Recently an anthology of comics by Asian Americans came through the C&G office, and I got the opportunity to read through it for review.
There were no surprises here; the stories showed off a variety of interests, a wide variety of artistic styles and skills, and generally proved once again just how fertile the ground of the comic medium is. And that’s when I realized that comics and games have been moving in very different directions over the years. As comics have matured, the variety and genre of comics available has exploded, but for games, it’s been narrowing down primarily to the contemporary military first person shooter, and 3rd person shooter variants of the same. Why is this happening?
I’m of the mind that where this divergence is occurring is not actually a divergence at all, but merely a difference in the ages of the two respective media. Comics—and by this, I’m talking about the North American scene—have been around since the 30s. That’s nearly 80 years for the medium to flourish, go through highs, lows and various permutations and evolutions. Games have only really been around as a cultural phenomenon since the 70s, so games are roughly half the age of comics.
Here’s the part where it gets interesting. Comics themselves went through a similar phase to games, but they did it decades ago, and actually remained that way for a very long time. While Japanese and European comics tackled a wide variety of different subject matter and stories, American comics enjoyed their first great success with the superhero. Batman, Superman, all the other tights and capes heroes that we know today enjoyed mass appeal with the Depression-era audience of children, and as a result, they pandered to that audience all the way up into the 80s. That’s nearly 50 years of having a dominant genre—the superhero—with occasional flare ups of other genres such as romance, Western and even military, but the superhero consistently remained at the forefront of the industry.
Then, in the 80s, something happened. A convergence of ideas and talented people crashed into the scene. People like Alan Moore and Frank Miller were changing the way we perceived the superhero, while others like Neil Gaiman and Jamie Delano were avoiding superheroes entirely in “mainstream” comics. Meanwhile, independents like Dave Sim with Cerebus and Wendy Pini with Elfquest were getting more and more recognition for their early efforts in the 70s that continued into the new decade. Even the Japanese comic, the manga, was slowly beginning to infiltrate readership as Studio Proteus, the brainchild of Canadian Toren Smith, translated works like Appleseed and Akira to bring them to unexposed audience of the west. Comics, which up until this point had been relying almost entirely on the adolescent male audience that wanted only tights and capes, could now appeal to different tastes, from the Japanese cyberpunk speculations of Akira to the more internal, metaphysical wanderings of Dream in The Sandman, and all points in between. Now there are comics for children, comics for women, comics for fans of science fiction, comics for fans drama and romance and of course, comics for guys that still want to see super-powered people in tights pounding each other in the face.
Games started out on the opposite track. Part of that is probably because of a profound difference in technology.
In the beginning realistic graphics—unlike the case with comics—was far out of the question. The first “heroes” or protagonists in games were tanks, squares or in the case of Pac-Man, a chomping mouth. As a result, games forced the developers to use their—and the player’s—imaginations for some wild permutations, like the insectile hero of Yar’s Revenge or the robot probe of Microsurgeon. Games challenged the player to do everything from start up a business in space with M.U.L.E. to playing a bumbling, aspiring pirate in The Secret of Monkey Island. But as the technology became more impressive, the graphics more realistic, and the audience less niche, games gradually whittled down popular genres until we are left with a single, dominant genre/game and that is the contemporary military first person shooter. The former widespread variety of genres has dwindled in the last 10 years. Yes, there are still fighters, RPGs and even 3rd person action games, but they are marginal in terms of sales and public awareness compared to the vast space carved out first by Halo and ultimately dominated by Call of Duty.
The reason for that is simple. Right now, there is one dominant genre because there is one dominant audience, or at least the industry perceives this to be the case right now. In the same way that for decades comics were focused largely at teen boys with fantasies of escape from reality through fighting for justice in tights with superpowers, games are now focused at young, disenfranchised men with fantasies of being in an elite unit that shoots at a lot of Russians. For justice.
This obviously cannot last forever. The casual audience—however briefly—showed Nintendo that there is money to be made beyond the teenage or college male. And manga proved that it was possible to grab an audience that American comics thought were unreachable, the female demographic. But in order for this shift to occur on a large scale, games will have to reach the same place that comics reached in the 80s. They have to get desperate. Desperate enough to experiment. It was the dwindling sales of comics that finally made the companies cater beyond their comfortable, familiar audience, and right now, with Call of Duty: Black Ops II set to break yet more records for any entertainment medium, the games industry has no good reason to be daring and experimental right now.