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A few thoughts on games without characters

I have a little over an hour to kill in the Minneapolis airport, I just linked a keyboard to my iPad for the first time, and I'm charging my phone so I figured I might as well take the opportunity to write a blog post. After all, I'm on my way to a conference, and the last several posts on my blog are older and were almost exclusively focused on the gamergate, which basically means I was being trolled very effectively and haven't taken the time to write anything since.

Since I just finished reading Ian Bogost's excellent article in The Atlantic Video Games Are Better Without Characters, games seem like an excellent topic du jour...also, when are games not an excellent topic du jour? That was of course rhetorical.

Let me start by saying that Ian's article was outstanding (as usual), and from my perspective not inflammatory (never mind that certain members of the aforementioned "gate" group took it that way), but nonetheless provocative. I did however catch myself thinking part way through it that despite the ongoing debate that it so keenly attends to, it might be leaving a key piece of the puzzle out. I found myself asking, "Where are the casual games in this conversation?" I don't think that this was a rhetorical omission on Ian's part, but rather that it's a significant gap in the current identity politics/future of games conversation that would not have been left out a few years ago.

Let me provide a little context in terms of my own gaming, since I don't have the statistics at hand about how casual/mobile (and tablet) games increasingly make the AAA market look shockingly less important. I have a deep and abiding love of big games, and this is easily represented by the current titles I'm playing. I'm in the midst of recording a Let's Play of Dark Souls with a good friend of mine (my first playthrough), and also working my way through Dragon Age: Origins in my spare time at home. I also recently bought a PS4 for the singular purpose of playing Bloodborne when it comes out later this month...okay, I also wanted to get Sportsfriends and I've been playing a bit of Hohokum which is frankly the most delightful game I've encountered since Katamari Damacy.

Back to my point though, you might have noticed that the two titles I'm currently playing aren't exactly new, and there's a reason I'm playing catch-up. The truth is that as much as I love big games (and the big narratives that sometimes go with them), they occupy a fraction of my gaming time and have for a while now. The vast majority of my solo gaming time (never mind co-op and vs. play, let alone the time I devote to tabletop gaming with friends) over the last few years has gone to casual titles on my phone and tablet. A few months ago I found myself playing Rymdkapsel compulsively. I had actually renewed my World of Warcraft subscription and bought Shadow of Mordor, but I logged into WoW twice and didn't play before re-canceling my sub, and I meandered around Mordor through the first quest, but found a strange inertia that prevented me from really diving into the game. Instead, I would turn on the iPad and tirelessly direct those wee minions to construct a space station even after I had achieved all three of the game's objectives.

Of course, the games that truly take the most of my time are actually the ones on my phone. I've lost myself in the strangely poetic, barren, and often brutal landscape of Desert Golf for many hours. Before that there was Threes, and since then Swing Copters, and still more recently Crossy Road. While I know I'm not the average gamer, I believe that by the numbers the attention I've been paying to titles on the phone and tablet is far from atypical, and the notable thing about these games is that, for the most part, they aren't really about characters, and they're certainly not about occupying a particular human(oid) being and immersing yourself in that hybrid identity.

I suppose the point of all of this is that games without characters, or at least without human characters, constitute a huge portion of the games that I play, and if the numbers speak true, a huge portion of the games that are played. It's easy to get distracted by the overlay of the utterly painful culture war that has been dominating the video game landscape for far too many months, and assume that the entire conversation about the future of games is just about this push and pull focused around AAA titles and its spill over into Indie game development. It's not though. The truth is, there's room enough for everybody at the gaming table. It's going to take us a little while to get things settled down to the point where everyone believes it, but I have no doubt that it's true. There are diverse markets, and increasingly diverse developers. Maxis may have closed, but there is the potential for countless smaller studios to fill the void it has left behind in a way that there simply wasn't in previous decades.

So yes, video games can be better without characters, and sometimes they can be awesome with them. Hopefully we'll have a lot more of both, and when it comes to characters, hopefully developers have been listening to the data that's been highlighted at GDC this year about the diversity of the market and who they're leaving behind by rolling out the same grim white male antihero protagonists again and again. Of course, I write this knowing full well that I'm going to seriously enjoy playing a stand-in for such just a little later this month, reveling in the destruction of both NPCs and my own character as I dip into Bloodborne, but if anything I believe that emphasizes the fact that there's room at the table for a variety of games (oftentimes on an individual player's plate). That said, let's try to make sure that we're doing our best to serve up the most interesting, exciting, and stimulating meals that we possibly can.

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