Doug Kerr/Flickr
Doug Kerr/Flickr

With the official announcement of the impending release of a fourth Playstation, and a Microsoft announcement soon to follow, the latest cycle of the console wars begins in earnest. Sony’s announcement struck all of the familiar postures, promising to deliver the next quantitative leap in hardware power, with the attendant message that more power would give developers the tools to deliver on promises long unmet by previous console generations. That message has become increasingly less convincing, as a widely circulated editorial by The Gameological Society‘s John Teti lamented. The simple fact of the matter is that the last several generations of Sony and Microsoft machines have been capable of delivering most of what developers could dream up, give or take a few bells or whistles.

It wasn’t always so. There was a time when the console wars drove technological innovation, and thereby expanded the scope of what we could expect from games. Way back in 1991, when Nintendo was gearing up for the release of the Super Nintendo, one of the launch titles was a game called Pilotwings. The game was essentially a flight simulator, dumbed down in the interests of fun, allowing players to pilot a number of small craft. It’s primitive stuff by today’s standards, and was, even at the time, a generation behind personal computing standards, but it ushered in the era of 3-dimensional console games. Five years later, the N64 extended the reach of 3D—there, the milestone was GoldenEye 007, the wildly popular James Bond-themed shooter that heralded the rise of the traditionally PC-bound genre. By the next generation of consoles, all of the major flagship releases would be 3D, and most would be first- or third-person shooters like Halo.

That span—from the fourth to the sixth generation of consoles, as they’re sometimes marked—was a veritable Age of Exploration, expanding the horizons of what a dedicated gaming machine could do. (The three generations before that belonged to the Age of Magic, if anyone is wondering.) Quantitative change make qualitative differences possible; increasing the processing power of a vehicle like the gaming console could still open up new territory. Since then, we’ve hit something of a plateau. Sure, it’s still possible to push at the boundaries, to create increasingly larger open worlds, like those of Skyrim or the GTA games. But for all of the virtual territory the next XBox and PS4 will make possible, such refinements rarely have the power to expand the scope of possible games. We’ve arrived at the point where it’s possible to play worlds. The next question is: What worlds are worth playing?

Let me put it to you another way. Are the worlds we’ve come to expect the worlds we want to continue to play? The answer to that question is bound to be complex. Even if we restrict our focus to the so-called New Games Journalism of the past several years (as I did in the interview series, The Ludorenaissance) we find a deep tension between the desire to embrace the games that have made up so substantial a part of the lives of entire generations of gamers, and the need to bring the industry and community in line with social and personal values that often get trampled in the drive to make games bigger and badder.

Another round of technological one-up-man-ship is unlikely to resolve those tensions. If anything, they may do more to further the entrenchment. The last two console generations were driven in large part by the imperative of serving two hugely profitable, triple-A genres: shooters and quasi-cinematic, open-world adventures. Both the XBox and Playstation provided platforms for other types of game, of course, and many players availed themselves of the opportunity to play outside those narrow confines, but as commercial ecosystems each was held aloft by its capacity to play the next Rockstar walkabout or EA gun-toter.

Nintendo was the outlier in that regard, having explicitly opted out of the stats game in favor of experiments with interface. That paid off with the Wii, but seems to have left the company on wobblier ground with the Wii-U (see, for example, “Raiding the Video Game Canon“). While the financial results have been mixed, it’s hard to deny that the strategy has made them less subservient to the genres around which the XBox and Playstation revolved. The result is a largely different culture surrounding Nintendo systems. Different doesn’t necessarily mean better, though, and Nintendo’s creation of an offshoot culture is the beginning of the story, not its end. As an achievement, the value of any such culture is difficult to measure by the usual game industry benchmarks.

The community desperately needs to work out another set of standards for gauging such things. That’s because, if console history is any guide, the upcoming release of the PS4 and Next Xbox mark the waning phase of the third age of gaming. Call it the Age of Refinement, a kind of imperial age when, having established the territory over which screen-bound games could range, we set about perfecting the form of those games. Contrary to Sony’s bluster, it’s unlikely that a newer, more powerful console will do much to broaden the range of experiences possible. From there, we move—if we are diligent, conscientious, and a bit lucky—into the Age of Culture.

That is to say: deliberate culture. Gaming has long produced its own niche cultures, but those have traditionally been reactive developments. Many of the articles on Culture Ramp have been about those reactions and their effect on the culture of gaming, from the way in which politics has shaped the iconography of video game violence (for example, “Run-and-Gun“), to the way in which a culture of swag pushes at, and sometimes beyond, our tolerance for objectification (“Thirteen Meditations on a Torso“). Several times I’ve poked at the question of how the community can tear down the walls that divide players from their non-gaming friends and family (most recently in “Jumping the Divide“), but the most straightforward answer is “by taking control of its own culture.”

That is, admittedly, a huge topic—the beginning of a journey rather than a destination unto itself—but we can, I hope, chart a few major points along the way:

  1. The far end of an unguided process of refinement is often decadence. To that end, the Age of Refinement has left us with a few outstanding issues that must be addressed by any deliberate culture we hope to build. Foremost among them are: violence, gender, respect, and worldview. Those concerns overlap, of course, but they are, at least, distinguishable at the cultural level. Some we take more seriously than others. In the most recent flare-up about violence, for example, many game critics took a hardline stance against discussing the possibility that violent games play any part in inspiring mass shootings. Of course, we need not capitulate to the terms set by an obviously politicized accusation, like Wayne LaPierre’s attempt to scapegoat games, but rushing to close all discussion leaves us to the exigencies of a culture formed reactively rather than deliberately. We can do better.
  2. The last of those issues, worldview, may be the most consequential. For much of its history, video gaming has been a platform for allowing adolescent and teenage males to explore identities marked by power and mastery. In “Not Me,” I suggested that, in doing so, we’ve ignored the medium’s power to give us access into the real lives of the people around us. The more we explore along those lines, the more video gaming can serve as a platform for building cultural ties, rather than breaking them down.
  3. Video games have often been driven by the emulation what’s best in other media. The open world game is a prominent example of a genre defined, for better or worse, by its aspiration to be cinematic—think L.A. Noire, or the influence of Scorcese and de Palma on the more recent GTA games. That kid brother complex was abetted by the console wars: better technology meant that games could look more like the movies, while bigger sales meant the growth of well-funded triple-A studios that could match Hollywood’s production values. Now that there is virtually no obstacle to making games as polished as a movie or as expansive as a top-tier cable show, we can stop pushing down that avenue long enough to ask if it’s worth the effort. Does play really lend itself to the same narrative merits that compel us in those other media? Or are games better served by exploring territory that is generally barred to less interactive media? In explorations like “The Interpretation of Games,” I suggested my answer.
  4. Finally, many of these issues can be broached by reconnecting video games to the broader topic of games in general. Without that connection, our understanding of the medium is too often constrained to economic, commercial, generic and political points of view. The question of what any given game means for the society that plays it is difficult to answer without first considering how games in general inform culture. More broadly, that means taking a harder look at the cultural role of play. That’s a topic I’ve threaded through the long line of Culture Ramp articles (see, for example, “Behavior Exploring Behavior” and “Between the Game and the Player“), but even those represent little more than a tentative step toward connecting video games back to the larger behavioral context. Video games are, first and foremost, play. That should make us curious about the meaning of other forms of play—table and card games, sports, role-play—and the personal and cultural forms they make possible.

It is my conviction that any Age of Culture that might adequately tackle those goals will start with the critical community, not as arbiters of culture but as the lens through which a grand public discussion may be drawn into focus. Game journalism has taken immense strides in that direction, but still finds itself tied to vested interests that muddy its role. Foremost among them is its continuing role as an enthusiast press. Not only does that status condition its reception (see “Shuffling the Deck“), it also ties it too closely to marketing and commerce to make it especially trustworthy. Nevertheless, the growing critical community surrounding gaming may well be the most promising development of the tail-end of the current Age. Well may they blaze a trail into the next.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.