30 April 2010

Comparing video games to films - 4/4

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

TL;DR. There is no sense pursuing the Citizen Kane of games. Video games are a promising medium as diverse as films. Like other recent entertainments/media/arts/disciplines, it is trying to find its place in society.

The CKoG Chimera

A gamer wrote that no game deserves a comparison to any movie any more than any movie deserves a comparison to any game. Leigh Alexander wanted the comparison with Citizen Kane to stop. So did game publisher Boesky when he wondered how long a medium can survive if it measures its success primarily against another media.

One can not ask a whole industry (and many of its consumers) to stop talking about "the Citizen Kane of games". The game industry, gamer culture, and society more broadly, are more or less unconsciously waiting for the perfect artistic game example that will legitimize the medium. Let us call this game CKoG and suppose it could exist. Before CKoG, video games were basic geek hacks, just "for fun". In the popular mind, CKoG would demarcate the "art" era from the "hack" era.

But legitimacy has become distributed... So maybe we should stop pursuing the CKoG chimera. Maybe video games should not "compare to" films, but rather simply "look at" them. I explain below why it should be done, and how.

A promising medium as diverse as films

In comparing their stories to film or book stories, video games set the highest possible standard. Lafarge already believed in 2000 that the stories found in games were evolving: the fact that games are moving beyond simple happy endings is another signal of emerging maturity in the form. Lafarge actually stated that the stories found in Myst or Dungeons and Dragons are as complex and detailed as the book or film stories. Borut Pfeifer, a game developer, mentioned in February 2008 that games still have much more to achieve as a medium.

How emotions are conveyed in games could be improved in looking at how movies do it. Game publisher Boesky noted that The Citizen Kane reference is interpreted to apply only to emotional aspects, and not the unique attributes of our medium. Obviously, games are not movies, and trying the exact same approach as movies does not always work. I rather suggest comparing games to movies at least for the way movies convey emotions. Many other aspects of video games could be improved when put in parallel with proven film techniques such as lightings, shots and special effects. Copying movies for what they are only leads to interactive movies, which is not what video games want to be.

Jane Pinckard, a game businesswoman, said in April 2010 that other movies than Citizen Kane convey emotions better: I really don’t care about the Citizen Kane of games I want the Pride and Prejudice of games!. A blogger (gamer?) posted: Citizen Kane [...] is by no means the most important movie to define cinema. Birth of a Nation defined the epic. Metropolis might be the first sci-fi/dystopian vision. Safety Last could be the first high-concept comedy. Seeking the “Citizen Kane” of games is a silly endeavor because you should be seeking not one but several video games that redefined the genre in some manner.

There are maybe as many video game genres as film genres. Action, adventure and sport are genres shared by the two media, but certainly horror movies have been inspiring survival/horror games. Certainly interesting new game genres could emerge from film genres, and vice-versa. Can you imagine strategy movies? If yes, then Seven Samurai by Kurosawa might be a precursor. Were they inspired by the family film genre, game designers could open up a huge casual game market.

Trying to find its place in society

Game designer Steve Gaynor wrote in September 2008 that great games are almost always hidden under the juvenile veneer of big guns, tanks, zombies, robots and so forth. He stated that games and comics both remain marginalized, infantilized media and he bet that fifty years from now they'll be just as mature and well-respected as comic books are today (that is to say, not much). Iroquois Pliskin considered this to be the Nightmare scenario: Games are a young medium with a lot of potential-- maybe even a greater porential [sic] than comics-- but they've been shoehorned into catering into the narrative and experiential needs of the teenage male. But like many gamers of my age and tastes, I hope for a future where video games break out of the historical path laid out by comics. Chris Hecker's talk at MIGS in November 2009 relayed this issue to the industry when he envisioned three futures to games: respected like movies, "ghettoized" like comics, or "something different" that the industry still has to determine/build.

Games are not the only discipline looking for its place in society. Software engineering researchers are also trying to define what "designing software" exactly means. In The once and future focus of software engineering (2007), Taylor and Van der Hoek compared software design to civil engineering: Bridge design as it is today would not be as advanced without the careful study of past structural failures [...] How do we perform in software in this regard?. See also the whole section titled Directions From Looking Outside of CS. In A Future for Software Engineering? (2007), Osterweil stated The future of software engineering is in our hands, advocating for curiosity-driven rather than problem-solving-oriented software engineering research. As a game developer, are you being curious or are you just following trends? Are you innovative, or are you copying designs who have been proven to work? Do you want to increase your market share, gain public recognition or advance the state of the art?


For video games to become recognized in our society as art pieces, they need to be related (and compared) to other artistic media. Bogost went in this direction: video games will only be important when — and if — others can point to our medium — to particular examples of it — and locate moments of individual insight that mattered in their lives. Even Boesky recognized that: Rather than asking our students [in game developer school] whether the Citizen of Kane has been created, let's see the film school ask whether the Mario of film has been achieved.

The previous paragraph reveals how efficient Ebert's strategy can (involuntary?) be. In rejecting video games as less artistic than films, the famous film critique reduces their integration in society. Stating video games are not art is more efficient to limit their recognition than just not mentioning them. However, some game critiques are actually going in the opposite direction: they compare games to movies. Eric Swain identified that the story of Brutal Legend lacked one part (the Return) of the traditional three-part hero's journey.

Finally, gamers are also changing society from the inside. The former generation Y kids are now grown-ups. Some WoW players such as Larisa or Tobold recognized in April 2010 that middle-aged geeks are an increasingly important demographic for MMORPGs. Obviously, not everyone plays video games. But with gaming becoming more and more casual, an increasingly broader audience is being reached every day. Five years ago, I could find at least one person in any friend party who was playing video games. Nowadays, it is hard for me to find friends who do not play any video game. What will it be in 20 years?

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