Maybe video games are stupid. Maybe they're junk or trash or action movies, at best. Perhaps they are not at all making the world a better place.
And maybe it's not an old person—some out of touch politician who once bumped into a Pong machine—who will declare this.
Maybe it will be someone young, someone who Occupied Wall Street or someone who is in the exact target market for big-budget video games—they'll be over 17 and under 35 years of age; male; with money. Maybe that person will declare that video games are not worth their time. And maybe there will be people who agree with them.
Jade Raymond doesn't want a new, younger generation to be the next generation to sneer at them. She loves video games. But Raymond, whose 210-person studio at Ubisoft Toronto is making the next huge-budget Tom Clancy Splinter Cell action game, understands why games could start turning off the very people who are supposed to like them. She's not the only one
A couple of weeks ago, Raymond and I chatted in the lobby of a hotel in San Francisco a few hours before she would deliver a rant at the Game Developers' Conference. Our talk turned out to be a rant preview, one that dovetailed with a new book by the game designer and writer Anna Anthropy, who charges, for somewhat different reasons, that are are big problems with who games are for and who they alienate.
And now I can't shake the thought: what if it's becoming cool to hate video games now? What if the next generation of our culture thinks games are so out of touch that they dismiss them as the wasteful rich pastimes of a more self-indulgent generation?
Raymond surprised me in San Francisco by telling me a story about a 21-year old employee who no longer wanted to make video games. Young. Bright. Thought he had his dream job at Ubisoft Toronto. But he became uncomfortable about what his career amounted to, about what games stood for. So he quit.
"He's like, 'I really wanted to do this, but now I realize we're stuck in this place."
Raymond has heard this from other younger game designers.
"I've had a lot of people come, in serious one-on-ones, to talk to me about: 'I'm thinking of leaving the game industry.'
"They don't like the messages. They don't like the idea that every game is a war game, that we're reinforcing this. A lot of these guys are really spiritual. They spend time thinking, trying to find meaning in the world, and it bothers them."
In her new book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, game designer Anna Anthropy delivers a similar disappointed assessment of gaming's fixation on the same tired tropes. "Mostly videogames are about men shooting men in the face," she writes. "Sometimes hey are about women shooting men in the face. Sometimes the men who are shot in the face are orcs, zombies or monsters." The few games Anthropy finds that star women tend to render them as waitresses or shop-owners.
"This is not to say that games about head shots are without value," Anthropy writes, "but if one looked solely at videogames, one would think the whole of human experience is shooting men and taking their dinner orders. Surely an artistic form that has as much weight in popular culture as the video game does now has more to offer than such a narrow view of what it is to be human."
No one needs to tell Raymond or Anthropy that all video games aren't war games (or Diner Dash). They know that. But they see the patterns and they are alarmed by the narrow range of topics in games.
"I've always been really excited about games," Raymond says. "I got into the industry because I saw the potential. But we continue to be stuck in this sort of teenage narrow-band of themes that are action games. I kind of wish we were talking about some bigger topics and other issues."
At her rant later that day, Raymond would talk about a hypothetical war game. It would be a shooter, as most of them are. In a twist, you'd be a woman. You'd fight somewhere hot. You'd be able to layer down, but if you did you might hear a snicker or get a catcall from a soldier nearby. That wouldn't be the game. It'd just be part of it. It would make the game… real.
Both Raymond and Anthropy believe that the big money in games is one of the big problems. Budgets swell. Profit margins narrow. A willingness to take risks diminishes, and so the same kind of games are made again again. "The problem with video games is that they're created by a small, insula group of people," Anthropy writes. She compares game-making now to book-making in the era before the printing press, when every book in Western culture was the Bible or a book that supported it. Mainstream games are that narrowly-pressed today, she writes. "The population who creates games becomes more and more insular and homogeneous: it's the same small group of people who are crating the same games for themselves."
In Anthropy's persuasive book the problem is a lack of plurality of voices. She rattles off the names of lesbian comic book creators and then opines, "Why are there no dykes in video games?" Behind every major video game she sees a man, and if she's oversimplifying, she is just barely. And if she's neglecting to mention the improved diversity among indie game creators, that's just her point. The games of the underground are more diverse and interesting. The games of the mainstream, she argues, are not, which brings us back to Jade Raymond, who works on some of the most mainstream games around for one of the biggest big-money publishers in the business. If even Jade Raymond is restless, this is no niche problem.
Raymond makes blockbusters. She admits she can still enjoy some mindless entertainment. "I'm a huge fan of action movies," she says, "I love to just go watch and turn off my brain and watch big explosions. But there are other types of things we should be doing, too. I just wonder why there are not so many efforts to go outside of that box."
In theory, Raymond is an insider. She may not be a man, but she's an establishment figure, a manufacturer of the big-budget stuff for which Anthropy holds little hope. Anthropy assumes outsiders, non-professionals and indie creators are fed up with big gaming's homogeneity, but Raymond's dissatisfaction—and what she says she hears from some of her younger designers—is an outcry from within. Through people like her, maybe even big-budget games will change, or at least budge.
What's the problem? It's not just what games are about. It's what they're not about.
Raymond believes blockbuster games miss a whole lot, and risk losing a generation's interest because of it. Look at everything gaming is missing, she told me the morning when we spoke. She just rattled them off, topic after topic, barely touched by big-budget games:
"All the stuff that happened with the Arab Spring, internet freedom and just generally what's going on with people's privacy and all of those kinds of things as tech moves along... the growing class divide, all the Occupy Wall Street stuff. That's the kind of thing that's been brewing for a while. These are really big stories. They are being dealt with in other media. You can see films that are already out addressing these things. Books. Documentaries. But for some reason games don't touch those things."
These social issues and current events captivate a newer generation that Raymond believes are more prepared to dismiss the video games that ignore them. "I think it's a mistake to think that target audience doesn't care about meaning." It would be a mistake, she believes, for the people making games to think players wouldn't appreciate some of heat and texture of the real world. She knows this because she's had some of that target audience that works in her studio quit the business.
For Anthropy, the answer is in the video game version of the printing press, in the democratization of tools that empowers anyone to make a video game about anything. That kind of thing happens outside of Raymond's Ubisoft or other Bible-printers such as EA, Activision and the rest of the big companies that primarily create killing-games with teams that wouldn't fit in an elevator.
For Raymond, change can happen within the mega-companies, but it's only going to work if people are brave enough to try and—here's the twist—if more diverse content can be fun. The two-year turnaround for making a game only slightly excuses the lack of timeliness of most video games, the lack of connection to modern problems in the economy or the Middle East. The bigger issue is that putting protest movements or an experience of victimized sexism in your game doesn't necessarily up the fun factor.
"When you're making a game, fun wins out," Raymond says. "And if you're thinking you will try to do this intellectual thing, you might go back to what you know is more fun—or it's the first thing to cut. There are so many games out there that just aren't even trying."
Raymond has tried to make her games carry some weight, to make them matter. She was one of the top people at the Ubisoft team behind Assassin's Creed. They tried to make an action game with some intellectual heft, pulling together a conspiracy story inspired by real history and immersed in mid-millennial cultures usually ignored by video games.
She's trying again. "We're trying with the next Splinter Cell that we're developing at Ubisoft to try to have some statements about certain things built in there," she said, though the game is so secret now that she declined to elaborate.
Raymond didn't leave me with the impression that her big-budget action-spy-thriller was suddenly going to be a game about picketing the power elite. She did give me the impression that, with Ubisoft's blessing, this new Splinter Cell might have ideas in it that someone who thinks about today's news would find stimulating.
"I think we need to push a bit harder," she said. "I think it's possible to have something that's entertainment and full of wow and explosions and has a bit more depth for those who care to pay more attention to that. I think we can deliver those things in a way that the people who don't care won't notice."
Jade Raymond's message is this: young people, the very target audience that video games are blitzed to, are not looking for a brainless escape every time they put a controller in their hand. They care about the world. They care about life. She wants games to still be relevant to them. She knows it's not easy. In fact, it might be harder for her than for the freer Anthropy, who, as an indie creator is more beholden to her muse than to a company's money.
Raymond knows it is hard to make serious issues fun. She knows that making a game more of an activist thing could make gaming less of a pleasure. But she's also had people who get paid to make video games walk up to her and say they want nothing to do with modern video games anymore.
Look at how she describes the leeriness she sees in some of her younger team members, and let her choice of words sink in: "A lot of the younger people who are in the industry, one of the things that really matters to them, is they don't want to feel like they're making games…"
She catches herself.
"They're kind of sick of the games being…"
She catches herself again.
Who wants to insult the thing they love? She doesn't want to go there. She can't go there. She's making a Splinter Cell, for god's sake, a Splinter Cell that she hopes will be as fun and as interesting as she could ever hope it to be.
The people who were supposed to think games are out of touch were supposed to be old. That theory's fallen apart. Jade Raymond wants big-budget video games to stop risking losing the young. Some, like Anna Anthropy, would say big-budget video games have already lost an even bigger group of people than that.