Video games are currently facing a slew of legislation attempting to ban or criminalize the representation or discussion of some topics within video games — effectively censoring what can be made in games, or even what can be defined as a game. This is hardly the first time this sort of action has come up, however, if you look back to other contemporary forms of media. In the early 20th century, photography had split into factions on the nature of photography as an art form. The division was between a style known as pictorialism, which allowed and encouraged image manipulation and pre-composition, and straight photography, which disallowed any pre or post-processing manipulation of the image. About the extent that was allowed in straight photography was some dodging and burning applied during the printing process. These two factions each had an advocate in the public fora, notably William Mortensen on the side of pictorialism, and Ansel Adams on the side of straight photography. The debates often became heated between the two, with Adams becoming the winner by default after Mortensen passed away. There was also some dirty pool played on the part of the straight photographers, who deliberately removed any but the most cursory mention of pictorialism as a photographic movement in Beaumont Newhall’s work, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present.
My personal contention is that this turn of events has significantly marred the public view of photography as an artform, encouraging the mindset that photography is simply an objective view of what is or was (which is not the case even within straight photography). It has taken decades and a fundamental paradigm shift in the realm of photography (ie digital manipulation; Photoshop, Painter, et cetera) to even make a dent in this perception, with considerable inroads still needing to be made. This denial of the more expressive, authorial form of the medium encourages the public view of the medium as a sort of stepchild to more accepted forms of art.
This denial is a recurring theme within media of the 20th century. Photography did it, and has suffered as a result, but is hardly the only medium to perform such self-mutilation. Comic books relegated themselves to irrelevance for decades with the self-imposed Comics Code, and has only recently begun to make inroads as a valid mature, creative medium. The Comics Code (enforced by the Comics Code Authority) was created in 1954, following public outcry and concern over violence, gore, and sexuality beginning to enter comics. It explicitly banned any use or reference to gore, sexuality, excessive violence, prohibited scenes with vampires werewolves, ghouls, or zombies, and required that authority figures never be disrespectfully represented or ridiculed, and that good must always win. This thoroughly cemented comics as something meant for children in the eyes of the general public. Although there were a few exceptions made (where publishers chose to publish regardless of the CCA’s rulings), it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that there was much in the way of widespread publication of adult-oriented comics. Notable examples of breakout comics include Alan Moore’s The Watchmen (1986-1987), and V for Vendetta (1982-1988), and later, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (1988-1996).
Games, too, have largely ignored their ability to provoke thought and challenge paradigms. Games have some problems that are unique to the medium, such as the integration of interactive elements (thus making it a game), but there are still similarities between the medium and media that came before it. Like comics before it, self-regulation and early well intentioned but misguided attempts to make the medium safe for children has shifted the public perception of games to be something only meant for children. Solutions like the Comics Code are in essence the answer many legislators are looking at as solutions to troublesome video games (whether for excessive violence, sexuality, racism, et cetera). Like photography’s concerns, games have also devalued the contextual, narrative potential of the medium in favor of the more objective “straight” (ludological elements in the case of games), which has similarly encouraged the public perception that games offer nothing of expressive merit.
Are games doomed to repeat the mistakes of other media? I’d prefer to believe that we can learn from past mistakes, and take a more proactive role in shifting general perceptions. Video games are already a multi-billion dollar a year industry, with several organizations speaking on behalf of large segments of that industry, which provides potential for significant fiscal weight to be placed against the problem that previous industries like photography and comics did not have. This opens avenues for major campaigns and education about video games that were not viable for previous media. Before that can be effectively done, however, some things need to change within the industry itself. Developers need to take a greater responsibility for what they create, not creating grotesque games purely for the shock value, but placing their games within a greater context (both narratively and socially). That is not to say we should censor the industry, so much as that greater consideration should be made in what we create. We need to advocate for greater variety in games: rather than pursuing in essence only one type of game (power fantasies, a hybrid of warrior and hero archetypes), we should explore other ideas as well (social dynamism and community building, for instance, or games entirely based around the idea of exploration, physical and mental). More attention should be focused on the narrative capabilities of the medium, providing a greater expressive context and emphasizing the symbiotic nature of narratology and ludology (a purely ludological game can exist while a purely narratological game cannot, but the value of the ludological elements are significantly increased through narratological elements). When we have expanded the scope of games, perhaps then we will finally be able to shed the stigma that video games are “kids’ stuff.”
Moore, Alan. The Watchmen. DC Comics, 1986.
Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman. DC Comics, 1988.
Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present. Secker and Warburg, 1986