A Mario By Any Other Name

by Charles Miller on November 26, 2004

We need a new term for "computer game".

There have been two major stories in the electronic entertainment news over the last couple of days. Or at least two big ones that Google has pointed me to.

The first is the oh-so-shocking announcement that, what with the release of GTA San Andreas, Doom 3, Half Life 2 and a new Leisure Suit Larry game, this is a bumper year for sex and violence on the computer screen. This is a priori a bad thing, of course, and a sign of the evil things our kids are getting up to.

Children play games, you see.

Except that buried two thirds of the way down some of these articles is the embarrassed admission that the average age of the computer game player is something like 29. Computer games are adult entertainment1 now, and we shouldn't exactly be surprised that adults want the same sort of things out of games as they do out of movies.

The second piece of news was the release of JFK Reloaded an attempt to simulate the precise circumstances of the assassination of John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald (the game is based on the assumption that Oswald did it). The hue and cry over the game's release has been predictable.

Traffic, the Glaswegian company behind the game, did a lot of things wrong PR-wise, but their biggest mistake was giving their simulation a hokey name, and calling it a "computer game".

If a major TV network were to air an advertisement tomorrow for a new documentary on Kennedy's assassination, nary an eyelid would be blinked. Ditto if they promoted that "through state of the art technology, we have been able to simulate the precise conditions of that fateful day, and prove that Oswald could have been the killer." Ditto if said simulation involved a 3d fly-through of the trajectory of each bullet.

You can't package that simulation for everyone, though. Democratise the documentary so that anyone can attempt the reconstruction themselves (offering a prize for the person who comes closest to proving Oswald could have done it), and pundits will be calling for your heads.

Because it's a computer game. Kids play games.

If you think about it, it's not much of a game, is it. There's one level. You get to fire at most three bullets, and then all you can do next is try again. The victory condition (making the shots exactly as described in the Warren Commission report) doesn't even make any sense from a gaming point of view. It's like writing a golf game where the aim is not to make the lowest possible score, but to reproduce a particular Greg Norman game down to the last stroke.

Its only real value, then, is as a simulation, an investigation of a particularly controversial historical event from a new angle.

(Then again, given the amount of time I've spent pushing simulated people down stairs, or clubbing penguins long distances, maybe the tolerance for such shallow and repetitive gameplay is greater than i think)

So we need a new word for "computer game". Preferably something short and unpretentious -- I don't want "simulated" this or "immersive electronic experience" that -- but without the baggage of the mental image of a thirteen year old kid playing Super Mario Brothers.

1 Admit it. You read "adult entertainment" and thought "porn". I dislike the way the word "adult" has been co-opted. Just once, I'd like the "Adult themes" disclaimer at the start of a TV show to mean that the program explores the nature of reality and the tragedy of existence, rather than just being a warning that someone might mention sex.

Previously: Beat Me Over the Head with that Punchline Again?

Next: December 3rd, 2004