Videogames need to stay relevant to the outside world, not cling on to introverted scenes

There’s an Anthony Burgess line that has stuck with me over the years: “And death, terrible as prunes”. It’s by a writer who has grown up in fear of the fruit (I don’t recall why), so much so that to him prunes are a dark symbol. The gag, of course, is that they’re just silly little purple things you eat. The subjective perception and the objective reality are different.

Lately, I have been feeling something similar about games: that both industry and academy are full of symbols that seem like part of a Very Important Conversation, but to which the outside world doesn’t relate, or finds vaguely ridiculous.

Take CLOP. A sequel to QWOP, you play it by using four keys to control each leg of a horse and try to make it gallop across a level. It’s almost impossible to go farther than a few metres because of the unforgiving physics, and the end results are often wickedly hilarious.

On face value, CLOP is a memorable thing that you play with for a laugh. But for those who are part of a certain active Twitter scene, CLOP is a Significant Game. It’s a part of a conversation about the nature of play, the sort of thing you see at Mudlark’s Playful event in London, and to that sort of crowd its meanings are layered.

It’s a similar story with many fringe/indie games. Anna Anthropy’s Keep Me Occupied is an arcade cabinet developed in support of the Occupy movement. Players dragged the cabinet around the streets of Oakland, playing the game as part of the act of protest. This makes it perfect for the Experimental Gameplay sessions at GDC, where it could be considered as avant-garde. Beyond those walls though? Really?

You could say the same for many titles, such as The Binding Of Isaac or Proteus. Their acceptance is wrapped up in a scene, and they are key examples that prove that games are an art form. All arts have similar scenes, subcultures and genres, which have internal cultures and frames of reference. My worry, however, is that our scene is so introverted that it has no discernible effect on the outside world.

What leads me to think this? Well consider how the console industry’s dedication to franchises is now so deep that you maybe see three new ones per year. All the rest are overly familiar material that, in some cases, we’ve been playing for decades. Consider also how over-interpreted those releases are in terms of significance.

Even in E247, the cover and editorial focused on a narrative of lineage and improved excellence over the decades. Using the Metal Gear series as a lodestone example, the story of a dedicated project slowly coming to life over many generations is unmistakable. In many ways that’s just as prune-juicy as the indie conversation – a level of meaning implied by a certain group of people (journalists) is absent for most others. The difference is it’s conservative rather than radical.

So what? Games sell by the million and people play and love them. Who cares if they’re reading more into them than is actually there? What does it matter if the culture and its meanings are oblique to outsiders?

These are hard questions to argue against. Some will find significance in Revengeance, just as some find significance in Orson Welles films and what they mean to cinema. The only question is whether that cultural cachet is viable enough to sustain and grow. That’s why I’m worried.

Certain platforms and modes of game are in decline, and almost all of them are favoured by the scene (whether radical or conservative). Handheld consoles are ceding their entire reason to exist to the mobile phone. PCs are radically changing with Windows 8 on the one hand and iPads on the other. Mid-level publishers are finding the road to profit to be ever more tortuous. No one wants to fund a retail game any more, which means the future is very likely all about free-to-play.

And those ‘lamestreamers’ who don’t get the scene? They’re funding the revolution. The industry in general is growing, but on iPad with CSR Racing, not on Xbox Live. These games have a much broader conversation with their players that largely ignores scenes. In their world, CLOP is a poor game because it doesn’t monetise well.

The scene’s response to this shift has been poor. Many adopt a rejectionist position, assuming that the storm will pass. So at a time when touch interactions and mobile content are game changers, the indie scene seems to spend most of its time making weird .exe’s that only work on PC. Meanwhile, the more conservative side continues to just mine existing veins of IP to death.

The problem with scenes is that their introverted talk can become permanent. They get locked in circular feuds that ignore the outside world. The scenes lose relevance, and so those who make the purchasing decisions (players) or funding decisions (publishers) that drive the industry forward just sidestep the whole thing.

There’s no point saying outsiders are not smart enough to understand – that leads to a declining audience and a scene that can’t innovate. If we’re going to position ourselves as forward-looking leaders, we need to work to ensure that we stay relevant. Because nobody really cares for prunes.