by Theo Dentchev
“There’ll always be the argument that video games are meant to be played for fun. Believe me, some of it’s a lot of fun. Video games are meant to be played at home, relaxing, on a couch, amongst friends…and they are, and that’s fun. But competitive gaming, when you want to attach your name to a world record, when you want your name written into history, you have to pay the price.”
– Billy Mitchell, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
In the above quote arcade game legend Billy Mitchell speaks to the difference between competitive gaming and what might be called “casual” gaming. But at the same time, in a way he’s comparing modern gaming to classic arcade gaming. “[Modern] [v]ideo games are meant to be played at home…on a couch,” and one might add with a gaming console, on a TV, whereas classic arcade games are played standing up in front of the arcade machine, usually in an arcade. Those superficial differences in location and method of playing are representative of a broader shift in gaming from the arcade era in the 80s to the console era of today, from more competitive to more casual, from a narrow to a broad appeal, and from more rule oriented games to games which utilize fiction much more heavily.
The underlying goal of classic arcade games is to get as far as you could, to achieve as high a score as possible without dying (and if you are good enough, to hopefully get your name on the high scores list), and thus they are inherently competitive. Arcade games also require great hand-eye and hand-thought coordination, as Twin Galaxies founder and referee Walter Day tells us in King of Kong. Someone playing an arcade game has to be literally thinking on their feet. The person has to be on edge, attentive, and motivated to keep standing there and competing at that game. This is in stark contrast to video games today, which are meant to be enjoyed while sitting back, sinking into your couch cushions, without needing to exert a great deal of mental or physical effort. Today’s games try to be friendly and open to new or “casual” gamers. They are much, much more forgiving than the arcade games of the past and no longer restrict players to going as far as their skills allow them; now even the least able gamer can fully experience (and beat) most games. That isn’t to say that there aren’t still games being made which are or can be competitive out there, it just means the landscape has shifted.
Accompanying this shift is gaming becoming more mainstream. Whether the increased public interest in gaming is due to the increasingly casual nature of games, or whether companies are making more casual games to please the public, I don’t know. I figure it’s a combination of both. Most people don’t find the intensely challenging, and often frustrating nature of arcade games to be “fun.” They are more attracted to games whose rules present some sort of challenge, yet not one which is too difficult to overcome. But people also like flashy graphics, rich soundtracks, and complex stories. Arcade gaming did not have that. They didn’t have the greatest graphics (it was the 80s,still early in the development of video games), and while they had some catchy themes the music was pretty simple. As for story, sure, Mario (Jumpman) was trying to save Pauline (Lady) from Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong, but that’s about as deep as that story gets, and there’s really no resolution of the conflict (ending). And what about Pac-Man? What was he eating all those dots for anyway? Arcade games focused mostly on a set of rules, without much fiction. Modern games still have rules which the player must follow, but have added great amounts of fiction, mainly in the form of narratives and accompanying music, to the point that some games are considered more film than game (e.g. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots). That in turn has attracted a great deal of people to the gaming world, swelling its ranks with new, casual gamers.
Video games in the 80s were generally viewed in a negative light, with mostly “losers” or “nerds,” supposed rejects of society, congregating in dimly lit arcades, almost cult-like. Perhaps this was because games were still a new and relatively foreign medium. Or maybe the “price” needed to be paid that Billy Mitchell alludes to, not in quarters, but in time, dedication, and repeated frustration resulting from the difficulty of arcade games was too high for the average person to pay. Or was it because arcade games were too simple, only about rules and competition? Whatever the case may be, since video games have started heavily incorporating fiction and lowering the challenge the rules present, changing the nature of the games from competitive to casual, they have been propelled in a relatively short amount of time into mainstream recognition and acceptance. People find today’s games to be more “fun.” It’s not only nerds who play video games now, and although competitive gaming may still be discredited, even that is changing as people begin to play games like Halo for a living.
Or maybe it’s all because of Madden.