Let's get this out of the way right now: The only reason I don't have more game consoles hooked to my TV is because I'm out of ports on the back for cables to plug into, and I don't want to have to get off the sofa to switch over. I've been playing video games since the Carter administration. So do not compare me to Roger "I never play video games yet dismiss them as worthless" Ebert here. Just... don't. I would have taken my SNES as my date to senior prom if they had let me.
But the thing is, I grew up. Gaming didn't.
Why? Why is it that of all my many hobbies--reading, motocross, Gun Kata--only gaming lowers my sense of self worth? Maybe it's because...
#5. We Can't Shake the "Lonely, Anti-Social Virgin" Stereotype
Oh, look. Somebody has launched a goddamned service where you pay women to play video games with you. Eight bucks for 10 minutes.
Creepily ogling girls should be free, like air. Or porn.
For that amount, she'll chat with you, or even let you look at her on webcam while you play games and awkwardly flirt. Afterward you get to rate the girl on her, "hotness, gaming skill, and flirtiness."
On the scale of awkward social interactions, I'm going to guess these sessions rank right up there with a men's room conversation with a stranger at the very next urinal, while the stranger is pooping in it. There isn't an industrial disinfectant on the market that could make a woman feel clean again after a day of doing this. So, here's what I can't wrap my mind around:
Everybody plays video games now, right? My mom plays them. Yet, there is still a "if you have touched a video game controller, you have never touched a boob" stigma attached. It's so universally believed that somebody put up a whole lot of capital to start a business cashing in on it. And damn, do us gamers ever play the part. Get us on chat or an Xbox Live headset with a female and suddenly we're drunk on puberty juices.
Here's something I bet you didn't know: Two thirds of online gamers are women, according to one study. If you're thinking that doesn't match your experience at all, it's because they either avoid male-dominated games or they go undercover--70 percent of them intentionally choose male avatars so they don't have to put up with our "TITS OR GTFO" bullshit. That's just sad.
"But wait!" you say, "Everybody takes shit in online games! It's not just women!" Oh, I know. Our inability as a community to demonstrate any kind of human social skills extends in all directions.
Somehow that doesn't make me feel better.
I spent years putting up with the "gamers are pale loners crouched in the dark among Mountain Dew bottles and pizza boxes" stereotype--one that persists right up to the main character in Zombieland. Now that's transitioned to "gamers are all 17-year-old douchebags." That's not an improvement.
Of course, one problem is...
#4. The Industry Thinks We're All 17-Year-Old Douchebags
I'm no prude; I'm the guy who made my publisher use a font where all the T's look like uncircumcised dongs. But I'm also an adult, with a wife. A homeowner who works very hard to maintain something that looks like dignity to people who catch a glimpse of it from passing cars.
But it's hard for me to maintain my self-image as a mature, upstanding member of the community when I sit down to enjoy my favorite hobby and see stuff like this (WARNING: massively Not Safe for Work). That clip is from God of War 3, one of the best-reviewed titles of this generation. This "Rated 'M' for 'Mature'" title features a minigame where you, the God of War, come across Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and boning. You walk in on her in a giggling naked lesbian threesome:
She then casts aside her two female lovers to invite you to her bed. You crawl in and the camera pans away. We hear moans and ooh's and ah's as button prompts appear, walking you through the process of thrusting your gray and red erection in and out, bringing Aphrodite to orgasm. Meanwhile, the camera focuses on the two rejected topless females across the room, who are now watching and fondling each other's bodies while mewling admiring phrases like:
"If it's this good watching, just imagine!"
"Is he going to...."
"By the gods!"
Eventually they get so aroused from the spectacle that they turn their lust on each other, and start having lesbian sex on the floor.
Again, "Mature" is the rating, and I've come to learn that "Mature" in video game land means "teenage male." So here we are again with the stereotype, the games themselves selling the kind of sex fantasy that appeals to specifically to males who have never actually had a relationship with a female.
When you're in your mid-teens, hormones thundering through your system, popping wheelies and doing donuts in your brain, you tend to think of women as giggling titty support systems who exist only to give you something to masturbate to. Then we actually get to know some real women and grow out of it.
Gaming has never grown out of it. I pop in Street Fighter IV and my very first match is against a grown woman in a Japanese schoolgirl fetish costume.
But hey, what about games where the female is the hero? You know, like Bayonetta, the woman who seductively sucks on a lollipop during cut-scenes, whose special moves require her to get naked.
This would be the game where the modeler boasts about how lovingly they crafted the character's ass.
Then you have Resident Evil 5, where you can control Sheva Alomar, a strong, heroic, capable African woman...
...and your reward for beating the game is you get to make her dress like this:
Again, I have no problem with putting sex or sexuality in entertainment. Sex is part of life, so it should naturally be part of our movies and TV shows and games. But these are the digital equivalent of inflatable sex dolls. It's embarrassing and insulting, not because I'm a staunch feminist, but because I don't like the assumption it's making about me (that I'm an emotionally stunted, sexually frustrated teenage male). It's like even award-winning video games have the sensibility of made-for-Cinemax B movies. Maybe that's because...
#3. Video Game Storytelling is Still at the Level of B Movies
Have a glance at a list of the best-selling Xbox 360 games ever. I can tell you I've played and enjoyed each of the top five. But here's the storyline for each of them:
Faceless Space Soldier Guns Down Many, Many Aliens.
Faceless Earth Soldier Guns Down Many, Many Foreigners.
Different Space Soldier Guns Down Many, Many Aliens.
Different Space Soldier Guns Down Many, Many Aliens Again.
Eastern European Man Bent on Revenge Kills Everyone in New York.
Successfully completing those five games required me to kill, oh, about 10 million people. There was a death on screen about every five seconds. Movies structured this way--two minutes of plot and 20 minutes of slaughter--would be considered grindhouse cheese, direct-to-DVD stuff starring Steven Seagal that we'd never admit to enjoying when talking to anyone we cared about impressing. Guilty pleasures.
The original title of Hard to Kill was, in fact, Guilty Pleasure.
With very, very few exceptions, video game plots are stuck at this level. It's storytelling at its most primitive: good guy with a gun, thousands of bad guys, the happy ending comes when you make enough of the bad guys dead. Characters are crude, cartoonish archetypes--grizzled soldier, grizzled gangster, femme fatale, cool hit man, bumbling fat guy, robot.
Now, within five minutes of this article's posting, somebody in the comments will mention Bioshock. I've played that one, too. And loved it. Still, 90 percent of what transpired on screen was me mowing down room after room of faceless bad guys. If you make a movie where 90 of the 100 minutes of runtime is people getting their faces blown off--even if you fill the other 10 minutes with speeches about objectivism--every critic will use the same word to describe it:
Don't tell me it's unfair to compare games to movies, either. When even Mario games come with dialogue and cutscenes, it's crystal clear that gaming wants to be a storytelling medium. You can judge a culture by the stories it tells, and you can judge the maturity of video gaming and gamers the same way.
Cue suggestive lollipop
But damn, we're about to hit the 40-year mark on video games as a form of mass media. Forty years after movies were invented (the late 1930s), Hollywood was making The Wizard of Oz--a movie that people are still renting and buying 70 years later (they even re-released it back into theaters in 1998 and it made about $20 million--there were people still willing to leave the house and buy a ticket to see it).
Will people still be playing Bioshock 70 years from now? Hell, hardly anybody is playing it now. Sometimes I pop it in and it makes me feel really smart for five minutes, then I spend the next hour firing a flame thrower at a giant mutant with drill hands.
But that really has nothing to do with the game.
Forty years of evolution, and here we are. So why are games overwhelmingly mindless, when gamers aren't? Well...