What Games Are: plus ça change

When you look back at games over the past 20 years, do you see much of a difference? I don’t mean surface-level changes like sharper graphics, but the fundamentals – how games play, how people relate to them, what games seem to be able to do well, and what they struggle with. We often say that games exist between the yin and yang of revolution and evolution, and there’s some truth to that. Big shifts are often brought on by the introduction of new technology that expands our control or access.

So much so that few people are really able to keep pace: define ‘games’ in terms of PCs and consoles, and the world is off playing games on Facebook and mobile phones. Even now that conversation is moving on – maybe it’s wearable games next. Maybe microconsoles.

Evolution, on the other hand, is the process of incremental shifts. It’s the mid-console cycle, the slowly building franchise and the quietly changing genre. (The use of ‘evolution’ here is misapplied as it implies a sense of directed growth, but it is what it is.) Grand Theft Auto III to Grand Theft Auto V is evolution. FIFA 94 to FIFA 2013 is evolution. FarmVille and Clash Of Clans may be what evolution actually looks like when applied to games, but that’s not how we see it.

Overall we buy into a story of progress. On a long timeline we approach a zenith where games become more, grow beyond and upend. They sit at the head of the media table as cultural generators, like sports currently do. Simultaneously they take over from Hollywood, eclipsing the passive arts with their interactive descendants.

Clash Of Clans: videogame evolution in action?

That, with some shimmies back and forth, is the 20-year narrative through which Edge has lived. And it’s false. Games are not levelling up. They are what they are, the little fun engines that could. They’re not on a timeline, they’re just doing what they do. People play them or not, find meaning in them or not, become addicted to them or not. Always have, always will.

Consider the million or so examples released since the videogame was invented, and you will see a lot of similarities. You’re generally involved in logistic, puzzle-solving or skill tasks, and trying to win. There’s also the sense of endlessly repeated near-misses. A game’s story is only ever a shade of what it’s supposed to be, but next year’s game will supposedly change that. The simulations are always on the verge of being real, yet the players seem to drift off to simpler ‘pew pew’ fare. We’re supposed to be on the verge of an artistic revolution, but it’s competitive action-fantasy stuff like Dota 2 that gains all the attention.

Videogames seem to have a way of working that we find hard to pin down, and yet is unmistakable. It’s wrapped up in the modality of play, of what the play brain perceives and does when faced with a gamelike situation. The same neurons that lead you to look at Tetris as a sorting problem engage when playing The Last Of Us, whose overall dynamic is essentially a quest for shivs and sneaking opportunities. The limits of control and the need for physicality are all a part of games too. The effects of lensing and the problems of synchrony persist.

But most of all the fun constant remains. For all the things that a game could be, there remains the sentiment that if it’s not fun, it’s not good. If all that seems negative, consider this: games may have constraints, but so do music, theatre and other art forms. That’s what ‘form’ means. There are borders and realities that artists need to work within, and that means some stuff just doesn’t work.

Thaumatic moments: Doom.

When it does, there’s magic. Another aspect of games that has never changed, and is as relevant today as it was in 1993, is what I called the thaumatic experience. I experienced it when playing Doom, Wipeout 2097, StarCraft, Halo and many others. Your particular thaumatic moments no doubt come from others.

But that sense of synergy from imaginative and functional engagement has never changed. Maybe at times we’ve thought of it as something smaller, like immersion, fascination or flow, but it has always existed. Part of the joy of videogames, and the reason why Edge was able to tap into a wider conversation from its inception, was because the sense of thauma was always there. Maybe we just didn’t have a word to describe it.

I sometimes get stick for my kind of thinking. To many readers I’m shutting down games, saying that they’re over and done with. What I’m actually saying is that over the 40 years that games have been developed, there were some design precepts that historically struggled, while others felt natural. Some game genres constantly struggle with their artificiality while others fit so naturally. When I say that we can begin to see what games are, it’s based on that observation.

I believe the progression narrative – the one that likes to dress itself in revolution and evolution and talk of overcoming other artforms – is dated and destructive. It’s driven by ego and a need to be recognised by the powers that be. Twenty years from now, I hope we’ll break free of it and be comfortable with the art form we’ve created. It really is something special. It always has been.