Gamer's Paradise: Mass Entertainment Doesn’t Need To Be Mindless

<p>In the debut of her new column, gaming journalist Leigh Alexander discusses how video games are transforming into the vanguard of our culture.</p>

In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she’ll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.

When I was a kid, one new game could define a summer. Young friends spent hours upon hours after school in someone's rec room refining strategies, imagining entire stories for the chunky little warriors on the screen. For many attracted to digital culture, these gaming memories shaped childhood, and became a secret language well into adulthood.

You spoke it or you didn't; those kids that spent late nights with a controller in hand penciling down maps, codes, and clues to a fantasy universe grew up into adults gleefully indoctrinated into the cult of Xbox and PlayStation, despite society's attempt to shame them into putting games aside with TV and film "manbaby" tropes, or with doom stories on the news about the dangers of mindless violence.

The new millennium has clearly become something of a heyday for geeks. The internet is no longer a little-understood underground, and the biggest techies become business and social heroes. The shroud of uncool has well dissipated around things like comic books and fantasy novels, having now become major multimedia properties. It's no longer all that weird to be a gamer in the traditional sense, and yet so much so-called "hardcore" gamer culture still seems concerned with defending its club from amateurs that might sully it with their inferior skills and unfamiliar voices.

Gamers are nostalgic for the magical escapism of their happy childhoods. The most devoted of those who grew up playing games went on to make them, primarily influenced by the things they loved as kids. The economic success of the commercial game industry—relying largely on the category of grand, life-like, high-budget console games that still crowd the retail shelves—is notoriously risk-averse, relying on selling gamers things that publishers already know they will like.

At the most recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) back in June—the annual showcase of the latest and greatest in the industry—even many stalwart traditionalists felt a little disillusioned by the absence of innovation in a sea of Call of Duty-chasing shooter games and sequels. Presentations seemed to grasp needily at "edginess." Never had gaming felt more to me like a niche for boys that don't want to grow up.

And yet gaming is poised to explode, ripe for revolution.

Screenshot from Max Payne 3.

The traditional commercial industry has its own glimmers of light, continuing to attract artists, designers and musicians that can move the medium forward. One standout at E3 was Ubisoft's Watch Dogs, a game more about information and security war that tasks players with manipulating the modern digital infrastructure to achieve their objectives. Earlier this year, no one could stop talking about the incredible soundtrack provided by HEALTH for Rockstar's Max Payne 3. The art of game design is believed by many to be this century's defining form of communication, social interaction and creative expression. It's just that for now, the most exciting things are happening well outside the scope of what your average person knows video games to be.

We're in the midst of a terribly exciting redefinition that's attracting artists, musicians, and other creative minds to games where in an earlier age they might have chosen film and television. Nintendo's intuitive, family-friendly Wii console took accessible games everywhere from Mom's workout routine to the nursing home, but beyond that, it opened eyes to the fact that there is a massive untapped audience that wants to play and interact in the digital world.

Since then, Facebook and the iPhone have been reaching millions, and games are helping drive the growth and adoption of those new platforms. In the App Store, games are nearly as popular as books, which are the leading category. The fact that you see kids with Angry Birds T-shirts on the subway, or waiting rooms filled up with people playing tablet puzzlers, speaks to how simply games become part of our everyday social fabric by integrating with devices and platforms we already use. Disruptive inventors are now increasingly attracted to the potential in a medium that reaches not a hobbyist niche but pretty much everyone.

Screenshot from Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP.

That's not to say there's a binary choice between what we once used to call "hardcore" games that "real gamers" like, versus "casual" games that your mom can play—that conceptual divide has existed ever since the days of Windows Solitaire, which anyone who's ever been bored in an office has played even if they touched no other game. Bejeweled is as popular on the App Store as it has ever been, but so is Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP, an introspective adventure with a structure inspired by albums, featuring musician Jim Guthrie.

Screenshot from Minecraft.

Everywhere you look, gaming is doing an incredible job of proving that mass entertainment doesn't need to be mindless. All kinds of games are capturing audience imaginations on an unprecedented level (no one saw the scale of the Minecraft phenomenon coming) and the explosion of new platforms for mass audiences is reshaping the way creators approach the medium.

It used to be the only way to make a game and reach millions was to toil in the service of a traditional studio on a massive team, devoting all of one's education to the physics of a character's hair, or to the light on a knife—if one was a veteran. Now, new business models are bringing long-awaited freedom and self-ownership to games, and that's not just attractive to game developers, but also to other types of talent that want to try their hand in a new field.

Financial news stories say the game industry is shrinking, but what they really mean is that there is less software sold on retail shelves at Best Buy or GameStop. An increasing portion of game sales are happening in the digital space, whether that's a $2 app, a subscription service to an online game, or a $15 download of an independently-made game through a console or computer's digital storefront.

Lately, hundreds of independent game developers are bypassing traditional economic channels entirely, funding and releasing their passion projects through crowdsourcing venues like Kickstarter, proving creative visionaries can now get unprecedented support even from the traditional gamer community, many of whom are starving for new and exciting things.

Console manufacturers understand that having a lush selection of inventive indie games on their download storefronts is essential to continuing a positive relationship with their user bases. Indie-made titles available on services like the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade distinguish themselves through highly personal visions, and collaborations with artists and musicians.

Screenshot from Spelunky.

Just this year so far, many of the most acclaimed games are downloadable indies. Fez and Spelunky bring incredible depth, craft, and flavor to familiar design forms. Journey, by small studio thatgamecompany, borrows from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth as it tasks players with silently guiding one another through a glittering desert to an unknown mountain.

One of the most exciting upcoming games, Sound Shapes for Sony's portable Vita platform, is the result of a collaboration between popular indie Jon Mak and Canadian electronic musican Shaw-Han Liem—it's an action game that can also be used as a musical instrument.

A film following a few such indie developers, Indie Game: The Movie, was acclaimed at Sundance. It's the age of the game creator, and more voices will join the space, assuredly to its benefit. Gaming culture now has something for everyone, and it's never been a more exciting time to watch this space. In this column, I'll keep you apprised of all the trends, titles, and amazing creators that are revolutionizing a medium that's quickly gaining the vanguard of our culture.