Gearbox's Pitchford On Gaming's Grown-Up World: There's No 'Line' To Cross
["If our medium is art, how could there be a line?" Gearbox Software CEO Randy Pitchford tells Gamasutra, addressing the role -- and potential responsibility -- of gaming content within a broad entertainment landscape.]
The video game space just gets bigger and bigger, its relevance finally impossible to ignore in the wider entertainment media landscape. While you'd think this means the days of seeing mature-themed video games as fodder for evening news warning bulletins are over, sometimes it seems the lens of scrutiny is on game content more intently than ever.
And strangely, this cultural heyday for games as a sophisticated and socially-acceptable medium comes with some odd signifiers: The joyful recidivist gore of Bulletstorm is one example, but there's none so blatant as the upcoming launch of Duke Nukem Forever, almost a decade and a half awaited.
Duke's world of big explosions, 90s action cliches and bikini babes seems almost all the more anachronistic in context.
It raises a striking question: Now that "we" have the spotlight, what, if any, responsibility do we have for our content and how it's perceived?
It's one thing for developers to say they're making games that act as self-expression or that represent the kinds of games they themselves would most enjoy playing; it's one thing for gamers to say that games are just for fun. But what signifies the sophistication of a medium: Its content diversity, or the highest common denominator?
"We are in an interesting time right now," Randy Pitchford, CEO of DNF developer Gearbox Software, told Gamasutra when we asked him that very question. "Video games have created the largest generation gap in the history of all entertainment on earth."
He likens it to the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s and '60s: "The older generation thought rock and roll music would bring about the downfall of a generation. They banned 'Louie Louie' because they thought it would corrupt the youth -- and they couldn't even understand the lyrics."
And yet even that particular musical generation gap had something of an advantage: "At least they understood what music was, and they might not approve of that [rock and roll] concept, but at least they thought that music had value," reflects Pitchford. "We have evolved a bit since then, but it's interesting because [video games] do have a much larger generation gap."
It's true that most of what Pitchford calls "the older generation" -- which includes modern policy-makers -- were born and grew up in an era that preceded video games altogether. But today's young people have been brought up in a world where video games have always been an option among a wide range of entertainment choices.
"I read a study that suggested that 95 percent of school-age children prefer video games over all other forms of entertainment -- books, music television, film, everything," says Pitchford. "And now if you take the same survey of people around the age of 90, you'll probably find the inverse -- and they're afraid of them."
"So we have this ginormous generation gap, but it'll go away, because we will get older -- and as gamers get older, they keep playing games. Soon we'll have a president who has a Gamertag. And every news anchor will have a Gamertag," he adds.
But in this wide new world, are there limits to the content game developers are producing, as realism and extremism marches on? "I don't actually think that the evidence supports that video games are becoming more violent or irreverent," Pitchford disputes. The humor and content of DNF "is actually the same stuff that was in Duke Nukem 3D," he adds.
"Is there a line [to cross]? If our medium is art, how could there be a line?" he suggests. "How could we allow there to be a line, and who gets to decide what the line is? That's a very slippery slope -- there should not be a line."
Unrestricted creativity and expression are not necessarily at odds with the concerns some still may have about content, however: "We do care about developing minds," Pitchford emphasizes. "We do care about the difference between children and adults, and all of us should."
The fact that the industry's ratings system is more effective, in Pitchford's view (supported by some research) than that of other entertainment media helps, he says: "It's much easier for someone under the age of 17 to sneak into an R-rated movie than it is for them to get into an [M-rated] video game," he says.
"And once we're in the realm of adult stuff, really, we're going to be a society that draws a line?"