The Short Memory of Video Games

Video games are often compared to other art forms, typically movies. One question reflective of this comparison is the question “What is the Citizen Kane of video games?” In other words, what is a video game that some consider to be the best of all time, or one that was an innovative game changer? While I look forward to experiencing a game with that level of praise, I think it is going to be difficult for the medium to come to a consensus on what that game is, due to the short memory video game culture has.

(via IMDB)

The first contributor to video games’ lack of memory is the sheer breadth of outlets that rate games on a yearly basis; there is no “academy” for video games like the Grammys and Oscars for music and movies. There are a lot of outlets that award Game of the Year in various categories, but none of these are recognized by the community as the prestigious or “correct” one. So from that standpoint, it is difficult to go back and decide what the best games of previous years were. These opinions end up feeling more disposable in that they can feel arbitrary or unsubstantiated. Without a solid, objective idea of what the best games per year were, it’s hard for a memory to be created.

This is to say nothing about our journalism structure. Since games have such an interactive component, the buyer’s guide portion of reviews is quite important; movies and music can be accessed with the click of a button, but games have to be played in order to get the full content. Because there is so much emphasis on whether these are good products, the current discussion has to keep moving to keep up with the amount of games coming out. Couple this with the fact that games take a longer time to complete and review/critique, talking about something slightly behind the zeitgeist could potentially be a waste of time and money. Journalists, through no fault of their own, are incentivized to have short memories: they don’t have time to get academic about games, they should probably be moving to the next title. It doesn’t bring in the traffic or money to talk about something that consumers and fans have already moved on from or forgot about.

However, it should be understood that a journalist’s job is to review and report on different games. It doesn’t make sense to talk about a game unless something noteworthy happens in the game’s development or fandom, as far as their outlet is concerned. This is similar to movie and book reviewing, but those mediums have the benefit of having more years of scholars who have written academic articles backing them up. Games are still a relatively young artform, so we need this academic backing to make sense of the lessons that creators need to learn.

A game with continuing coverage (via Kotaku)

eSports and competitive gaming reporting kind of shows the antithesis to this. Outlets that primarily discuss MOBAs, shooters, or fighting games in any sort of depth seem to only cover those things. Covering games like League of Legends, Overwatch, or Street Fighter V with any quality seem to be full time gigs on their own. However, these seem to be the only types of games that get coverage more than a couple months past their release, and they don’t seem to be the kind of games that are considered for the greatest examples of what games can be.

So what is the problem with all of this? Why does it matter if video games only exist in the larger consciousness for only a few months? Short memories are bad for growing the medium in a general sense. When creating a new experience, innovation can be great, but it isn’t so great to forget lessons from the past. We don’t need a hundred Breath of the Wild clones, for example, but it would be useful to learn what it did right and wrong. We see a fair amount of game companies making additions or changes to games post-release based on fan feedback (on oversexualized characters, or poor handling of marginalized characters, or just badly told stories in general) but I always wonder how these mistakes were made in the first place. If creators are listening to fan feedback, how did they miss similar critiques for other games? I believe it is due to the rapid turnover of news. If there is no in-depth commentary written within a couple months, it seems unlikely that it will be seen by a large group of people, so it isn’t in the best interest for them to discuss them. This makes it incredibly difficult for game creators or historians to go back and research critical conversation. Creators and historians should do their best to find the information no matter what, but improved journalism can streamline this process. 

Not a bad game to copy though! (via Zelda.com)

Additionally, it gets really old having to hear the same conversations every six months. I find my peers frequently asking “didn’t we go through this last year?” whenever there is another controversy about anti-consumer payment methods, poor representation of marginalized characters, or games being released in a glitch-riddled state. Obviously, if the problems keep occurring, they need to be reported on. However, writers often reinvent the wheel to discuss the problems​, making them seem new rather than chronic and systemic in video game culture.

To return to the thought experiment of where gaming’s Citizen Kane is, I’m not sure if we’ve already had it, or what it would take to get there. I’m not sure how much it actually matters, either, but I would like to see continued discussions about games that could be considered classics. People constantly find new secrets and lessons in media when they continue to engage with it and our critique and discussions can only get better. There are more outlets seriously discussing games, which I love and believe is good for the medium, but I can only hope that we can further try to talk about games beyond their release period. This way, when we are describing or creating new experiences, we’ll have more examples and vocabulary to aid us.


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One thought on “The Short Memory of Video Games

  1. I believe this problem is largely rooted in games being approached from a tech culture perspective, which treats games as a product rather than an art form. Said products, like most tech things, are constantly treated as the next big thing, but are replaceable with each passing year. The most obvious example is the planned obsolescence of consoles, which also makes preserving old video games more challenging (heck, I actually saw DS games going for $80+ recently, which is absurd for any sort of media).

    It’s certainly not unique to video games and is inherent to any media form interacting with capitalism. Hollywood is similar in its hype cycle, and it’s also absurd that many older TV shows have such a high barrier to accessibility due to how much their DVDs cost (or worse, for shows that don’t have any home media release). But the difference is that those media forms have people dedicated to discussing them on their artistic merits. There are shades of this too in video game fandom, but not quite as vocally. So I agree that there needs to be much more emphasis on the long-term when talking about video games.

    Also, I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss eSports, even if they are merely one face of video games rather than its defining aspect. After all, people are still dedicated to Chess more than a millennium after its creation, and its prestige is due to its metagame being allowed to evolve into something rich and deep over the years. It’s something I almost appreciate about Super Smash Bros Melee fans; their attempts to write a similar kind of literature and history for their game. Shame that the community is undermined by being so insular and sanctimonious.

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