[S]ince the games are generally about power, control, and those other primitive things, the stories tend to be so as well. This means they tend to be power fantasies. That’s generally considered to be a pretty juvenile sort of story.
The stories in most video games serve the same purpose as calling the uber-checker a “king.” It adds an interesting shading to the game, but the game at its core is unchanged.
Remember: my background is as a writer, so this actually pisses me off. Story deserves better treatment than that. (Koster 86)
I would be hard pressed to state this thought in a more clear or concise fashion. Put simply, the stories in most games tend to be weak compared to their media counterparts (novels, comic books, movies, television). Over the years, there have been a few exceptional stories that span larger issues, or address the nature of power and control itself; a modest number of games have alternatively succeeded in refining the “power fantasy” into a more engaging telling, but the underlying principles have remained the same. Stories are tacked on, extraneous except in providing a context for player empowerment. While certainly not the sole issue, this is a fairly damning point when attempting to defend games as a valid form of creative expression.
So what can be done to improve the situation? The short answer is to hire professional writers. The vast majority of companies currently have their dialogue and story written and developed by the game designers, programmers, and artists themselves, rather than spending the money on a professional writer. Take the hint from the media that have come before: games are not that far different from comics, books, or movies, all of which have had significantly more time to develop techniques to tell a compelling and nuanced story, techniques that are effective across media.
Back in the early 80s, a conservative watchdog group lobbied for the ban or heavy regulation of music with explicit lyrics involving sex, drugs, or violence. There was a vocal outcry against this movement within the music industry, spearheaded by several prominent musicians, notably Frank Zappa and John Denver. It may seem like an odd pairing, but that served to help drive home just how unacceptable these restrictions were.
The Gaming Industry is now faced with a similar situation. Games, game developers, and even retailers are being targeted unfairly by lawyers and the media as the culprits for individual irresponsibility. Lawmakers are taking notice, but not in a positive manner: several states, Washington and California included, currently have bills in committee to ban the sale of violent games. Rather than finding other solutions, or viewing the larger problem that this is only a symptom of, legislators would prefer to restrict the rights of game makers.
There are several significant issues with the video game ban ideology, but from the reading I’ve done on the subject, most of their reasoning hinges around one fundamental flaw in their logic: games aren’t just for kids. The largest and fastest growing gaming demographic is the 18 to 34 year old age range; it is unreasonable to deny the ability to develop for that group. The game industry has voluntarily self-regulated by placing ratings on every game produced, indicating the content and suggested age range for view or play. This takes no more effort on the part of the parents (and retailers) than the movie rating system, and yet the industry as a whole is being blamed for violent games falling into the hands of children. Demanding that the game developers not make games with mature content is unreasonable on several levels, not the least of which is the violation of first amendment rights. What needs to happen is education. We need to educate parents about the systems that are in place to help them, as well as the need to pay attention to what their kids are doing. We need to educate retailers about sales ethics. We need to educate everyone about personal responsibility.
We need someone who can speak for the game industry as cogently as Frank Zappa and John Denver did for the music industry. The question is, who? Where is our Frank Zappa?