At the recent DICE conference which just took place in Las Vegas, David Cage gave a speech which outlined nine points supporting his message that "the industry needs to grow up."
Predictably, his comments angered many people and I've been seeing comments across the gaming spectrum disagreeing with him or trying to prove him wrong in various ways. The most recent was this piece from sharp writer @EthanGach, blogging over at IGN.
Gach raises a good point in that there are certainly people within the indie/small gaming sphere creating the types of experiences that Cage suggests we're lacking, but holding up these projects as proof is missing the point of what Cage is saying. The way I see it, it's a matter of perspective.
To players like Gach, myself, or anyone who pays even half attention to the indie scene, I have no doubt that a long list of titles could be given that show hope for the games industry. However, when viewed from outside (and please forgive the term) hardcore circles, those titles might as well not exist.
To people at large in the world, or who don't play games on a regular basis, their conception of what games are is quite a bit different than the conception held by those of us who play them daily, blog about them, or review them.
When at work or at social events, I can recall several conversations where fellow parents were coming to me as "that guy who makes games" (sic) and seeking my advice whether Game X or Game Y was "safe" for kids to play, or what I thought about the current level of violence in video games. In almost every instance, the person asking me spoke about games as something dangerous, or as something that was bad for their children despite having no current personal experience themselves to base an opinion on.
Just to make sure that was still the case, I decided to do a little non-scientific research and asked several people who were not gamers what they thought of the industry. The friendliest response I got was something along the lines of "I don't know what those games are about, but my kids spend way too much time playing them" to "they're really violent and have too much sex." This latter theme was more popular, and it proves Cage's point—despite the existence of titles like Journey, Dear Esther, The Unfinished Swan, To The Moon, and many others, these experiences are utterly unknown to the outside world.
When asked to give detail about the perceived sex and violence as viewed by these non-gamers, the most common example given was Grand Theft Auto. Every single person mentioned that the player "gets points" for "killing cops," "beating up hookers" or "having sex." In their minds, these were the main functions of gameplay in that title—and please note, no one had any knowledge of the difference between GTA3, Vice City, San Andreas, or GTA4, or that those titles existed. All they knew of was some persistent, generalized and monolithic version of Rockstar's biggest franchise.
Other examples of games given during my chats included Pong, Pac-Man, Super Mario (no version known), Call of Duty (no version known), Halo (no version known) and surprisingly, I had one parent mention Minecraft although they had no idea how "bad" it was or how much violence there was in the game. All they knew was that their child (age 7) "was addicted to it."
Following up, when I asked these people whether they knew about "indie" games or Steam, not a single one had any knowledge of either, whatsoever. Not a single one.
Interestingly, I also got several happy mentions of "Wii," although it was meant in reference to Wii Sports, and not the console itself. I found this fairly telling for a few reasons, but I do give credit to Nintendo for managing to produce something which was seen as universally positive to society at large.
Again, I fully grant that this was a non-scientific, anecdotal inquiry, but I think it's useful as a general indicator that only the most popular titles reach the level of cultural awareness required to penetrate the non-gaming populace, and that the overall cultural attitude towards games is that they are more negative than positive. I think it also suggests that most non-gamers have absolutely no idea of what gaming is like in the modern era.
I suspect that anyone conducting their own line of questioning would find something similar. Of course, this will likely change over time through cultural momentum as older generations die off and become replaced with younger ones, but for the moment, it is what it is.
My fellow critic Sparky Clarkson had this to say on the topic: Imagine if the only films EVER advertised in any major way were giant action blockbusters and kids' movies. Imagine if the only way to find out that films like Lincoln EXISTED was to spend hours every day exhaustively following movie-news websites. That's gaming. Intelligent games have almost zero visibility, and even when they rise above the noise, comparatively nobody buys them. Cage's critics seem to think that he's willfully ignoring all these smart, serious games, but the reality is probably that he's just never heard of any of them. In that respect, he's like most of the gaming public.
It is from this "we only know the big games" perspective that Cage's charge to the industry makes perfect sense, and honestly, I think he's right. The points he raised in his speech ring true to me, and rather than players trying to discredit or prove him wrong, his critics might be better off trying to understand where he's coming from, even if that doesn't reflect their own personal perspective or the entire spectrum of games development today. With all the scrutiny currently being given to games thanks to horrific acts of real-world violence, it can only be a positive thing to honestly evaluate where we're at, how we're seen, and where we want to go from there.