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Are Video Games Getting "Dumbed Down?"

Updated on March 23, 2012

Historically Speaking

Source

Dumber and More Expensive?

To answer the question, we have to look at the history of video games. Starting with something simple like Pong, we can see that video games were extremely simple when they were first made. Even games like Pac Mac and Donkey Kong have simple gameplay concepts.

This doesn't mean they aren't good, it just means they were more rudimentary compared to games today.

In the 80's we started seeing more complicated concepts, similar to modern RPGs. Wizardry came out in 1981 and sold an "extremely successful" 24,000 copies (according to Wikipedia, so take that figure with a grain of salt).

At that point in time, video games were still a relatively obscure hobby for people who were capable of building their own computer (or buying a Commodore 64).

The 90's saw the release of many modern trends, like the invention of the FPS (Wolfenstein and DOOM); the perfection of graphic RPGs like Baldur's Gate, Ultima and many other aspects and genres of gaming that we've come to know and love.

This might be where most of the elitism against modern games comes from: Games from the time were hard, and not just in terms of in-game difficulty. User interfaces were clunky. Level design might force players to backtrack across levels to find a certain NPC or the red key card. This was one of the reasons Half-Life 1 was such a breath of fresh air in 1998: The player almost always knew where to go.

Today, gamer culture doesn't want to wait a few hours before they can "have fun." If the argument can be made that games are dumber, it could be made that movies are dumber. Compare the plot of Citizen Kane with the Dark Knight and you'll find that modern movies often strip out subtlety in favor of clarity. They're meant to appeal to a wider audience, and people don't like things they can't understand.

This isn't to say that the Dark Knight is better or worse than Citizen Kane; they're made to appeal to completely different generations of consumers. With this in mind, one can see that video games reflect this attitude.

There are only a handful of "mega publishers" in the world today. The rest have either sold out or went bankrupt because they couldn't find an audience for their game. Video games are a multi-billion dollar business, so companies are simply not going to invent in something that doesn't have mass appeal.

When people say that games are being "dumbed down," what they really mean is that many games are being made for consoles. This might result in fewer buttons to press. There are only sixteen on modern Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers as opposed to PC keyboards which can have over one hundred keys. Players will see a difference in the way menus and game interfaces are laid out, occasionally feeling limited.

The fact of the matter is that games are not getting dumber, they're getting more accessible. Most people don't realize that there are gamers significantly younger than they are, and younger gamers don't have the kind of patience and devotion to play something like System Shock 2 when they could be playing Bioshock. It's sad, but it's true.

Worse still, the attention span of audiences is much shorter than it was in gamers just fifteen years ago. Most people reading this article couldn't be bothered to read to the end of this paragraph, let alone this entire article.

We've seen a certain Call of Duty-fication of games recently, simply because Call of Duty is the latest 800-pound gorilla in the room. Companies have always emulated popular games. When Halo was new and popular, lots of games had two weapons and grenades.

In short: Business drives innovation but greed drives derivation. Games are not getting dumber, they're getting more derivative because it's a faster, safer way for companies to make money.

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    • j-u-i-c-e profile image

      j-u-i-c-e 5 years ago from Waterloo, On

      The format of the controller certainly has an impact on how games are designed, though I'm not entirely sure it's fair to compare Citizen Kane with the Dark Knight. You'd have to compare Citizen Kane to something like The King's Speech.

      The consensus on shortening attention spans which gets bandied about so much still seems a little fishy to me but I haven't done any research on it so I can't say it couldn't be a factor. Game designs and interfaces were certainly clunkier on average, which does add a sort of artificial challenge to the game. That's actually a big topic in the survival horror genre.

      I think there's another reason why games are being 'streamlined', though. Classic arcade games were designed to be tough to eat up quarters. There was a certain amount of prestige associated with ranking well in arcades, which drove players to play often to get as good as they could. You couldn't complain about a game being too challenging without other players making fun of you. It was a very different kind of culture. (I remember what it was like.)

      That same kind of competition still exists in some online multiplayer games, where it can be very hard for new players to get a foothold, but the majority of developers are more concerned about accessibility than challenge. That makes perfect sense when you think about it, because revenue isn't tied to how many times you can force a player to give you a quarter, but how many people will buy your game. Instead of one player putting in hundreds of quarters, you have to sell your game one time but to more people. Game companies have always gone after $ (they are a business, after all), it's just that the best way to go after $ has changed.

      The challenge facing developers now is retaining players. You can't retain them if your game becomes too easy because they've invested hundreds of hours in it and figured out all the best strategies. The solution is to design games with difficulty tiers that appeal deeply as well as broadly.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • JohnGreasyGamer profile image

      John Roberts 5 years ago from South Yorkshire, England

      I have to agree with J-u-i-c-e, especially on his last point about "you can't retain them if your game becomes too easy", and this is where my theory comes in:

      Games *are* being dumbed down, because developers know they can reach a wider audience by making objectives easier and simpler, and giving bigger rewards. On countless times I have stated (yet not on HubPages) that players are being rewarded for bad play.

      Now, I'm OK with the new guy on my team. I'm OK with him assisting me. But when other people go out of their way to attack that new player specifically, awarded XP or Accolades or weapons, whatever. When they do that, they're being rewarded for picking on someone with little experience. It's like playing a game of football when everyone else is in a wheelchair.

      Now, call me a fanboy of the old DooM days when - if you were stuck, you could boast about it - but seriously, it's a joke. These games are so easy that if I get stuck on a game, thinking its going to be hard but isn't, I'm going to look mentally disabled.

      The developers should start thinking about quality over quantity. If they don't, we'll have a video game crash every 2 years, instead of every 20.

    • William157 profile image
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      William157 5 years ago from Southern California

      In this strange case, I don't mind getting comments which run contrary to my points. All this feedback is great, and helps define the issues and solutions in a clear way.

      @JohnGreasyGamer: I'd be interested in reading a more in-depth explanation of how games have become dumbed down.

    • JohnGreasyGamer profile image

      John Roberts 5 years ago from South Yorkshire, England

      Sorry, I find it hard to talk about one subject without going on a tangent. What I mean is that players can just walk in a straight line to get to the finish, and not notice because the environments change. You look at map design for a DooM map, then look at some generic shooter today - enemy here, corridor there, cutscene. Enemy here, corridor there, cutscene. It's because people are blinded by all the shinies. If I'm at the stage where I'm comparing gamers to birds, we have a problem.

      Another reason is difficulty - if people are stuck, they go to the forums and rage. This then makes the loud minority make the company look bad, and they will force others not to buy their product. By reducing challenges, players can have a "fun" experience and get their money's worth. And this can keep being repeated.

      Repetitive storylines, objectives/quests and overused environments are more common than 10 years ago. Developers know that they can make money from little work, so they keep on doing it. Sorry, but I don't think I can word it any better ^^

    • William157 profile image
      Author

      William157 5 years ago from Southern California

      Just let me say, thanks for the feedback. This response isn't meant as a flame, but really a thought exercise on paper. If you feel I'm being mean, forgive me.

      What you've produced is a series of generalizations. Do you have any specifics in mind in regard to linearity and cutscenes? Because it sounds like you're talking about Call of Duty or the Battlefield 3 SP campaign. Some people prefer linear games to the non-linear ones, with the Gears of War games (or similar shooters) representing linearity and Far Cry, Skyrim, GTA and any Bethesda game representing a less rigid questing structure. Neither is right or wrong, and all are multi-million dollar behemoths from their respective developers.

      You spoke of a "generic shooter" blinding you with shinies. What constitutes a generic shooter? Some kind of average of several shooters put together? Movie tie-ins?

      As for gaming rage, I'm not sure this is true. Most games these days have difficulty that can be reduced while playing, and typically people don't go to forums to complains about the game being hard, but rather, the game being too easy. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning suffered from this just a month ago. Besides, some people expressly play games BECAUSE they want a challenge. See Dark Souls.

      Even if the difficulty isn't changeable from within the game, there is an endless supply of "Lets Play" videos on YouTube that will walk players through every level, puzzle and boss. If a player gets stuck, he can just find the video and find out where to go or what to do. Yes, there will always be whiners online, but I don't know if it's affecting anyone's decision to purchase.

      I know that when I'm thinking about purchasing a game, I read a few hundred forum comments, weeding the angry responses from the well-reasoned.

      You say that repetitive storylines, objectives and environments are more common than 10 years ago? I disagree. 10 years ago was 2002, when we got games like Morrowind and Dungeon Siege 1. Morrowind is comparable to Skyrim in how often things like dungeons repeat tilesets, and Dungeon Siege 3 had extremely varied environments compared to the samey forests and ice caves in DS 1.

      Plus, Warcraft 3 came out that year, which I played every day for one year. Even Christmas day.

      As for the repetitive storylines, being ordered to kill 10 rats is a tired trope, and you're right to point it out. But pop culture today has grown EXTREMELY good at identifying tropes and twists. Go to TVtropes.com and look up a movie or game you like. There is nothing new under the sun, and so gamers are suitably hard to surprise. This is a quirk of culture, not necessarily of video games.

      Sit down and write the basic beats for five different quests that don't share something in common with existing stories or video game goals. Now imagine writing three or four hundred of those. It's MUCH harder than it looks, as anyone who's written a D&D campaign can tell you.

      Worse still, it's even harder to think up goals that are doable in an MMO engine that still have a strong narrative. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has recently done a bang-up job of really coloring mission objectives. The same goes for The Old Republic. No matter how dressed up the story is, the gameplay is still going to boil down to "go to X place and kill Y creatures" or "click on 15 clickables in the environment."

      This isn't a result of being dumbed down, this is a constraint of the MMO genre. In things like Skyrim we start to see more original goals like "lure someone to this alter and then kill them" or "break into this house and plant false evidence in this person's cabinet" because the engine allows this. The engine was MADE for this kind of questing.

      As for overused environments, this is a simple issue of budget and time. Unless you're working for Blizzard or Valve, game developers are under strict deadlines. Reusing game assets (which I also find annoying), is the best way to expand content and hopefully keep people from beating it in three hours, which they still often will.

      Dang, I think I just wrote a response longer than my original hub.

    • j-u-i-c-e profile image

      j-u-i-c-e 5 years ago from Waterloo, On

      These are great comments! And yes, William, that reply is actually better than your original hub! :P It's eloquent and passionate. You might want to see if you can work some of these details into the hub itself. Not everybody will read the comments, which in this case, would be a shame.

    • JohnGreasyGamer profile image

      John Roberts 5 years ago from South Yorkshire, England

      Read, and approved. Just that I don't have enough time right now to answer all the questions you mentioned. Though I do like your point on Dark Souls and being made to be difficult - that I remember the most. ^^

    • profile image

      Myself 4 years ago

      My frustration lies in the oversimplification of the graphic designs of characters and environments in games. There is less interest in developing believable characters and storylines. Now there is a mega-corporate push to force all gamers to play games online only or don't buy and play their games at all. I think I'll go with the latter. I used to be a better person back when I had outdoor hobbies. Sunlight, baseball, fishing, camping, making friends... man I miss those days.

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