“I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal.” So goes the nursery rhyme, which thanks to Susan Hill’s eponymous novel will forever be sung in my head by a precocious, spoiled child, stood on a knoll, lording over his friends.
Whenever I play a videogame, I hear his voice.
As I collect coins and trickets…
“I’m the king of the castle…”
And the game begs me to keep playing, promising me that I can explore and do as I please. I can even change the story…
“…you’re the dirty rascal.”
Videogames have raised their players to be entitled, bratty kids.
Game-makers constantly reassure that yes, they’ve listened to the fans. Sometimes this sounds like a boast – some game-makers have internalised their players’ arrant screeches for attention, and are sadly convinced that to pander to philistines is the reason they studied game design. Other times, it’s a plea for mercy. Via forums, social networks and forty years of implicit ego-stroking through videogame mechanics, game-makers have engendered to their audience both the mentality and technological means to disparage and destroy what they do not like, or rather what they don’t or refuse to understand. You can’t see it, but every game-maker who has “listened to the fans” has a gun against his head. He is being treated well, and believes a peaceful release might be negotiated.
As game-makers throw themselves at the feet of players, videogames continue to be based around one unassailable precept: player freedom is what is most important; like a free market economy, which left unregulated lifts up the poor by the boot strings of the rich, if games permit unbridled agency, truth, story and meaning will follow. Herein lies the paradox: interactivity is considered both the core of the videogame and panacea to its many congenial problems. The deference paid to both players and the concepts of agency and impassive audience creates a noxious atmosphere, an environment wherein artistic license dies on contact with air, it being so polluted by entitled caterwauling and capitalist sentiment. And yet when we look for the true meaning of videogames, their unique faculty, their raison d’etre, we find once again interactivity, impassive audience, the hallowed player. Videogames, by the definition which we critics, game-makers and players have jointly created, must yield to their beholder. Moreover, to secure the patronage of an intelligencia, a mythical group of cultural keyholders who apparently decide what is and is not authentic, games must stand apart from films, books and theatre. Yet both these ambitions – you must please your audience; you must be unique to all other creative forms – produce in game-makers rank insecurity. And insecurity cannot exist alongside snobbery. And snobbery – the confidence and the will, pig-headed or no, to create what one envisions – is the catalyst for art.
But don’t hate the game. Hate the player. Or hate both. For accommodating their audience so tirelessly and completely, game-makers are cowards. For assuming the player always wants to do what she wants, they are condescending. Conversely, the player has a grotesque propensity for self. She is fascinated not by the ideas of other people per se, but endlessly recoloured, uniformly self-affirming permutations of her own perspective. Post-apocalyptic. Swords and shield fantasy. Linear. Open-world. Hero. Villain. She uses videogames only to admire herself from different angles. She is not humble. Unless in pursuit of her own complete story, or yet another variation of her own identity, she is not self-effacing. And she would rather get up from the camp fire and walk away to collect ten hidden gems than sit and listen to a story.
People despair that gaming culture is toxic – on every article, under every tweet and in response to every announcement, there is invective, sometimes violent, sometimes sexist, always petulant. The relationship between videogames and this behaviour is clear; if game-makers have been listening to their fans, fans have listened right back, and been told, time and again, that they are precious, above introspection and reproach, and deserving of everything for which they cry. Go anywhere. Do anything. Be whatever you want. And then tell us what you think. With the touch of a button, rate each of our game’s levels one by one. From this audience, why should we expect anything other than total self-absorption? Videogames have groomed their players to be obnoxious, wailing children. The deference paid to them by ego-massaging game mechanics, calcified by the competitive consumer culture in which videogames languish and which by its nature requires game-makers to demean themselves for attention, culminates in an audience that is patently anti-art. Videogame players have been raised to believe not only that their desires should come above all else, but that the fulfillment of those desires, more than simply the ambition of individual game-makers, is the reason videogames themselves exist. This very culture, this very form, is made or unmade by their approval: if videogames are not interactive, to a degree that allows players to fulfill themselves, they are nothing. They are errant. They are non-games.
And so videogames, by helping cultivate an audience that regards art and expression as a service, to them personally, have secured apparently the most vital piece of evidence in their case for their own cultural legitimacy: a notable influence over the wider world.
“I’m the king of the castle. And you’re the dirty rascal.”