Champagne, Model Ts & Yo

Papo & Yo comes out next week, as an exclusive download for the PSN. The “fantasy-adventure-puzzle-platformer” from Montreal-based Minority Games looks amazing and is attracting a ton of industry attention due to inventive gameplay and setting: a South American favela, complete with authentic regional graffiti. Creator Vander Caballero has stated that the premise is a fantastical representation of his childhood relationship with his father, who suffered from issues with addiction and unfolds in an environment markedly affected by poverty.

There’s no reason it shouldn’t be a day 1 success, and I can’t wait to play it, or watch someone else play it, given my attitude towards platformers.

Now the uncomfortable part.

It’s great that Sony took a risk on an untested premise, especially given their recent fiscal issues. The PlayStation 3 is an excellent platform to present the luminous, sun-drenched, kaleidoscopey style of the game, and because it was developed for release and distribution exclusively through PSN, it will probably play fairly seamlessly, too.

But even in the waning days of a console generation, with unannounced PS4s and Xbox720s looming over the 2013 horizon, a lot of contemporary gaming remains out of reach of a significant percentage of people, some found in favelas very similar to the one in Papo & Yo.

Does gaming have a class problem?

I honestly don’t have an answer.

I do think that a game like Papo & Yo is critically needed for children who are currently living in circumstances similar to Cabellero’s, and having their culture and experiences reflected back to them as valid grounds for both adventure and catharsis isn’t a luxury, but a right. Only in recent years has the European/Asian modern culture and ancient folklore that dominates much of gaming narrative and aesthetics slowly made room (very slowly) for other global perspectives, in a movement that could be described as ‘fledgling’.

After working in the industry for years, and making gaming a household entertainment priority for years before that, it was easy to forget that a majority of people don’t have “all the consoles” and concurrent Steam, Xbox Gold, and PSN accounts, or even wireless internet service. Or any internet service. We used to joke that owning just the Wii was “the mom’s choice,” because it was frugal and most of the games were child-and-grandparent-friendly (read: sanitized) while lamenting the shallow experience the console offered.

But the fact is, it is the most frugal choice. And for some households, even frugal is a struggle. And while there are dozens of phenomenal games that Wii owners of any age can play, very few look like Papo & Yo, and it’s not clear if they’ll get to play that any time soon, if ever.

It’s a millennial reality that numerous ‘gamers’, especially young ones with limited income, experience ‘gaming’ solely through casual money-sucks like Farmville or Draw Something, and that’s only if they have access to a computer or smart phone. What’s troubling about this is that it establishes tiers of experience, and, eventually, a stratification of cultural interaction that’s divisive in a way that other popular culture isn’t.

Movie tickets are pricey, but evenly priced. If I go to the theater, I won’t get charged five dollars more if I want to see Total Recall instead of Ted. Whether it’s in a big theater or viewing room, the projection—and the way I watch it—are pretty much the same. (Discounting 3D, which is optional.) And while cable television—especially premium channels and their programming—are expensive, the rise of streaming networks are making it more affordable. Add that to the fact that, more than a half-century after televisions became an expected household appliance, it’s difficult to find even a struggling household without one.

But a television (or at least a screen) is a prerequisite for playing most video games. A console or computer, internet service and the game itself all add to the final price, which is significantly more expensive than watching a year-old movie via Netflix for a few dollars a month. True, games go on sale. But dollar for dollar, playing video games is significantly more expensive than watching television or movies when you’re at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy.

This becomes an issue because the global culture is changing and being changed by the rise of video games. Increasingly, they’re moving into the space that was once dominated solely by movies and television (albeit slowly). Interactivity is considered an integral element to both entertainment and education, and purely passive experiences are diminishing in popularity.

There’s no reason why global entertainment shouldn’t be global, and reflect cultural experiences accordingly. There’s no reason that a person of almost any income should be barred from playing a game as a result of prohibitive pricing or distribution methods, any more than they would be prevented from listening to a song or watching a movie.

I’m aware that that previous paragraph sounds reactionary, naïve and simplistic. The cost of game development is anywhere from substantial to unsustainable. But while we have discussion after conversation after argument about violence or sexism or racism in games, we’re neglecting the uncomfortable reality that many (if not most) first world gamers are financially comfortable. And a good number of games reflect that reality, apocalyptic post-war future worlds notwithstanding.

This reads as an indictment, which I don’t intend. Or perhaps I do, but only to the industry at large. It’s frustrating that an exclusive distribution deal was signed, even though it probably allowed Papo & Yo to be completed in the first place. It’s frustrating that the PS3 remains one of the most expensive platforms on the market. It’s frustrating that this presents a higher barrier of entry to access games like Papo & Yo, creating a stratified gaming experience, and it’s incredibly ironic that players, especially kids, experiencing a life similar to Papo & Yo’s protagonist Quico might not be able to afford to play a game that reflects their own challenges and environment.

As I said before, I’m not indicting, accusing or condemning. I want Papo & Yo to come out, be a huge success, and for anyone who desires to have a chance to explore a world that may or may not be familiar to them. What I would like is for the industry as a whole to consider the breadth of games that we’re creating, their accessibility, and the scope of the world in which we sell them.

Agree with me? Don’t? I’d like to discuss this more, so feel free to comment below!

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