Now, videogames are no longer seen as casual entertainment for teenagers nor triggers for violence. Thanks to modern motion sensing technology, some can even be used to keep fit. Widespread technology has given rise to the development of many indie games with stunning artwork that can be considered true masterpieces. In 2006, the French Culture Minister officially defined videogames as an art form and cultural heritage, including three famous videogame designers in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres: the French Ancel and Raynal and the Japanese Miyamoto. In 2012, an exhibition titled “The Art of Videogame” took place in no less than the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which eventually included Halo 2600 in its permanent collection.
I still remember the first time I saw somebody play a videogame. In a family like mine – where, in the 80s, afternoons were marked by the absolute primacy of Atari 2600 – the arrival of the latest gaming console, the famed Super Nintendo, came as something inevitable. I can still see my father and his brothers sitting in front of a Mivar TV screen, on which a bunch of speeding cars were chasing after one another on the tracks of some circuit. The PlayStation , in all its glory, sat proudly under the telly, stretching its tentacle-like cables until the hands of the adults that were ruling that pixel world. The light from the hot afternoon outside seeped in through the shutters, half closed to avoid any glares on the screen.
In my eyes, not quite used to digital graphics, that room wasn’t so different from the glowing world on the screen.
A few months later, the old ‘family’ Super Nintendo, eventually abandoned by the adults for the newest device, became mine: as I found no remarkable differences between all those digital realms, I enjoyed to make a 2D Aladdin jump from a bazaar tent to the other without too many worries. Growing up, it came my turn, too, to abandon the poor old Super Nintendo: I started to inherit console after console, passing from the first PlayStations to the Xbox, from the Game Boy Color to the Advanced… And so on until the present day, when I’ve finally become the first and only owner of my consoles.
So you could say I’ve grown up with videogames. Their worlds are inseparably intertwined with my life, as they are for most Millennials. Now videogames are part of our existences in ways we could never imagine only 20 years ago: perfect graphics, VR headsets, augmented reality, smartphones that our into actual portable gaming devices… And it’s not just a Millennials’ whim. Most grandparents of people my age dabble in Candy Crush marathons. Gamers have changed, and not only them: videogames have changed, too, and – most importantly – so has their social perception.
1970s. Computer Space, an arcade game created by the later founder of Atari, was the first videogame ever sold. Along with it, came the first TV-connected consoles: in order, the Magnavox Odyssey and the Atari 2600: a true revolution since it included cartridges that allowed to save information and select different difficulty levels. However, arcade games were still king: thousands of boys flooded every day into game rooms to spend afternoons based on plastic buttons and neon lights. Space Invaders became an international craze, to the point of bringing about shortages of 100 yen coins (the ones needed for playing) in Japan. This scenario produced the first disputes: Death Race, an arcade game where players need to run over zombies, was defined “disgusting” by the National Safety Council.
The 80s saw the release of a number of legendary titles: Pac-Man, first game ever with an animated protagonist, Tetris and Donkey Kong, that featured a certain Jumpman – later re-named Mario – among its characters. America’s homes were taken over by the NES: a Nintendo 8-bit console with improved graphics, smoother gameplay and better sound development compared to its predecessors. The end of the decade brought another small revolution: the release of the first portable console, the Game Boy, and of Genesis, SEGA’s 16 bit console. Its mascot? Sonic the Hedgehog, the most famous porcupine of the world. These were the years when videogames’ popularity started inspiring the theories of educators, psychotherapists, politicians and media who felt the need to warn gamers’ parents about the severe negative effects of the popular virtual adventures. Not only did videogames cause addiction, damage the eyesight and the wrists muscles; apparently, they were also responsible of fostering aggressiveness in the youth’s impressionable minds. At school, gamers were seen as losers and alienated freaks, thus socially isolated.
The 90s brought us the Super Nintendo, which confirmed the success of a number of legendary titles, still iconic nowadays, like Mario and The Legend of Zelda. Along with the release of the Game Boy Color arrived the heroes of a generation: Pokémon. The decade also saw the advent of the first first-person shooter: Doom. Together with the fighting game Mortal Kombat, Doom triggered the concern of parents and institutions regarding the role of video games in incitement to violence. A feeling fueled by the release of the popular title Resident Evil, launched later for PlayStation.
In the very last years of the century, America was shocked by a number of episodes of juvenile violence, like the shootings of Heath High School in 1997 and Columbine in 1999. In both cases, the massacre perpetrators were teenagers: teenagers fond of videogames. It became common belief that one of the causes of such tragic events laid in the violent nature of the titles these teenagers liked to play. However, further analysis of the phenomenon lead to different conclusions: the number of shootings or other mass casualty attacks perpetrated in America between 1980 and 2018 (i.e. the videogame era) is 33. The culprits were defined as ‘gamers’, but considering the extreme popularity of this hobby, this particular was all but out of the ordinary. It is true that their favorite videogames, like all art forms, involved extreme violence; however, after years of scientific research, a link between videogames and real-life violence acts is yet to be found. The common denominators in these crimes are to be traced elsewhere: in ossessive and anti-social behaviors, mental diseases and bullying. The stigma associated with videogames as causing aggressive behaviors is now on the wane, but the correlation is still being claimed by many. Among them, Donald Trump, with respect to the Parkland shooting. The President’s position, though, is quite obvious, since it avoids any debate on the role of the Second Amendment. Overall, however, the public opinion on videogames has evolved.
Besides their artistic value, videogames have been gaining more and more social relevance. Equal gender representation, for example, has recently proved to be a strongly felt issue in the industry, as many titles have committed to improving their female characterization abandoning long-standing stereotypes and hyper-sexualization. A study conducted in 2007 on 49 titles showed a total of 282 male and only 53 female characters. The ‘male target’ excuse is no longer valid: research, in fact, reveals that women constitute 48% of gamers. And women in games are not only underrepresented, but misrepresented: 88% of naked characters in games are female. Similar issues are encountered when it comes to LGBTQI people and minorities: changes are underway, but we’re just starting.
Videogames are evolving along with society while reflecting its changes. And viceversa. We’ve been raised on them and now it’s on us, as gamers or artists, to let them grow healthy.