Are Video Games Just Soap?S

Consumer products like soap aren't risky; they have a fairly reliable recipe for success. Nobody demands innovation from soap. Are games just consumer products, too?

When I was a kid, my dad was a video game journalist. Well, sort of. Actually, no, not really. Dad wrote about VCRs, home computers and Hi-Fis in a "home technology" column, and video games were lumped in. They were software for the Commodore 64 or the Apple IIc; the Atari and the Coleco were pieces of hardware appropriately placed, both in Dad's coverage (by the way, if you're reading this, happy 60th birthday, Dad) and in rec rooms 'round the nation, alongside the Betamax and the VHS. You know, technology products.

What little specialist coverage games received tended to resemble product catalogs more than the entertainment magazines the likes of which we see today; with simple mechanics and simpler graphics, games appeared to be in lock-step with other tech novelties of the 1980s – look! Our house has digital ping-pong! And that was that.

Even in arcades, games' breeding ground, the cabinets we played were technology products first. We talk a lot about "the arcade era" whenever we look at those game mechanics or design forms that are inherited from the days when the main goal of game design was simply to frustrate the player enough to make them pump a few more quarters in. When Toru Iwatani created Pac-Man, even the idea of giving ghosts Inky, Pinky and Blinky their own names and identities was controversial to his boss, as was the idea of adding "story" and "cutscenes" (the primitive chase sequences between levels).

But Iwatani had a theory: Putting a little color, a little theme and a little story into Pac-Man was going to make it appeal to a wider audience. He believed that creating points of empathy for players would keep them playing longer. Of course it turned out he was right, and his faith in that core concept helped make Pac-Man not only a smash hit game, but installed the yellow circle with gaping mouth as a permanent cultural icon.

Today, if any game critic decided to write a piece on "Story And Empathy In Pac-Man," her audience might accuse her of reaching just a little bit. In an environment where immersion and emotion are oft-discussed and gamers demand realism, it's hard to believe there was once a time when games were just footnotes to be mentioned in brief, beside a review of the latest VCR.

Perhaps it's that legacy to which film critic Roger Ebert was referring when he said that games aren't art, much to the furious chagrin of gamers everywhere. What, is he crazy? Our favorite games have impacted us way more than any movie we can remember; isn't something like ICO or Heavy Rain more noble a creative effort than the nine-millionth checklist heist flick, or Summer Blockbuster Featuring Explosions, Vol. VII?

Games have worked hard over the past few generations to shed relic elements that are no longer relevant – "lives" and "continues," for example, largely useless throwbacks to the coin-op days – and add elements like auto-saves, online persistence, multiplayer and other elements better suited to a modern living, breathing home console experience. But one trait remains: They're still carrying with them that stubborn "product" identity.

Nobody calls a film a "product." And though we may trumpet ideas of art and immersion to the hills, there are plenty among us, from the executive boardroom all the way down the chain to the gamer's living room, who whether they realize it or not, are still clinging to that definition of games with the strictness of need.

In some cases, this mentality starts at the top. Plenty of games execs see themselves as stewards of companies that produce products, and come from general "consumer product" backgrounds or other non-gaming fields – Activision COO Thomas Tippl is one example, having served at Proctor and Gamble (they make soap, among other things) before joining the game industry's biggest powerhouse. Brian Farrell worked in real estate and finance before becoming THQ's CEO, for another. Gamers seem especially concerned about whether the folks making the big biz decisions actually play video games; EA CEO John Riccitiello often goes out of his way to discuss his hands-on gameplay experiences with EA's and other titles, as if he felt it important to demonstrate that he does.

But as business models in games evolve beyond the $60 retail package, and subscriptions, microtransactions and add-on DLC become increasingly the norm, lately it's seemed even gamers are completely on board with the business-driven, consumer-product conceptualization of their beloved play medium. The recent news that Blizzard would ultimately begin charging for name changes in StarCraft II was met with a surprisingly muted reaction from the gamer community – there was some ragin', sure, but it used to be that a beloved gaming house like Blizzard couldn't even mention the possibility of paid add-ons without shredding the gamer internet in a controversy over nickel-and-diming and how they were being betrayed.

It's interesting to see that the very gamers who once raged at paying spare change for in-game items or who rushed to virtually tear Roger Ebert limb from limb when he suggested that games might lack the cultural legitimacy of other media so willingly embrace the product-ization of games.

This all came to a head for me when I published a report at my home base of Gamasutra that showed that major publishers like Activision use focus testing as a primary (if not the primary) guideline for game development. While that report was hotly disputed, it shed light on the idea that rather than being focused on storytelling or creative expression, game development is often by necessity based around incorporating elements publishers believe spell a formula for sales.

We have so many archetypal "bald space marine" games, for example, because one of them (Gears of War, perhaps?) sold gangbusters and then everyone else followed suit, hoping to capitalize. I've heard countless stories of developers at many companies being explicitly told to do something from a design or story standpoint to be more like Grand Theft Auto, in the hopes of getting even a slice of that GTA money.

I expected that a community of gamers that hoped to see widespread acceptance, diversity and cultural richness in games would decry this practice, rush to declare that they are more interested in games that are pioneering and meaningful, not games that are formulaic and sales-oriented. Many did. But what I didn't expect, reading discussion of my article in email responses, on Twitter and around the internet, was the cavalier fashion in which so many gamers effectively declared, "so what?" Games are a business, many said, and it's not surprising to see publishers treat them as little more.

It's natural for gamer culture to evolve as the industry and its business models do – but by accepting games as business-driven entities, are gamers actually expressing a resistance to cultural expansion? There are plenty of gamers who despise the "games as art" discussion (and not just because it's a bit overdone, or generally poorly-done, in the critical press). I've always thought this is because the idea of gaming as something bigger than what it is now, something that could mean more to more people in the world, is threatening to traditionalists.

The punishing difficulty, inscrutable visual shorthand, and cultural specificity inherent in games of old created its own secret society. Gamers spent years upon years feeling misunderstood, being teased as "nerds," and watching others fail to understand their favorite pastime. They had to get tough; they had to get insular. They learned to be proud of their private world. I think gamers understandably fear losing that, and throw up any number of smoke-screens to avoid revealing that fear – rationally deconstructing the market prospects of the mass-appealing Wii, virulently loathing popular, approachable Facebook games, mocking "artsy fartsy" independent games that have tried to push or change the medium in a direction gamers don't recognize.

Now, keeping games safely in the realm of monetization-oriented products is a new way to resist the openness, creativity and change that seems threatening to some of us. And it might be the most insidious tack yet, since in a lot of ways viewing games as products makes actual sense.

It's a different era now. After all, Blizzard's Mike Morhaime now has his own spot on Activision's numbers-heavy quarterly financial results calls, slinging investor jargon with the best of them. It's the iTunes generation, where paying $.99 for individual song downloads is the norm – acclimating gamers to the idea of a dollar for a digital hat in their favorite online game and making them comfortable participants in new business models. Spending a few bucks here and there for value-adds in games has become a common, even welcome alternative to the high-priced lump-sum retail box, since it extends the life of games and lets people spend money only where they really want content.

The condition of viewing "software as a service" has actually resulted in a better experience for gamers, since if developers want users to keep paying, they have to spend real time and care on community management and the upkeep of online experiences, rather than the old-school "ship it and shelve it" mentality.

Nonetheless, I'm one of those who'd like to see gamers be a little more moderate about reducing games to "consumer technology product." Remember the old five-category "product guide" review system – in which "graphics," "sound" and the nebulous "fun factor" were disparate and separately-scored categories? Yeah, we ditched that, because games are more complex than that now.

And to me, the idea that "games that are different or risky don't sell" is prohibitive to games' cultural evolution. Maybe that's actually what proponents of the idea intend. But what do you think? Are games just a product to you?

[ Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]

[PIC - N64 bar of soap via Geeky-Gadgets.com]