrim after Journey proved to be too violent, but at the same time I totally understand it. It shows an extremely, shall I say, “Core Gamer” mindset.
Skyrim is The Ultimate Game, so to like Game you must like Skyrim. We each have in our heads an idea of what Games really are. For granny it’s Those Weird Blocks On The Darn TV. For many it’s GTA or Skyrim. For me, it’s Noby Noby Boy cutting himself in half and eating his own butt. The problem with most of these ideas is they show an extremely sheltered, narrow sort of thinking.
I propose that what is truly “boring” is this mindset that Skyrim and the like must be enjoyed to enjoy games. This mindset that Games are a concrete Thing and if you do not like the Best Example of Thing you do not like Thing. But I’ll get to that in a second. Because first I want you to know Skyrim really is boring.
For some of us.
Table of Contents
It’s Okay To Find Skyrim Boring
I find Skyrim boring. You see, I already played about 300 hours of Morrowind, and Oblivion and Skyrim just don’t quite do it for me. It’s a sales juggernaut of a game but I, personally, find yeah, run around, get them stats, put a basket on ‘is head, not for me really.
And that’s fine.
Lots of people love Skyrim though. It lets them fight dragons. It lets them be gods. It lets them do incredible things. It lets them look at really pretty graphics packs and play a single, fairly cheap game for hundreds, thousands of hours.
And that’s fine.
Skyrim isn’t boring, despite me finding it boring. You see, people like different things. You might think Skyrim is awesome. And Skyrim is awesome, for you. But that doesn’t keep it from being boring for me. And me finding it boring doesn’t make it any less awesome for you! I would also refrain from saying I find it bad. There’s many things I don’t like, but a game I do not like is not the same thing as a game that is bad.
As a side note, I do wish this particular live-and-let-live mindset was a bit more common in gaming. Because usually even a simple admission of finding Popular Game a bit boring results in a massive argument even when that’s not the intent. And that’s part of what feeds into this whole boring cycle this articles’ about.
People Have Different Tastes
There’s countless reasons I think everyone should take psychology courses, but one of the most impactful things I learned is not everyone experiences tastes the same way. You see, the brain shapes perception (what we feel) differently even based on the exact same sensation (the actual input). It shapes this on an astounding number of factors including biology, past experiences, and concurrent stimuli.
This is most easily seen in the literal taste sense: I don’t like cherries. My father loves cherries. Who is wrong? Neither of us. We simply perceive cherries as two different things. This says nothing about cherries, but rather about us as individuals. There is no real problem here; my dad should continue to purchase cherries and I should continue to not purchase them. We have divergent tastes and our consumption and appreciation differ as a result.
And that’s fine.
It’s a major folly to assume people will enjoy everything you like, even if you know them pretty well. An incredible amount of things affect one’s perceptions, even things you’d never think of. As an example, I was very much enjoying Uncharted 4, playing it for hours at a time. At a certain point, Nate gets stuck in a burning car. I had to stop playing for a while.
I’m not squeamish, Uncharted 4 didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, it’s spectacularly realistic graphics were why it got to me so much; it reminded me entirely too much of waking up to find my garage engulfed in 20 foot tall flames.
Fire is simply particularly unpleasant to me and resulted in a negative experience. Had that negative experience, however totally unrelated to the core of Uncharted 4, been my first experience with gaming, I would quite possibly write it off as a whole! Yet at the same time, it’s easy to see why someone might choose that exact moment to introduce me to gaming; it’s a big, showy, very realistic scene with lots of bombast. It’s just hard to appreciate the bombast when I’m remembering a time when I thought I was going to die horribly.
The most important thing when introducing a new Thing to someone, gaming or otherwise, is for both of you to be aware that A) Tastes differ B) not all Things are the same as Thing you’re going to show them. There is no Perfect Game to show Non Game Man to make them love Games. They might not like Game for absurd reason that neither of you would have guessed. In the above example not everyone is going to know I don’t deal well with fire.
And, frustrating as is is to introduce a friend to a new thing and have it totally bomb, that’s fine. Learning new things can be hard, and often fails unless it’s done from a place of deep personal intent. If you care about games and they don’t, you have a lot of work to do. What’s important is to emphasize with that difference in perception and move on and attempt to make a better proposition (or just let it be; I’ve long since accepted my parents simply will never “get” games).
Games Do Have A Boring Problem
The final part of Brie’s piece states she’s created a studio to make cool interesting games, and that’s great! But her solution is in my opinion vastly less interesting, revolutionary or daring as implied.
You see, there are a lot of these “interesting” games. Narrative games. Non-violent games. Artistic games. Surreal games. Emotional games. I played 12 new games just this past weekend, most of them did not have a fail state. A few of them elicited genuine emotional reactions. A few of them were surreal to the point of absurdity. Almost none of them were traditional, “boring”.
But none of them are particularly well-known or commercially successful (hell, most of them are free!). Because none of the games I played this weekend are Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2, Call of Duty, nor were they the Skyrim Remaster.
Our “boring” problem is that “boring” games sell incredibly well. Sequels, shooters, hollywood blockbuster style games are incredible sales powerhouses and they all catch the majority of media attention. The major exception is Nintendo who is, frankly, “boring” in a very similar way; extremely well-polished, familiar series selling millions of units on years or decades worth of marketing, design, audience studies.
The fact is AAA knows what sells and they keep making it. That applies to Sony, Nintendo, Valve, EA, you name ’em. Some are a bit more arty, experimental, low-budget or whatever than others, but at the end of the day the big, safe hits tend to fund those interesting excursions.
Boring games are successful, and all the cards are stacked in their favor. “Interesting” games are incredibly abundant (have you browsed itch.io lately? you should!). But they are not successful. They are not easy to find if you’re not looking intently. They do not dominate the conversation aside from a few stand outs like Gone Home, which might win a few thinkpieces here and there between COD reviews.
Discovery, Not Creation, Is The Solution
A Respawn staff member said the following about Titanfall 2: ” It doesn’t really matter when it comes out. A good game gets noticed.”
He was incredibly wrong.
Not just about Titanfall 2 (which did, in fact, disappoint sales-wise), but about games in general. There’s this horribly appealing yet direly incorrect assumption in creative work, and work in general, that quality work is rewarded. Look no further than Platinum Games’ sales history for proof to the contrary. Or mosey along to Wikipedia’s List of Commercial Failures in Video Gaming to remind yourself how poorly Okami, Psychonauts, Beyond Good and Evil and more did, despite love and critical acclaim (And Earthbound didn’t sell or review well at the time!).
Great games certainly can sell, but quality of the game is only one aspect. AAA games are usually at least good due to the sheer amount of money poured into them. Usually hundreds of people don’t spent years making complete garbage. But immense marketing, experienced strategy, and big names and brands are a massive part of what drives the success of AAA games. “Interesting” games, for our purposes of this article, often have none of those. They’re new, they’re small, they’re risky, and no one’s going to dedicate a cover story to them.
What Can Be Done?
Honestly, I wish the problem was just “make good, non-shooty-shoot-bang-bang” games. Because if that was the problem we’d have already solved it, and by far. There are enough amazing, weird, emotional, silly, artistic games to last anyone a life time. But most of them are rotting away with a few thousand (or a few dozen!) downloads on some Steam competitor your Gamer Friends have never even heard of (and refuse to use because If It’s Not On Steam…).
The problem of discovery is vastly harder than the problem of creating good content. You have to make people care (this is never easy). You have to make a market (this is even harder). You have to completely up-end about 30 years worth of gaming marketing, critique, culture, and more. You certainly have your work cut out for you.
What can we do? Well, I’m doing the best I can. I support Itch, a zero-barrier site for the distribution of games (both traditional and avant-garde), I do everything I can on Twitter to surface cool, interesting games (I follow a new game dev every single day!), and I run a Youtube Channel dedicated to showcasing cool underrated games.
But there’s only so much I, or any one person can do. What we need is a complete change in the gaming landscape, and that will require the effort of everyone.
Don’t just complain about how COD Is Boring (no matter how boring it is), instead, share a game you find interesting instead. Don’t just complain that gaming media is always covering violence, suggest they cover cool, non-violent games too (there’s plenty to choose from)! There’s so much more growth to be had by sharing the good than bemoaning the bad.
These games are already out there, they’re just drowned out in a distribution, journalistic, and marketing environment specifically catered to all the things they are not.
And thinking “a good game will sell” as you starve to death with your “good game” will do nothing to change that.