What's Our Mandate?

Written By mista sense on Wednesday, May 21, 2008 | 6:06 AM

All hail Nintendo, for bringing video games to morning mainstream television, for lining up the all-ages gamers outside of its stores, for bringing in the girls, the senior citizens, the rehabbing soldiers, the fitness junkies. Yes, yes, thanks to Nintendo for fostering a more friendly attitude toward gaming among the uninitiated, for opening minds with a clean, soothing and bright white Wii ray.

Seriously, thank you, Nintendo. The broadening of gaming is something I write about a lot, and as much as I express concern about over-commercialization, cultural dilution and big-big business risk aversion as a potential threat to the things we've loved about video games since our childhood, nothing would be more fatal to gaming than if it failed to gain large-scale social relevance, leaving us to chew our own tails and curl in on ourselves in the dark.

If I had to guess why people come to Sexy Videogameland, aside from illogical and perverted Google misfires, I'd say it's because you believe in this larger relevance for gaming. Readers of SVGL and the sites I consider its siblings in spirit, the ones in my blogroll to the right, want to read about, think about and discuss games because they've meant more to you than the latest summer blockbuster film that you pick up for the explosions, bang through and discard.

And to the extent that I can play some role in supporting you in doing so - while expressing my desire for the same, of course - I'm constantly evaluating my work as a journalist, evaluating the best way to support these objectives we share, these hopes and desires for what games can be and what they can mean to us and to everyone else.

If games mean more to us than simple toys, it's because we've found a personal, emotional connection point, and that's no small deal. We hope that games will contain many of these touchstones, and I think a heartening percentage of them do. I think, though, the key to gaming becoming really meaningful and important to society at large is for them to develop touchstones that aren't necessarily personal to us, but relevant to the world on a whole.

I'm thinking about this as I watch on television the footage of the absolutely mind-blowing destruction in China in the wake of an unprecedented earthquake, devastation in Myanmar. I'm watching stories about a lifetime public servant's terminal brain cancer, publicity photos of his family smiling through it all. I'm watching America re-evaluate its national identity after what's arguably a misstep of a war, gamely accepting that the next leader might be a black man or a woman, something impossible perhaps even a decade ago. I'm watching an energy crisis, an environmental crisis.

Then I go to work and write about video games. Our industry burgeons and swells with money against the backdrop of larger social issues, and on forums everywhere, the majority of the vocal audience wants to know, "does it have multiplayer?" We want to know if the graphics suck or if there will be a sequel.

There is a crisis of conscience here.

Now, in love and war, in sin and grace, humanity's always loved its entertainment, and to place the burdens of the world even in that arena would never be my objective. But I just don't think the schism between our world and the real world needs always be so wide.

A dear friend of mine has a cousin - more like a brother to him, really - who's a career soldier, and my friend had been corresponding regularly with his cousin while he was stationed in Iraq. His cousin, devoted to his job, wrote almost cheerfully about the dangers he and his team faced, painting a lifelike picture of a world we'd previously only seen in horrific evening television footage. Then, not long after their correspondence began, my friend's cousin was seriously, seriously, grievously wounded by an IED. I avoid describing the extent of the injuries to afford him privacy.

While waiting over a weekend to find out if his cousin would live or die, my friend suddenly and inexplicably picked up Call of Duty 4, as if compelled, taking an interest in it for the first time. He played it all through the weekend while he waited for news from his family. It was a way of processing it for him, I think. And I thought, how much more important could this game have been if it hadn't avoided timeliness, specificity, so averse to controversy or the spectre of offense?

My friend is sadly not the only one who's suffered a loss in these times. Fortunately, his cousin will make it, but there are painful thousands of people I've never met who won't have such a relieving result. Solely retreating into the simple exit of play, pretending games are toys, misses an opportunity, I think.

I would like games, and the work of people like me who write about games, to be able to keep a foot in reality, a thread that runs through the stories of the real world into the stories of the game world. Sometimes. A Final Fantasy Tactics fan at Japanator's blogs used his feelings about War of the Lions to parallel and organize his own opinion on the war. He's not even a professional writer, and he's trying; I respect that. Infamous tipster SurferGirl has said that she hoped to use the buzz around her industry-insider blog to encourage gamers to broaden their views and take an interest in activism. She's since retired the mysterious blog; perhaps she felt she wasn't finding success at that.

I'm not implying that all gamers should feel some sort of moral obligation that they wouldn't otherwise. And god knows that not all games need to carry social weight - let's let Pokemon be Pokemon, for example. But at the very least, we should be able to write and talk about games in a way that isn't insular, that doesn't exclude the crucial stories of the real world. I say "at least," even though I know what I'm asking is no easy feat, demanding a lexicon that'll take time and broad effort to evolve. But to me, that's really the only way to help gaming become truly relevant and inclusive - Miis, waggle and Wii Fit can only go so far.

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