(originally published @ Tekhne.com)
Can mustachioed plumbers, pissed off fowl and anthropomorphic pandas make the world a better place?
The omnipresence of games would seem to point to a market niche for cyber dramas with a purpose.
In addition to the standard venues, people have begun to play video games on their iPhone and Android devices; the iPad and tablet PCs spawned their own genres. Suddenly the gaming possibilities seemed endless. The only question seemed to be how many boundaries could be broken with this new freedom?
… uh …
… we can play Angry Birds anywhere we go.
There’s a reason that every incarnation of Angry Birds or Call of Duty dominates sales charts. These games are mindless, escapist entertainment. Likewise for sports games, platform games (like Mario, Zelda, etc.) and pretty much every name-brand, recognizable gaming franchise that has ever reached the lips of mainstream culture.
Portable devices and downloadable content have provided the stage for the return of what some are calling fringe gaming (not that it was ever wholly gone). Big ideas, low product cost, low risk. In his article “Can Games Be Radical?” Tadhg Kelly laments the chest-thumping gatekeepers standing in the way of progress. Apple most recently banned an iPhone/Android game called Phone Story from iTunes that spotlighted cultural inequities in the cell phone production chain but didn’t actually single Apple out in its satire.
Also relevant: as a game it’s completely uninspired. Gaming and social activism, the two rarely meet—and for good reason. Nor do games receive the first amendment support enjoyed by other media and entertainment to allow such digital democracy. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Apple pulled the game with little public outcry.
Once upon a time Custer’s Revenge happened on the Atari 2600. CR depicted the graphic and turgid phallus of General Custer, naked Native Americans and fornication on cacti. True story. It is also regarded as perhaps the most loathsome video game ever produced. Big business changed the industry, for better (no more Custer’s Revenge) and worse (the only guaranteed dollars come from franchises). Niche games saw their possible venues dwindle, but not disappear. Limbo, Flower, Okami, and Catherine are all recent examples of lauded disc-based or downloadable games that boast qualities (artistic merit or subject matter) that could be considered examples of niche or fringe gaming.
While we may be accurate in blaming the 800-pound gorilla for stifling the fringe market, the consumer dollar dictates the market. This speaks directly to the shortcomings of casual gamers, including myself. We game to indulge in escapist entertainment for those fleeting moments at the end of our day, on a lunch break, on public transportation. Nostalgia, familiarity fuel these choices. Hence the sequels and franchises and resurrection of familiar mustachioed plumbers.
“Artful” games like the aforementioned selection have their place in the market and can’t be discounted, but will we ever plop down on the couch, grab our controllers and actively engage in riotous sessions of social activism? Particularly those without any creative or artistic merit? We’re more likely to rewatch that YouTube of Custer’s Revenge and marvel at the product of a truly free and democratic digital marketplace.