What Happened to Video Games?

What they are and what we expected them to be

I was scrolling the Twitter the other day, looking for the usual news, interesting posts and a little comedy and then suddenly an advertisement for new video game systems appeared on my TL. It turns out the console companies are releasing a new Xbox and Playstation. This happens every 5-10 years, I think. I was curious at how far video games have developed since I last really thought about them and so I clicked on the post.

The first thing I noticed is how ugly the game systems look. They are just variations of how they looked 20 years ago. If you put them in a room they stick out and ruin the vibe of the living area. You see a similar trend with Gaming PCs. They look like MMA shirts from the early 2000s.

They never designed them to integrate into a room. There is no thought to make them look like a bonsai tree or a beautiful plant. The design philosophy hasn’t changed for decades. And it turns out, it’s not just the design.

What We Thought Games Would Become

I remember growing up during the heyday of video games with the incredible development from 1990 to 2005. Everything from Atari to PS2 and in between. Games developed so fast in those 15 years that people were getting nervous about what they would become. Congress held hearings on video games. Are these games going to control your mind? Are they going to turn you into a serial killer? In retrospect, this seems ridiculous but it isn’t really.

Games were evolving at an accelerating pace.

From this:

To this:

I remember going to an Arcade as a kid. It was fun. You’d buy tokens and you’d play next to someone or alone. But after a few years Arcades went bankrupt. They shut down the place. The owner went broke.

People shifted to playing games at home. The Arcade business was a big deal for decades and it disappeared overnight because video games were evolving at tremendous speed. Things were getting scary and exciting.

But then, something happened.

From 2005 to 2020, you don’t see much development. You see stagnation. All of a sudden it all stopped.

Developments since 2005

There have been some developments since around the mid to late 00s. For one, the rise of Social gaming. People watching other people play video games on Twitch or the rise of e-sports. But is this really a new development? I remember watching my friends play video games. We’d just sit around and watch him play. That isn’t new. That’s just scaling up an existing phenomena.

Video games have taken a dark path since the mid 00s. There is something called Loot Boxes which are popular now. A loot box is a consumable virtual item which can strengthen a player or make the game more interesting. He picks up a shiny new sword or a piece of armor. Except he has to pay money. These little micro-transactions. It’s a way to milk the kids with Dad’s credit card. And then there is the emphasis on addictiveness. The dark arts. Very sad development.

Graphics

People are starting to figure out that games are not developing anymore.

Games as Jobs

There’s another game genre that has become popular recently. These are games like Football Manager or Europa Universalis 4. Games that require immense time investment, thinking and strategizing. These games were fun when I played in them university or grad school. But I tried to play them recently and I couldn’t. They resembled jobs to me. And I already had a job. I was burning out trying to keep my team winning, scouting talent in obscure places in latin America and Africa. Europa Universalis is basically a spreadsheet simulation manipulating your dormant nationalist and religious impulses. If you take these games seriously as an adult you’ll burn out and lose your real job. That’s not fun.

Game Critics

Games suffer the same problem as other scaled up mediums; the critic problem. Game critics have great jobs, they don’t want to lose them. It’s fun playing games and writing about them for money. And they also may get paid for good reviews by the game companies themselves. This is natural for any media industry and has long been a part of the Monoculture. Every year there are academy awards in films, every year there is the Grammys. This is the industry supporting itself. They can’t just tell you it’s all bad and not worth playing. Then there wouldn’t be a business. Think about how the pro-wrestling announcers are paid by the company to put over the business but to the fan act as a reliable narrator.

Virtual Reality

VR has finally arrived. I’ve been hearing about VR my entire life, throughout the 90s and 00s. It was this technology of the future that would change everything. It was also used as a device that would mean we are truly living in the future. It’d pop up randomly like an Aerosmith video from the early 1990s

Well here it is. What’s it like?

I tried the Oculus and the Vive and I was disappointed. I was in goggle prison. None of the games were interesting or could capture my attention. Sure, there was a split second of spectacle because you’re immersed in a screen world, but it wasn’t like I was Brad Pitt in Cool World.

It dawned on me that VR will always be the technology of the future. It’s a trashy sci-fi dream from the 20th century. Now the supposed experts have moved on to “AR” and that now is the new technology of the future.

The Story

People thought in like 1999/2000 that video games would beat books. That they would be so advanced no one would read anymore because video games would be a richer experience. That didn’t happen. Whenever I post on Twitter about video games there is always someone who mentions that “x game is rich and deep that competes with the greatest books”

The medium won't allow it. By its very nature, a game designed to profit from a young adult audience can not address adult concerns in any serious fashion.

The Lion King is an amusing and harmless riff on Hamlet. But it is not... Hamlet. That’s a remarkable gap not to see.

People Know

My argument isn’t that that video games are “bad”. They’re fine. But we thought they would have been so much more. The rate of development was like an army conquering territory. It was only a matter of time before they swallowed up all the territory and changed the way we interacted and saw the world. That didn’t happen. The army stopped advancing. They just settled into the territory. Video games stayed in its young adult niche, atheistically, intellectually and spiritually. They are stuck in a mid to late 00s framework. But so are a lot of other mediums. It’s just that no other medium improved so dramatically in a space of a decade.

I remember playing Battlefield 1942 a decade ago thinking what could this thing be like in 2020? It turns out, if you buy the newest version, it’s the same game. They just tweaked a few pixels.

The “indie” Game Myth

There is this strange response you get from people online when you mention games have mostly stopped developing. They say you are only playing AAA games and not “indie” games. Then you ask them what indie games are good and they either have no response or tell you something like this:

I played these games and they are no different than the other more expensive games out there. Unfortunately, making video games, like making a film is expensive and a scaled up endeavor. if you’re looking to “indie” games for salvation from the stuck culture I’m not sure you’re going to find it. Remember when they talked about “indie” films defeating Hollywood and taking over culture because everyone has a camera and youtube? What happened.

Turns out good acting, production, editing and set design is expensive. Another one of the lies you were told in the late 90s/early 00s

Put Video Games on the Cardio Machines

I go to the gym regularly. Well, it’s closed now because of the pandemic so I workout at home. But back when the gym was open I would look at the cardio machines and to me they looked like video game machines

There’s a screen in the middle. There’s these buttons on the side you would grasp. But for some reason they never put real video games on the cardio machines. It never happened. I can’t go to the gym and play GTA on the elliptical. Instead I get messages like this:

Is this a good use of video game technology? People are dying from Covid because they’re fat. They’re getting wiped out because they don’t exercise. And why don’t they exercise? Because they think exercise is boring. Doing cardio on a machine sure is boring. That’s why you need to blast your ears with music and psyche yourself up using motivation to even do it. It’s mind numbing running on a treadmill or using an elliptical for 30 minutes.

And yet, the entire medium of gaming is still a sedentary endeavor. We are holding a controller in our hand or our hand is on a mouse and keyboard.

Yeah sure some people have tried putting racing simulators or something lame on a stationary bike. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Integrate games people enjoy playing with the cardio machines. That would be a real newer development in gaming.

We Were Promised Flying Cars

The late 1980s to the early 2000s was an interesting time. So many trends were beginning that were going to shape the world we are living in now. A lot of things came true; the internet does rule the world, cell phones are in every person’s hand, and Privacy is mostly dead.

But some things didn’t happen. Video games never became what we thought they would become. They stayed in the young adult ghetto. They are harmless distractions with stunted growth.