29 April 2010

Comparing video games to films - 3/4

You can read the first, second, third and fourth parts of this article.


During my research on the respective histories of early Gothic horror movies and early video games, I have noted several similarities and differences between the two media.

The earliest film of Human history was Roundhay Garden Scene in 1888. The earliest video game was the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device in 1947. Both have the same nanoscopic size in today's cultural literacy: aside from field experts or historians, no one knows about them. In 1902, ie 14 years after the first movie, Le Voyage dans la Lune was realized by Méliès. The movie stays notable and even praised in our modern society. More than a century after its release, Ebert even wrote the movie had artistry and imagination. Surprisingly, the video game released fourteen year after the first video game was ... Spacewar!. Some mention modern video games owe a lot to Spacewar!.

However, Steve Russell is much less famous than Georges Méliès. Ebert considers games are not art because Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. Could video games be more artistic if their authorial intentionality was stronger and more obvious? The Civilization series have not (yet) been considered artistic by Ebert, although the name of their designer, Sid Meier, is clearly associated to the title. The same way James Cameron (and not the actors) is mentioned on Avatar's poster.

The early video game industry seems to have been much more competitive and business-oriented than the film industry. For example, Atari and other companies were "inspired" by the Odissey to make their own home console. Hence in 1975, Magnavox started filling lawsuits against everyone. I do not think such a hard competition happened between early film makers.

Moreover, while the first movies were not much more than recorded theater plays, the first video games were geeky electronic hacks. Tennis for two had been created to attract people to the exposition. It seems many console companies jumped at the chance of copying Odissey just to make money. Moreover, computer game developers of the 1970's such as Don Daglow were just writing games for each other for fun. These approaches differed a lot from the clearly artistic approaches taken by the early movies of the 10's or 20's.

Video games are seeking legitimacy

In September 2008, Steve Gaynor, a game designer, formulated what legitimacy was: a broad cultural relevance to the lives of the general population. In other words, it is not exactly whether video games as a whole have an impact on society at large (financially and so forth) but whether content of the medium itself is relevant to, say, your grandmother. Did Battlezone or Centipede speak to her personal experience?. He gave another illustration when he mentioned that a senator villifying [sic] video games to get his name on people's lips means that the medium is divisive. It also means that the works themselves are completely irrelevant to the senator as pieces of entertainment or expression, or else he'd be enjoying and defending them.

Leigh Alexander asked in April 2009: aren't the cultural and practical differences between film and games so broad that it's useless to analogize? Later in November, she detailed her point: repeatedly raising Kane is amateurish and useless. It's self-defeating shorthand for what Bogost and Wasteland correctly identify as the real desire: legitimacy for games. Matthew Wasteland (a gamer/game critique) formulated the real issue behind the Citizen Kane effigy: people want games that will artistically legitimize them to everyone who doesn’t play them. Eric Swain paraphrased that the "Citizen Kane of games" buzz is about gamer's insecurities and wanting a title to point to that everyone [society] will recognize, though may not have played, as art like Citizen Kane. They [gamers] want that so they wont feel insecure when they talk about thier [sic] hobby. The whole question has nothing to do with intellectual stimulation.

Bogost argued that the artistry of a media can not be established as it used to be half a century ago: Legitimacy has become distributed, a mesh. Indeed, video games are not movies, and the social context has changed a lot between the establishment of film legitimacy and video games birth. With the recent social changes in mind, Lafarge gave in the second paragraph of WINSIDE OUT several areas of change that she thought made games metamorphosing into a richly expressive medium:

  • the convergence of games with fiction and art
  • shifts in representation and the deployment of information in games
  • the assimilation of a filmic first-person point of view
  • the growth of a culture of cheating and hacking
  • rethinking of the win-lose dichotomy
  • the development of immersive role-playing and emergence of cooperative relationships as central to game play

Read the fourth part.

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