Earlier this month, there was a fascinating conversation swirling around a Gamasutra article by Bryant Francis, specifically a quote from game dev Patric Mondou. “We’re moving away slowly from games as a cultural product,” Mondou suggested. “You know you’re not buying a music album anymore, you’re buying entertainment for a while. That’s what games are now. Music is going that way now too, with Spotify and all of that and Netflix.”
As Gamasutra’s Kris Graft put it, the idea that games are becoming – or becoming framed as – little more than distractions that we consume is disturbing… but maybe not wrong, either. I’m sure you folks have seen it in non-MMOs, and I suspect we can name MMOs that definitely lean in that direction. So let’s Overthink it: Are games in general and MMOs in specific stepping away from being cultural products and toward temporary entertainment – as distractions? If so, is it a problem, and what, if anything, can we do about it?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Games in general are becoming more raw entertainment, more so than before. At least shooters often have team components and hand eye coordination as benefits. Matching games never seemed to have solid benefits in the studies I read, and selecting minions to do automated tasks based on a timer system probably has limited time management practice benefits (if anyone’s seen a study, send it in!)
MMOs have sadly been falling away from this for a while, starting with the decline of the RPG aspects. I don’t mean stats but specific role playing in game. Worlds where lore comes before mechanics, social systems are crafted for player support instead of scienced for retention. When veterans of the industry become paid consultants but are still ignored by the companies who hire them to assess social systems, you know we’re in trouble.
And yet, it’s not the end. I know some people hate it, but going mainstream isn’t exactly the death of something you love. It does mean finding the good stuff is harder, but because it’s more familiar to people, it’s at least easier to share with a wider audience, at least in terms of conversation, if not also finding new gaming partners. I think that’s something that benefits us all.
Andy McAdams: I probably have a unique perspective on what actually constitutes “Cultural products” in that I think everything is a cultural product. I don’t think there can be a thing as entertainment without cultural implications. Media, including games, only ever make sense in the cultural context that they were created. Even those games that we call out as having no value outside of killing time are still cultural products. Those games often carry a different message, but the cultural message is still there. We often fall into the trap of thinking that some messages are “more valuable” than others, devolving without meaning to into the Marxist concepts of High and low culture. I think it’s all the same cultural products; they just communicate a different culture than what we think is “valuable.”
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think some genres have been inching this way for a while. Consoles were already there. Mobile just made it easy. Always-online but short-in-stuff-to-do titles, from shooters to battle royales, only get more popular. And I admit I get a little queasy thinking about the regression of the MMORPG genre itself here. But when I try to think of true MMORPG examples, most of them are overt temports – and when those show up, those obvious short-term flash-in-the-pan distraction games with short-term ambitions, MMO gamers tend to reject them. I think the problem with the MMO genre isn’t a lack of creativity or a lack of player attention span but a lack of monetary investment, and that’s going to take a market shift bigger than MMO fans to fix.
Another angle: We have only to look at the popularity of the survival sandbox genre to remind ourselves that a lot of gamers are not looking for mere distraction. Yes, millions of people right now are spending their spare 15 minutes dancing in Fortnite, but millions of others are spending months building elaborate Minecraft servers to live simulated part-time lives on. The problem isn’t that nobody is willing to be invested in games as culture; it’s that too few companies are willing to invest in anything but blockbuster-chasing. To their own, as well as our, detriment.
Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): No, video games and MMOs are not “stepping away” from being cultural products. Games will always be cultural products. But here’s the thing: I think the developers are confused with the difference between cultural product and cultural practice. But they are right, this is a problem, especially for MMOs.
By definition, a cultural product is something created by a culture, it can be something you can hold in your hand, like a piece of artwork. It can also be a concept, like belief system. Video games came from our inherent human desire to want to play with something. So Spacewar!, the first video game, and Anthem are both cultural products of popular concepts. No matter how much reverence one holds for the former or disdain one holds for the latter, both games still come from a culture that saw shooting at stuff in space as a fun way of play. And what of MMORPGs? MMOs came from the same ingredients that make video games cultural products, but with a little extra spice: the internet and the culture around it.
A cultural practice is what people do with those cultural products. When I was in 7th grade, my friend bought EverQuest: Ruins of Kunark. He didn’t know it was an MMORPG, though, so he couldn’t play it. For middle schoolers in the year 2000, it was a cultural practice to let friends borrow or have games. He let me have the game for free. Sadly, I couldn’t run it on my computer. My friend didn’t want it back, but I wanted to keep it because I liked collecting video game boxes, which is another cultural practice.
Cultural practice around video games in today’s culture is completely different. Modern first world culture values mobility, versatility, and convenience. Spotify is a great example of how this cultural practice has changed how we consume music. Spotify gives us access to thousands of songs in our phones; there’s the mobility piece. Those songs have something for everyone, even for folks like me who have very specific tastes when it comes to anime openings. It checks out the versatility requirement. Finally, it’s convenient. People can access the app through various ways.
Within the framework of the MMORPG, it’s a problem. The best example I can provide is the autogrind button in a mobile MMO like Kritika: The White Knights. As a mobile game, it satisfies the mobility piece. That button fits helps the game be more convenient and versatile. Now, the developers have to design around that. The game is literally designed to work with a push of a button. By my standards, this is not an MMO. The problem really boils down to this: There are cultural products out there that masquerade as MMOs to forward the cultural practice of gaming as a service.
So yes, the problem is legitimate. My solution? Enjoy the games we enjoy and make awesome memories in the process.
Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Wait, aren’t these things distracting by nature? Wasn’t there a whole kerfuffle about how these gosh-darned vidya games are rotting kid brains by aged senators? I’m not so sure that MMOs needing to be cultural products is a good thing, especially if that puts undue pressure on developers. I’m pretty sure attempting to capture the cultural lightning in a bottle is what caused the WoW Clone Surge — a design tactic that seems to finally be falling to the wayside. As it should be.
I suppose the other side of that coin is that making MMOs feel like “temporary entertainment” leads to the lack of building a world and so demeans the point of MMORPGs entirely. I can see that to a degree, but I also have never been one of those folks who believes that all MMORPGs must be like EverQuest or Final Fantasy XI. Advancement is a thing that should be embraced, not scorned, and as someone who has been actively whined at for his “wrong” definition of what an MMO is, I stubbornly hold on to that ideal if only to further lance the side of those same jerkwads.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): All right, in this case I’m actually going to take a sharp turn to one angle and state that the change isn’t actually in the games but in the market. More pointedly, it’s a change about how much stuff is out there on a regular basis.
The thing about music, and television, and games, and everything else, is that the vast majority of it is… well, fine. It’s not terrible, it’s just… fine. It’s whatever. It fills the space and serves as a distraction. That doesn’t mean you can’t discuss its artistic intent or elements, and it doesn’t mean that it’s awful or the worst thing ever; it means that it’s just there.
This has changed over time not in the sense that the overall ratio has changed all that much. What’s changed is how much stuff is out there to be blandly distracting filler. When the NES was a new thing, there were 10 games released per year and four of them were Mega Man games and thus functionally interchangeable. (Those of you unfamiliar with hyperbole are encouraged to look it up now.) If there were two good games in that batch, it was a banner year. You were lucky if you got one new game a year.
At this point, there are just so many games coming out. The demand is higher, the supply is higher. As a result, there’s a much larger number of games that get released that, again, are just… fine. While it’s a similar ratio to the past, you could now play through several dozen games without finding any that are actually particularly good or memorable or worth the time you spend to play them, even without looking for any hidden gems or the like.
If there’s any movement here in the MMO sphere, it’s solely in the form of those ever-arriving temports, made to satisfy an audience hungry for the next shiny thing that’ll drift into view for a little while before moving on to the next shiny thing. Here’s where we get games that are aiming at being fine distractions and no higher, and their execution can often fall far short; it’s also easier to ignore any sort of cultural values, as most of the games in question are from China or Korea and thus don’t share our particular cultural values. But I don’t think it’s a real large-scale change, just a widening of the field.
Incidentally, if you like looking back at the cultural ephemera of old video games and how many of them can be disposable nonsense, I highly recommend VGJunk as a blog
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I have to say that some games are very much just fun entertainment for me (especially those battle royales I like!), but they aren’t distractions. Are other hobbies distractions? Gaming still doesn’t even get hobby status and is continually relegated to the “waste of time” bin. Many games actually are fulfilling to me, such as being able to design and build in various survival games, being able to decorate in games with housing, and forging vibrant communities and living out roleplayed stories and lives in MMORPGs. They can be amazing outlets for the architect/interior designer/world traveler part of me that doesn’t get to do such outside of virtual space.
That said, it does feel like the industry has moved far away from being fulfilling worlds and keeps moving toward bite-sized, even disposable entertainment. Look how popular games with matches are right now. Look at those MMOs that let you move and even fight without any input from you — just click and ignore. It is a disturbing trend for someone like me who not only likes the myriad opportunities games can offer as a gamer but also as a psychologist who sees how useful gaming worlds can be in developing skills, social interactions, and chances to participate in growth activities that might not be available out in meatspace.