As gamers grow up, so does gaming. Baz MacDonald writes about how gaming is maturing along with the people who play them, and what that means for the medium.
Despite video games being one of the world’s biggest entertainment industries, there is still an undeniable stigma in telling some people you play video games – especially as you grow older. If you are a gamer, there are probably situations where you are comfortable discussing books, movies and TV, but you wouldn’t openly discuss video game, like at work or family gatherings.
You have to be wary, because many people still see video games as being for children, and as such, any adult who plays them is considered juvenile.
This perception is understandable considering that at the birth of the industry in the ’70s and ’80s video games were specifically marketed to children. But now those young gamers are in their 30s and 40s – changing the demographics of the gaming industry significantly. In fact, since the ’80s the average age of gamers has steadily increased, and the average gamer is now 35 years old.
As a result, the representation of young people in the video game industry has shrunk – as of last year, people under 18 only made up 28% of gamers.
As the players and creators of games have matured, so have the games – both in the type of content being created and the issues and themes they tackle. While ten years ago blood and boobs seemed to be gaming’s main obsessions, now stories deal with familial responsibility and existential crises.
A prime example of this is the just-released God of War. It’s a follow-up to one of the biggest game franchises of the 2000s – the original trilogy was released between 2005 and 2010.
The original God of War games told the story of Greek demi-god Kratos, who sought to destroy the Greek gods for the suffering they had caused him. Though spectacular in their scale and production values, these games were encapsulated the juvenility of games a decade ago – a period which could be described as the industry’s teenage years.
Like most teenagers, these games were loud, obnoxious, and overall pretty dumb. Take Kratos for example. He was one of the most one-dimensional characters in all of gaming, characterised by nothing more than his unfaltering rage – if he wasn’t destroying something, he was screaming at the heavens.
Thirteen years after the release of the first God of War, its creators have revisited this character and world in a new game. This entry in the series has a significantly different tone and approach – a change which is the perfect signifier of how the industry has changed over the past decade.
Now, instead of a bombastic adventure, God of War focuses on telling a more serious story, intelligently exploring the emotions and psychology of its characters. Set long after the original trilogy, this story presents a much older Kratos. Since we last saw him, he’s fled Greece to Scandinavia where he has married and had a son.
This game begins just after the death of his wife, leaving Kratos with the responsibility of raising and protecting his son. The genius of this narrative is that it presents the same rage-filled Kratos that fans know, but puts him in an emotionally complex situation where has to try and master his rage in order to be a good father and mentor to his son.
This relationship between father and son is a driving force of the game, and remains fascinating throughout. Though the setting is fantastical, the family drama which unfolds is all too real, as an emotionally distant father is put in a position where has to find a way to connect and be a good father to a son who just wants the love and respect of his father.
It is an evocative story, which is wrapped into an equally masterful game. It is already a critical darling, receiving perfect scores from some of the world’s most respected outlets, including The Guardian, and described by The Spinoff’s own Don Rowe as “a landmark achievement”.
The God of War franchise’s transformation is just one example of the shift the industry has seen over the past decade. There’s a new maturity emerging in the AAA space, with games such as The Last of Us and The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild also demonstrating complex themes and approaches to storytelling. Meanwhile, traditional guns-and-gore style games are increasingly incorporating emotional and intelligent stories, for example in last year’s Wolfenstein 2.
That’s true in God of War too: though there is still combat, and a lot of it, the story works to make the violence more meaningful. In the original trilogy, the story and character provided little more than an excuse for brutal and spectacular combat. The 2018 God of War, like many other newer games, places a much stronger emphasis on exploring why conflict happens and what its consequences are.
But not all games have combat – there is a whole new wave of titles appearing which forgo traditional video game mechanics to wholly focus on storytelling, or artistic experiences. Much of this type of content is coming from the independent game development scene, where many creators approach their games as works of art. A recent example is Australian made mobile-game Florence, which explores the thoughts and feelings associated with a new romantic relationship.
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Of course, though an increasing portion of the industry is being represented by these intelligent experiences, there is still a significant percentage of games which are simply fun and engaging – like Fortnite, for example, which is currently taking over the world. But what’s wrong with that? Not every piece of entertainment needs to be a deep, intellectual experience. After all, for every Oscar film the average viewer watches, I guarantee they watch ten dumb, fun popcorn flicks.
The important thing is that the gaming industry continues to develop as a purveyor of both challenging, mature experiences, and some good ol’ dumb fun. It’s this way that the medium will be recognised for the works of art that many of its best examples are, and lead to wider acknowledgement of gaming as a valid and valuable adult form of entertainment.
And hopefully in ten years’ time, you’ll be comfortably discussing with your family and colleagues the story of God of War 4, Final Fantasy XX, or whatever new IPs are being created.
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