Video "Games" in 2020

December 27, 2020

In October of 2019, I wrote a piece for From the Aether titled Video Games Do Not Exist. In the piece, I ponder the idea of “video games” coming into existence today — that developers and artists were never constrained by the limitations of those in ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The interactive experiences spawned in this alternate reality would not be classified as video “games” as different types of “video” experiences would originate alongside one another.

This premise is of course absurd as video games have been one of the catalysts for technological advancement. Consumer technology would likely look very different without early desires to bring richer gaming experiences into the home. Likewise, limited technical prowess forced early games to be developed with limitations we would find comical today. This is better summed up by computer graphics researcher Thomas A. Defanti in his 1984 paper The Mass Impact of Videogame Technology:

However, videogames have seriously and irreversibly affected the computer industry. Game players (mostly adolescents and people in their twenties) are unlikely to react favorably to a half-million-dollar office automation system that does not have joysticks, is not user friendly, and does not offer the simple high-level programmability offered by the simplest home game with BASIC. Color animation, which allows a much closer matching of human and computer bandwidths, is now expected from computing devices. Availability of intense, nonverbal, two-way communication is now taken for granted, spelling an early end to complete reliance on the unpleasant exercise of reading all day from a video display terminal. To a certain extent, we are very fortunate that computer graphics, unlike television, is incapable of transmitting “talking heads” very well, because that would be too-easy a misuse of the power of the medium, one to which educational television has defaulted.

In not having a previous medium to emulate, videogames have had to create a new way of communicating. They are truly a new medium. Maturity, still a long way off, will spawn some new form of what may be called interactive literature. Now, however, we can observe an industry in early infancy, struggling and toying to be part of our lives. It is a special time to watch, play, and enjoy.

But hypothetically speaking, if video games just happened upon us today, with all of the current technology at our disposal, they wouldn’t just encompass simple exercises of shooting asteroids, shooting centipedes, shooting invaders, shooting ducks, running left to right, or saving a princesses. These experiences would be so varied we wouldn’t classify every interactive video experience under the umbrella term “video game”. Don’t get me wrong, video “games” would absolutely exist — extending from digital recreations of their analog forebearers to high-fidelity large scale MMORPGs. But birthed along side those would be narrative experiences, simulations, and sandboxes, where the word “game” would not feel appropriate. Being developed alongside one another, these experiences likely wouldn’t draw comparisons. At least not like they do in our current reality.

So what is the point of theorizing what we might call video games in the alternate reality? Today, a “video game” is a video “game”, right? Well, my friend, in 2020, we may have made contact with the alternate reality.

Publications have published their Game of the Year lists for 2020, and more often than not you’ll find some of the following games on their lists:

  • Hades — An endless rogue-like game that doubles as a relationship simulator, triples as a home decorating sandbox, and is chock-full of a vast tapestry voice-acting and narrative. (It also probably won the GOTY from your choice publication.)
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons — A seasonally updated, endless sandbox experience that allows players all over the world to interact with one another while collecting, building, throwing birthday parties, and hosting talkshows.
  • Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition — A visual novel with ten years of development, zero plot, a historical account of the travesties of the past decade, and a vibe unlike any you’ve ever experienced.
  • If Found… — A visual novel featuring black holes and punk rock.
  • 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim — A visual novel of time travel and commentary on media; video games included. Also, real-time strategy.
  • Blaseball — Fantasy fantasy baseball that constantly changes, including lore of biblical proportions wholly developed by the community of observers.
  • Among Us — An online social deduction game played by friends, families, and politicians.
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator — A flight simulator by Microsoft. Also a digital replica of Earth that includes your house.

Of course these types of “games” are not new or even novel experiences. Idle games, visual novels, and simulators have existed for decades. But to be so prevalent in game of the year lists across so many publications is simply fascinating. Our definition of what qualifies as a video game is not changing and probably never will. But what qualifies as a masterpiece of the medium is now broader than ever. Sure, on the surface Hades is a video-game-ass-video-game — maybe the video-game-ass-video-game. But to compare that to an experience like Kentucky Route Zero, or KRZ to Animal Crossing even, is not apples and oranges; it’s apples and fabric textures.

The entries on lists of best video games can no longer be quantitatively compared (and probably couldn’t have been for the past 5–10 years). More than ever before they must be evaluated based on personal enjoyment with the experience, which… duh. And we all know lists are bullshit. I’m not trying to cement that argument here. (Plus, I like a list as much as the next person.) But the spread of experiences now ranked against one another is so wild that it’s worth noting.

Whenever I’m holding my Switch, my wife asks me what I’m playing. This year, more often than not, the answer was, “it’s… uh… like… hmmm… kinda like … it’s not really a game, but like…” so on and so forth. And I’m certain that’s the answer being heard more than ever.

If we’re to stick to the nomenclature of “video games” for these experiences, that’s fine. But it’s high-time we understand that they are no longer games. They are outright replacing, updating, or inventing new art forms, which seems fitting of Defanti’s conclusion:

Coin-operated videogames, from their pinball heritage to their extreme hedonistic desirability, have emerged as the black sheep, so to speak, of the interactive graphics movement. Yet, they are causing significant technological breakthroughs, especially in the area of cost/performance. We are seeing interactive fantasy emerge as a medium, and, with it, considerable development in the art of nonverbal communication. Coin-op technology quickly (within 2-3 years) passes down to personal computer systems, such that any home computer now has significantly better graphics and interactive devices than all but a few computer systems available in the lab or the office.

Knowledge of how to write games and present information through interactive animation will eventually encode itself into higher level programming structures available to subject-matter experts, teachers, intellectuals, children, and parents. A sizable portion of the computer graphics community already exchanges information on videotape. Floppy disk is now the home computer user’s way to send greetings. Animation will surely become a major form of communication once the delivery systems are ubiquitous.

Reading is, after all, a terrible waste of our human perceptual bandwidth, even if it is enjoyable. Fortunately, the richness of interaction claimed in the preceding pages can be experienced first-hand for considerably less than this book costs, even playing every game discussed here. You might want to hurry, though, before the classics disappear.

No other year exemplifies the change in the concept of “video games” than 2020.

'Well, Nintendo Is Doing Great'

November 06, 2020

Brian Ashcroft, reporting for Kotaku:

In its six-month earning statement ending on September 30 of this year, Nintendo reported that year-on-year net sales are up 73.3 percent, while net profit reached 213 billion yen ($2 billion), an increase of 243.6 percent.

Moreover, hardware sales reached 12.53 million units worldwide during this period, which is an 80.9 percent increase year on year. Out of that number, 8.36 million were standard Switch consoles and 5.17 million were Switch Lites.

Here’s an updated look at lifetime Nintendo Switch sales vs PS4 and Xbox One:

Console units sold, Switch vs PS4 vs Xbox One as of September, 30 2020

And compared against it’s older cousin the Nintendo 3DS:

Console units sold, Switch vs 3DS as of September, 30 2020

Ashcroft, continued:

Nintendo has modified its forecast for the current financial year, expecting a 50 percent increase in net profit. Previously, Nintendo had forecasted selling 19 million Switch units, but that number has been changed to 24 million, which is higher than the 21 million sold last year. Software sales are forecasted to reach 170 million units, which is up from the previously forecasted number of 140 million units. In comparison, last year’s software sales reached 168 million units.

Here’s a look if Nintendo’s forecast holds true:

Console units sold, Switch vs PS4 vs Xbox One as of September, 30 2020

And a look against the goat — PS2 is the greatest selling console of all time at 158 million units; g(sc)oat:

Console units sold, Switch vs PS4 vs PS2 as of September, 30 2020

'Nintendo’s game streaming strategy is not having one'

October 28, 2020

Brendon Bigley, blogging for Into the Aether:

The thing I find most fascinating about game streaming to the Switch is how antithetical it feels to the way Nintendo markets the device itself. The Nintendo Switch is a home console you can take on the go! Games can be played on your TV or on the train! But not always? The more publishers decide to use companies like Ubitus to provide game streaming instead of building real ports, the more the eShop begins to flood with great looking games that can only be played at home. Yes, you can still swap between TV and handheld, but the actual freedom of the device’s portability fades away when a persistent internet connection is required.

Bigley’s take is so good I’m pissed I didn’t think of it myself.

I can’t imagine Nintendo including cellular connectivity in the rumored Switch Pro, so a streaming strategy for the Switch most certainly breaks the ”designed to fit your life” paradigm if players are forced to have a Wi-Fi connection to play certain games. That said, streaming is another novel mode for the Switch’s portfolio — a handheld; a home console; a blank slate.

Feminist Frequency: Gender Breakdown of Games in 2020

October 16, 2020

Anita Sarkeesian and Carolyn Petit of Feminist Frequency, contributing to Wired:

This year also marks the narrowest divide between games featuring defined female protagonists and games featuring defined male protagonists that we’ve yet seen, with games starring male characters making up 23 percent of this year’s total, or just 5 percent more games overall. In previous years, there have always been at least three times as many games centering men as there were centering women, so the fact that this year both values are at least in the same ballpark is definitely a welcome development. However, while we should perhaps be cautiously optimistic about these numbers, we also shouldn’t break out the champagne just yet. It will naturally require another year or two before we can begin to determine if this shift reflects actual changes that are taking place, or if 2020 is a one-off statistical anomaly that will quickly see a return to the status quo.

I look forward to these reports every year. Readers of Zero Counts (and The Starr List before that) may recall my E3 2013 and E3 2014 Genre/Gender Breakdowns. I find a lot of humble serendipity that Feminist Frequency began running this very similar survey in 2015.

So much of identity is rooted in gender. With video games being such an immersive medium, the ability to not only witness but partake in the story of a character whose gender is the same or different from that of the player can have profound impact, self-identifying or empathetic. That is the reason I surveyed in 2013 and 2014 (and 2012, to some degree), and that is a big reason why Feminist Frequency continues to do so:

Each year when we present this data, some people invariably point to the fact that games which allow players a choice between a male and female character, or games in which you control an ensemble of characters made up of people of different genders, make up the biggest percentage of all (55 percent this year), and wonder why that isn’t, on its own, enough to satisfy us. The answer is quite simple. Of course we welcome games that allow players the option to create and customize their own characters, but this is categorically different from games that feature defined, specific characters. Each person who plays Horizon: Zero Dawn, for instance, or The Last of Us Part II must step into the shoes of a defined female character, and experience the game’s efforts to get them to identify with and relate to that character. In an industry whose output was for decades dominated by male heroes, what we most want to see is a shift toward at least an equal number of games that require players to take on the role of humanized female characters.

In a year of absolute madness, 2020’s Gender Breakdown of Games certainly a sight for sore eyes. I second Colin Campbell in saying ”the full article, and its various charts, is definitely worth a read.”

How Games are Changing the World

October 12, 2020

Colin Campbell, previously of Polygon and IGN fame, has launched an important newsletter devoted specifically to idea of How Games are Changing the World.

I’ve been enjoying some recent issues and figured I’d share an excerpt from one in particular that had an especially profound effect on me.

The talent of empathy:

Chris Metzen retired from game development in 2016. He’d spent 23 years in the game industry, working at Blizzard on some of its key games, including Warcraft, Diablo, Overwatch, and Starcraft (a solid bio is here). Yesterday, he spoke about his struggle with mental health challenges, and the game industry’s long-standing absence of understanding the centrality of mental health.

Speaking at The International Games Summit on Mental Health, with Take This executive director Eve Crevoshay, he talked about his experiences in an industry that saw itself as a warrior culture where performance was all that mattered, and where a relentless competitive spirit was valued far more than empathy or care. The session was called “The talent of empathy.” (Note. I’ve tidied up some quotes, for clarity.)

“Part of my leaving was I started having some serious issues with anxiety and panic and horrific imposter syndrome,” he said. “It was there all along. The psychology of being afraid, of feeling unworthy, and not being able to ask for back-up from friends and co-workers. There’s a lot of shame that can come with that. It doesn’t feel safe to talk about that.”

He acknowledged his privilege in being at a point in his career that he was able to step away from his work and find “perspective and time”. Most people have to endure the particularity of their workplace, and to compete for position, recognition and career survival.

He began at Blizzard when he was 20 years old. “It was a frat-house. Even though we were all nerds, everyone was trying to be a tough guy. The expression of emotions like tiredness or fear was not culturally acceptable. If you feel overwhelmed then you feel like a weak link, like you’re breaking a grand tradition, like you’re breaking a contract.”

As the years went by, and despite a record of high level success, Metzen was struggling. “I was a grown man and was feeling things that I didn’t know how to process. My performance was linked to my self-esteem and my sense of purpose. I was terrified by the question of ‘who am I’, if I wasn’t this creature who was here to perform in this way.”

I strongly encourage you to read the rest of the piece and subscribe to Campbell’s newsletter.

One of the ideas behind Zero Counts was to share positive impacts video games have on the world. But I remain an outsider to the industry — simply observing and playing here and there. Yet, I recognize the toxicity in it, which hurts. It sucks to have such a pleasant part of your childhood associated with so much pain for others. Video games are joyous marvels of engineering and art. They spark conversations of curiosity and wonder and should be just as fulfilling to work on.

I’m so glad there are more outlets popping up with the mission of sharing positivity within the industry. But positivity holds no weight without also holding others accountable. Outlets like Into the Aether, Polygon, and not only showcase positive stories and emphasize fun, the hold feet to the flame of injustice, discrimination, and exploitation. I’m happy to add How Games are Changing the World to that list.