Theorizing Video Games


Benjamin Lee

Opinions Editor

Video games are an untapped source of study for one to understand the evolution of our media. Certainly, there are a small number of courses offered at UC Santa Barbara that are focused on video games: writing professor Christian Thomas and English professor Jeremy Douglass teach the design, theory, and possibilities of video game narratives (in two unique directions) with WRIT 105M and ENGL 146GB, respectively; computer science professor Richert Wang hosts a video game design course for non-majors at the College of Creative Studies under course code CMPTGCS 20; and, for those more adept at programming, electrical & computer engineering professor Pradeep Sen leads students all-in with ECE 194M. Yet, with a film and media studies department that leans more so into theoretical over artistic or otherwise creative analysis of media, why are we continuing with such a dearth of theory-based study specifically focusing on the video game medium at this research institution?

The North American film industry provides a glimpse into the video game industry. Consider, beyond the indie film space, the overall reluctance of major studios to fund new intellectual properties (IPs) or potentially genre-defining works; few are the special works we hear that reach mass audiences. IndieWire reports that the John Wick franchise, which now defines our understanding of “gun-fu” (a blend of “gun” and “kung fu”), struggled to find a studio to back production of its first film. Not many filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Christopher Nolan have the industry support to create film for film. As such, films that do find backing from major studios depend on either known IPs such as “Fast & Furious” or “Barbie” to feed into post-release commoditization or popular actors such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to assure audience attention. 

Major video game publishers, much like their film industry’s counterparts, want to feel safe with their investments. Such a desire is reflected in Xbox CEO Phil Spencer’s understanding of the current industry’s state, as discovered by Kotaku: “AAA publishers are milking their top franchises but struggling to refill their portfolio of hit franchises, most AAA publishers are riding the success of franchises created 10+ years ago.” Yet, the industry’s oligopoly continues its high-profile acquisitions with Sony acquiring Bungie at 3.6 billion USD in 2022 following Microsoft’s acquiring of ZeniMax Media for 7.5 billion USD in 2020. Game studios are hence justified to utilize a large financial moat to secure intellectual properties, new and old, with safe or non-innovative designs. Shawn Layden, Ex-CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, describes to Bloomberg’s Jason Schrier that disincentivized risk-taking increases funding toward singular design goals, which in turn reduces the desire for risk-taking. For instance, focused research and development on microtransactions better guarantees marketing success, engagement with consumer culture, and thus a return on investment. The issue is cyclical.

In this case, I think it’d be interesting to look at how companies and products from Japan are also affected by market trends and how this reflects cultural and technological development. One example is with Nintendo and their recent open-world games “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and “Pokemon Scarlet and Violet”. Pokemon is of particular note as the games are more so advertisements for the franchise compared to your normal video game. I would argue that the games have diverged from their past formula to increase alignment with current market trends. Is this change imitation or development? And, if it’s the former, can we expect innovation from imitation? “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” is certainly a great game in my opinion. However, in consideration of the entire gaming landscape, it’d seem as if game development directions have aligned to create the open-world genre the dominant canvas. Meanwhile, for other games, the homogenization of the medium perhaps speaks to an increase in commoditization of the product over the experience.

It is in video games that we see a narrowing of technical and cultural development. Such effects might be less significant if not for the fact that our entertainment leans increasingly toward interactivity as evident with virtual reality games in headsets and augmented reality games in mobile devices. And so, the diffusion of culture is ever more part-and-parcel with the diffusion of technology. In view of encroaching homogeneity in all aspects of video game development, it is important for students to understand not what video games are but rather what their current collective state is indicative of. In light of this aspect of cultural globalization, it has never been more important to understand how media development is dictated not just by the West but also by the stagnation of major corporations.


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