What's in a Game?

What's in a Game?
Gaming at the Margins

Warren Spector | 21 Mar 2006 07:00
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Lots of people clearly don't see these questions as significant - there's been so much written and said in recent years about gaming's inevitable march to mainstream acceptance, it's easy to stop thinking, to assume everything's OK and destined to stay that way.

Such an outcome seems far less certain to me than to the true believers. I see us approaching a series of crossroads, any one of which could lead us to Heaven or Hell, toward a position as a mainstream medium or toward our traditional position as a marginal industry, a marginal activity for kids and a marginal contributor to world culture.

Racing toward all of these crossroads at once seems like a demand to pause and make conscious decisions about what we want our medium, our business, our lives to be.

Whether we succeed and soar to new heights or fail and return to our status as the marginal medium we used to be will be determined by a host of critical decisions we make over the next few years. (But no pressure...)

Chicken Little or Paul Revere?
Right now, you might be asking yourselves, "Is this guy serious?" Surely, we're not at any risk of losing the ground we've gained over the last 20 years! Surely, we're not headed back to the margins of social awareness, profitability and creativity!

Well, that's precisely what I'm saying and, yes I'm serious as a heart attack. Whether I end up looking like a crazy doomsayer, walking the streets mumbling about the end of the world, or like a patriot who roused people from their slumber to confront and defeat a real threat will depend on which choices we make at the upcoming crossroads. That will determine whether gaming remains at or returns to marginal status - as a business, as an art form and as a medium of personal and cultural expression.

And for those of you who think I'm being an alarmist, that media don't rise and fall in the way I'm describing, let me assure you they do. Media move around in cultural significance and profitability all the time. We're not the first medium to face this.

  • When was the last time you went to a vaudeville show or listened to a radio drama?
  • Have you visited an arcade recently? (OK, I guess there's still Dave & Buster's.)
  • How many years has it been since Broadway was a vital part of American mass culture?
  • And does anybody outside the world of comic books really think adults are going to embrace "graphic novels" as serious literature anymore? Maybe as fodder for movies, but I doubt the Spider-man movies have convinced many librarians to put funny books on their shelves.

Let me be clear. I don't believe we're going to go away - gaming isn't a fad like the hula hoop or Nehru jackets. It's hard to imagine a scenario where gaming just... fades away. We're gonna be OK. It's just that it's relatively easy for me to imagine scenarios where mainstream audiences get sick of us, sick of the product we offer them, sick of repetitive, seemingly-but-not-really interactive, emotion-free, slam-bang, U.S.-centric, urban, hip hop action games and alien invasion scenarios.

In other words, I can see us limiting ourselves to the same subset of adolescent male players we've always reached. And if we do that, it's back to the margins for us.

I went down to the crossroads... Fell down on my knees
Let's get more specific. What "crossroads" are we approaching, and where do the roads branching from these crossroads lead us?

For starters, there's a Cultural Crossroad. Games have traditionally been a marginal or niche activity, but now we're moving into the mainstream, which leads to...

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