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Personally-defining games: on their way out?

As I’m sure many regular Later Levels visitors are aware, The Secret of Monkey Island had a huge impact on me as a child. This was the game which taught me that worlds I thought only existed in books could be brought to life through pixels on a screen. Meeting Guybrush one Christmas as a child created a lifelong love of the adventure genre – along with wannabe pirates, swordfighting insults and fine leather jackets.

I know many other people in the same age group have had similar experiences with other titles, and most seem to have one that that has defined them as a gamer and influenced their tastes. Just look at The Games That Define Us collaboration project being hosted over at Normal Happenings. Ian from Adventure Rules has picked Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door as his choice; Luke from Hundstrasse has gone for Resident Evil 2; and Chris from OverThinker Y is going to write about Kingdom Hearts.

A number of the questions posed by Graham at Digital Brain as part of his recent Sunshine Blogger Award nomination (thanks so much for this, if you’re reading!) were focused on how we perceive video games along with the relationship between this media and culture. They got me mulling over whether their cultural impact will change going forward and then eventually onto the subject of these personally-defining titles: will future generations of gamers still have individual games which resonate so strongly with them?

The Secret of Monkey Island, video game, Guybrush Threepwood, pirate, man, surprised

I guess the most obvious answer to this question is ‘yes’, because we have access to such a wide variety of titles nowadays that there’s something out there for absolutely everybody. From quiet and thoughtful adventures to epic quests about saving the world, there’s a digital story somewhere in between that’s going to speak to directly to the heart of each person. But talking to friends who are parents and teachers, and observing my own stepson when he plays video games makes me start to wonder.

Several people I know work in a teaching capacity in schools and each has said they’ve noticed a change in their students over recent years. Instead of being willing to take the time to research an idea in a book, it’s now hard to hold their interest unless the material is delivered to them instantly. Parent friends with youngsters have echoed similar sentiments and say their children have shorter attention spans and become easily distracted, with many placing the blame on technology such as mobile phones.

With my own stepson, I’ve certainly noticed differences in the way he approaches video games compared to my other-half and I when we were kids. Ethan is becoming more fickle the older he gets; he can play a new title for an hour one evening and go on about how much he enjoyed it, then move onto something else in the morning and never return to it. There have even been a few instances recently where he has installed a new game bought with his pocket money but never actually started it up.

I get that things are so much different today in terms of frequency of releases. When we were young – and I’m talking over 30 years ago here – the space between video games was far greater so you made the most of those you had. When you knew the next new title you could get your hands on might be three months or longer away, you kept plugging away at the one you were playing regardless of how painfully difficult it was (I’m looking at you, DuckTales).

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Ethan

But what effect do limited attention spans and endless distractions have on personally-defining games? Could failure to reach the ending cutscenes and those associated moments of realisation mean an end to gamers having that one title which sets them off on their future digital path? Ethan is aware how much The Secret of Monkey Island means to me, and it’s hard to imagine him not having similar conversations about his own special game with his kids one day (because obviously they’re going to be gamers too).

If I’m still blogging in ten years’ time, I’ll make a point of getting him to read this post and share his thoughts while he’s in his early twenties. I’ll ask him which title he feels left a mark on him and see whether he has a personally-defining game.

Let’s just hope it’s not Minecraft.

9 thoughts on “Personally-defining games: on their way out? Leave a comment

  1. Minecraft’s a perfectly acceptable choice for a personally defining game, I think — at least it’s creative!

    I think part of what you describe here is down to the fact that a lot of the more “commercial” games are designed to be treated somewhat disposably these days… or maybe that’s not quite the right word. They’re treated as an activity or a service rather than a creative work, and that causes them to have less immediate cultural impact, regardless of age. They’re just something you “do” rather than something you engage fully with.

    However, one thing that a lot of people miss is that this sort of game isn’t the only option these days… and in fact many of the most personally resonant games come from “beneath” the triple-A tier. Obviously I haven’t been a kid for a very long time, but I doubt I’m the only person in the world who has found the most compelling, emotional, personal games to be from smaller developers and publishers — those who tend to go for a laser-sharp focus on their intended audience rather than a soulless, scattershot, designed-by-committee “we must appeal to everyone” sort of vibe.

    People need a LOT of encouragement to step outside of the comfort zone of “games everyone has heard of” these days, however. And the commercial media doesn’t really help matters, with article after article about the latest big budget releases while interesting smaller games pass by unnoticed. That leaves it up to people like us to highlight the cool stuff out there!

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    • The Minecraft thing: about four years ago, a friend decided to give my stepkid a copy as a present and he became so obsessed with it. It was literally all he talked about for months and everything he did was in ‘Minecraft world’ in his head. We were extremely glad when he grew out of that phase and it’s now turned into an in-joke with our family! 😉

      It’s games by smaller developers which tend to appeal to me most personally, due to their focus on narrative and the stories their projects tell; I’m going to an expo next week and all but two of the 20 titles I’ve added to my to-do list are in the indie sections so that kind of says it all. With the stepson though, it’s different. He tends to be attracted to indie games more than the big-budget stuff when he comes to events with us and he’ll usually end up purchasing one of them when he get home, but he very quickly returns to the more ‘disposable’ stuff . He’s just got into secondary school though so I guess it’s cool to play what all the other kids are playing right now…

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  2. This is a great topic – for me it’s Deus Ex – the mystery and darkness really dug it’s hooks into me as a young teen and I’ve never ever forgotten how it made me feel. Like you said, it would be difficult for me to imagine someone age 13 now having the patience to stomach the dated engine wrapped around the game when the newer Deus Ex games seem to deliver the same gameplay in a much more modern and streamlined way. It’s a shame, though, because for as fun and as absorbing as the new ones are, the stories have never really compared.

    And then when you think about how prolific stuff like Fortnite is for kids… Kids love Fortnite, which is fine, but it’s kind of sad that frivolous competitive game has captured their hearts as opposed to great story telling. I played The Last Guardian earlier this year and it blew me away – literally brought me to tears – but I can’t see a kid putting up with the games rough edges to have the same experience I did.

    It’s really hard to comment because we see all of this through the eyes and experience of an adult and maybe it’s okay that what kids latch on to now isn’t the same as what we latched on to – maybe it’ll have a positive effect and perhaps the short attention span might not do much damage in the long run – and I hope that’s true. But I was a kid that was enamoured by the romantic sense of adventure in Indiana Jones. I wanted to be him when I grew up. Maybe a game like Uncharted will make some 13 year old feel how I felt when I was a kid, and if it has to appeal to their short attention span to do so, maybe thats okay!

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    • We went to Insomnia last month and it was surprising how much presence Fortnite had there: we counted five separate areas dedicated to it and there were queues at each of them all day. I really felt for the indie developers who were there showing of their upcoming projects, because they’d been located right next to the biggest one in the PlayStation zone and were largely ignored as a result.

      It’s such a shame because there are some amazing smaller titles getting overlooked in favour of games which cater to short attention spans and instant gratification, stuff which is easier to create and brings in the money. I just can’t see someone in the future saying ‘Yeah, Fortnite had such an effect on me when I was a child’ in the same way we talk about Monkey Island and Indiana Jones; but of course, I could be proven wrong…

      PS: The Last Guardian was great, wasn’t it? The way the relationship between Trico and the boy strengthens over the course of the game and is built on trust, it brought tears to my eyes at the end. 😢

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  3. Really interesting topic 🙂 I think one difference between games now and games then is consumer analysis. Denizens of the western world are attached to an endless update and notification kick, which makes games that have a really fun loop (like Fortnite) so addictive. That modicum of pleasure you get from playing a few rounds is sufficient to tide you over, but it’s just sugar rushes – not those wholesome, emotionally filling meals like Uncharted, Life is Strange, etc. Not sure where I’m going with this food metaphor! Ah, right, so I think that from a purely monetary perspective, it’s really profitable to buy into people’s laziness; I could watch this 20 minute cutscene or play 4 rounds of Fortnite.

    Let’s hope that kids latch onto something to tell their future kids. We’re now living in such an amazing time for video games, there are so many fantastic experiences out there. I hope the young ‘uns read blogs like yours, like Kotaku, Polygon and try to understand games on a deeper level 🙂

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    • Mmm food metaphors… now I’m hungry…

      I like the food metaphor, I think that’s spot on. @gsdigitalbrain said above it’s difficult to imagine a kid nowadays having the patience to put up with some of the stuff that happened in video games back when we were young, and it’s those ‘sugar rushes’ which cater to this new need for instant gratification. I wonder whether it’s sustainable though; are younger gamers going to grow up feeling unfulfilled and turning their back on their hobby as they grow up? 🤔

      Let’s hope not, and that they do eventually find their one game!

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  4. It’ll be Minecraft. 🙂

    I sometimes think about this but in a different way. I buy and collect a lot of games. On the Xbox in my den, my son has access to my entire digital library of Xbox One and 360 back compat games. And while he does occassionally boot up a game play it for an hour or so and then never return to it (Telltale Batman recently), he mostly ignores the library as a whole and bounces between Overwatch and Fortnite. Meanwhile I bounce between games like a pinball, which is very unlike how I was as a kid where I only had a few games to choose from and would obsessively play what I had over and over again because my next new game was a few months away.

    Anyway, I think those defining games are still out there. They aren’t what we would choose (Minecraft, Overwatch, Fortnite) but they’re there and our kids will probably look at their kids and scratch their heads wondering the same thing we did.

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    • Oh no, please don’t let it be Minecraft! 😂

      I wondered above whether younger gamers today will eventually become unfulfilled by the ‘sugar rushes’ of games such as Fortnite and turn their backs on the hobby, but there’s a chance it could have the opposite effect too: it could mean that a preference for larger games with a deeper story starts to develop as an antidote. Lets hope so, anyway!

      Liked by 1 person

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