Has gaming become too ‘American’?

“Shock and Awe” or “Shrug and Yawn”? Call of Duty: Black Ops II

The dust has settled on another E3. As the booth babes were packed up and put in cold storage until San Diego Comic-Con, gaming journos, companies and punters take stock of everything that flashed before their eyes over during the tumult of show-and-tell. If there were two key stories to come out of the whole shebang, it would be 1) the seemingly increasing insignificance of the Big Three’s press conferences as a source of anything interesting, and 2) VIOLENCE, the jumping off point of this particular piece.

With the industry and its defenders still trying to find some believable explanation as to why Hitman: Absolution’s new trailer was in any way acceptable, E3 should have been a helpful distraction to highlight the rich diversity of videogames today. Unfortunately, it seemed to make everything worse. From the near-rape of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, to the “gunshot (and subsequent cheers) heard around the (gaming) world” in The Last of Us, it was like having to repeatedly apologise for a family member’s embarrassing behaviour in public. To condemn or to apologise? It certainly couldn’t be ignored.

However, the talking point here is not whether video games have become too violent, rather ‘Has gaming become too ‘American’? Before I qualify this statement (note the inverted commas), let’s make it clear I know E3 takes place in LOS ANGLELES and LOS ANGELES is in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, hence an inevitable skewing towards American tastes. It explains why Microsoft (yes, the only American company to have one of the big press conferences) devoted so much time letting people know they could watch more ‘sports’ on their Xbox, with all that blabber about UFC and luxury cars. Clearly they know their core demographic – the “Hey bro, let’s get some brewskis, watch the ‘game’ and play Call of Duty” crowd – but it just all seemed so feeble and appealing to the lowest common denominator.

So, to explain, what I really mean by ‘American’ is in the sense of a global popular culture (big sweeping generalisations coming up!). Although the influence of American culture has been eroded of late as the likes of Korea, China and Latin America have become more commercially exportable as a cultural entities, it can certainly still be regarded as the de facto ‘other’ to the rest of the world. And the biggest exporter of American culture worldwide is Hollywood, so much so that in recent years, international box office takings for American movies have outstripped their domestic takings when the very opposite had been the norm. But Hollywood’s output generally consists of franchise-ready flat-pack block-busters, delivering undemanding spectacle at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

What has this to do with videogames? Well, given that we are constantly reminded that the videogames industry now makes more money than the film industry, it’s interesting to look at parallels between the two and what product reaps the biggest rewards. And while it might be the case that games are bigger now, they still can’t help but draw much from Hollywood, aping movies but rarely with the scripting ‘talent’ to back it up – macho posturing dialogue sticking in their animated jaws. What sells though is what I’d call “shock and awe gaming”. Looking at the big sequels shown at E3 to the established AAA franchises, the focus is on violence and explosions and little else. Processing power allows so much detail and so much happening on screen at any one time, the beauty of simplicity has been lost in a cacophony of firepower and a sea of washed out browns and greys, punctuated by yellow and orange fireballs and the splatter of crimson. It’s Michael Bay’s Transformers everywhere you look.

Brawn in the USA: the meatheads of Gears of War: Judgment

With money-spinning franchises such as Gears of War, Call of Duty, Halo et al en vogue, it seems like truly idiosyncratic titles are becoming few and far between (at least at the top budget level). Even those which look like they are trying to do something innovative with gameplay (such as Watch_Dogs) feel obliged to adopt the generic bland-o-style mix of gritty urbanism, casual swearing, and indiscriminate blood-letting lest a more distinctive style (in something like Mirror’s Edge for instance) put off the punters. It’s not something that has passed Japan by either – I recently waxed lyrical about the increasing action focus of the Resident Evil series, but only recently were Metal Gear Solid’s Hideo Kojima and Keiji Inafune lamenting Japan’s position as the dominant force in gaming being eroded, and citing the need to adopt a more Westernised approach to their titles. While games have never been as easy to pinpoint culturally to their country of origin as say cinema or literature, beyond perhaps no longer relevant lines of taste defined by ‘Japan’ and ‘the West’, but it does seem a very long time since, say, Sega’s Dreamcast output which, though attempting on occasion to emulate Western styles of game, were always quintessentially Japanese in their execution. But then again, the scale of these projects now means studios across the world work on different aspects of the same game, so a uniform, global approach is perhaps a given as well as a desirable outcome.

It’s clear the demographic has changed – the Nintendo and Sega kids of yore are now the PlayStation and Xbox adults of today, even if their maturity often hasn’t caught up. Though Nintendo opened up new consumers with the Wii and its move towards ‘casual gaming’, it feels as if their blockbuster output has slowed of late, with smaller Mario and Zelda titles biding everyone’s time until the key biggies. But if the multi-million-dollar titles in development reflect a sea of indistinct mundanity, the burgeoning indie game sector still shows that they do not always reflect the country produced, be it American, Japanese, French, British or anywhere, but the individuals behind them, displaying their own style, sense of humour, and interests.

Gaming is still a young art form. It’s grown out of its early arcade infancy, passed through post-PlayStation puberty, and is now in its brash cocksure college student days, filled with frat parties, road trips and attempts to get laid (or so I gather from American comedies). Let’s hope by the time it graduates to the next generation, it straightens out and gets a decent hardworking job, instead of moving back home to its parents’ house and reverting to bad infantile habits.

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