Saturday, May 28, 2005

Maybe I Should Buy a Black Beret...

Here’s something you may not know about me. I’m a pretty hardcore gamer. (Or at least I was until my move the US relegated me to this steam-powered computer).

Anyone who saw any of the E3 coverage this year will know that gaming has, in the past few years, jumped from the domain of geeks and nerds, and has firmly planted itself in the mainstream world.

Computers are officially cool.

However, I read an article today that summed up the overall public attitude towards computer games. It was an interview with some up himself movie producer who, when asked what he thought of computer games coming into the mainstream, said, “Games are just games…movies are art.”

It annoyed me. It really did. Maybe this was true 15 years ago, but have you played any games lately? Look at the sheer production values on a game like ‘Halo’ or the ‘GTA’ series.

Halo, in particular, has all the looks, production values, special effects, audio and story of a blockbuster movie, yet to most people ‘it’s only a computer game.’ Just because it takes place on a computer, instead of on the silver screen or in the pages of a book…it’s simply dismissed. It’s ‘just a game’.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I do believe that some video games can be classed as art, but I’m not talking about Picasso or Da Vinci…not yet. But if TV and Movies are art, so are video games.

I think the main reason that computer games have problems being accepted, is that the people who don’t play them don’t understand them…at all.

What’s to understand? You move you little spaceship and it shoots the other little spaceships.

Maybe 15 years ago.

I think I truly understood how little non-gamers know about games the day I was playing ‘Knockout Kings’ against my brother. My Mother, who didn’t like that we had hijacked the big TV, started to ask questions of the ‘What do you see in this?’ variety. After explaining for 5 minutes she started to understand a little. Then she asked the question:

“Can the result change every time?”

That, right there, is the point that non-gamers miss. They think games are a simple matter of sitting in front of a screen and pushing a button and the game plays out. It’s just not like that. They don’t seem to understand interactivity.

For example, One so-called expert on TV said that he thinks that children are spending too much time ‘watching computer games’. That’s the problem; we’re not ‘playing’ computer games, apparently we’re ‘watching’ them.

That’s like saying you get into your car and ‘watch’ it drive you to work every morning. It’s like me watching you play football, and assuming everything is choreographed, the result is already predetermined, and you’re running around like a headless chicken for no reason.

Interactivity, reflexes, lateral thinking. That’s what games are about. When you play a game, you play to see what happens next. It’s like a movie, but you’re in control. What actually happens in the story depends on you. To me that’s much more rewarding that simply watching a movie. Why watch a WWII movie, when you can take part in one?

That’s the other thing non-gamers miss when it comes to games…the story.

Now stories in games can be a little sketchy. More than a few games have a story that is simply a quick explanation of why you have to blow all those heads off, or collect all those gems, or solve all those puzzles. In other words “Bad guy ‘a’ has done ‘b’, this is bad and you have to stop it. On the other hand, the same is also true of a lot of books and movies. Anyone who’s seen ‘Rambo’ can attest to that. Lots of explosions and shooting, but little in the way of story.

However, there really are some truly fantastic story-based games out there. Stories that actually get you emotionally involved. Unreal, Max Payne, Halo, Wing Commander V, Jedi Outcast. I could go on for days. If I’m playing ‘Halo’, I’m not playing for the joy of shooting people…I’m playing to see how the story plays out, to see the next twist, to uncover the next link in the chain that makes sense of what happened earlier.

Games are the difference between watching a mystery, and actually trying to solve a mystery. Instead of reading a whodunit book and trying to guess who did it, you conduct your investigation. The difference between watching a WWII movie and hoping the hero survives, and being the hero in a WWII movie, and trying to survive.

Non-gamers lump all games in the ‘twitch based’ style of games that where popular in the 1980s. You know, Pong, Space Invaders, Pac Man etc. While these are, in my opinion, great games, they don’t involve much in the way of thinking. Modern games do.

To the non-gamers, let me give you an example of a scenario that features in one of my favorite games. ‘System Shock 2.’

In this game you actually have to ‘train’ for skills. The more you complete the more ‘experience points’ you get. These points are then spent on which skills you choose to specialize in. This is an important part of the game. It closes and opens options in the game for you. The easiest way to explain it is in real life terms. IE, what you study in college and what interests you pursue, affects your life further down the road.

So say in the game you’re faced with a door that has a gun turret in front of it that you have to get past. You have a choice. You can go in ‘Rambo’ style and attempt to destroy the turret before it gets you. You can go and find a computer terminal, so you can try to hack the turret and turn it off. You can just leave and try to find an alternate route. You can trick an enemy into going to the door before you, and slip past while the turret attacks him. You can go and find something to use as a shield.

The options are endless, and every option has pros and cons. There are good and bad ways to tackle a problem, but there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do it. (Apart from one that gets you killed).

The complexity doesn’t stop there either. Remember those ‘experience points’? Whatever skills you decided to learn will seriously affect what you can do in the game. You may be able to find a terminal to hack the turret…but are you skillful enough to hack it? Or will you just set the alarms off? You can run in Rambo style, but are you good enough with that gun?

There’s your ‘mindless’ computer game. In fact, recent studies have shown that computer games are actually good for you. Not only do you get the benefit of hand-eye coordination and dexterity, it helps you develop lateral thinking, objective management, all sorts of things.

Don’t believe me? Well try ‘Sim City’. That’s a game where you have to…you guessed it, build and run a city. Do you have enough power? Coal powered generators are cheap, but they cause more pollution that the more expensive gas powered ones. Have you remembered to get water to all your houses? Is your transport system adequate? Are taxes to low or too high? Enacting that clean air ordinance will cut down on pollution, but will it drive away industry? Building that casino will mean more money, but will it attract crime? Taking the contract to build a high security jail will bring in cash, but who will want to live next door to it? Don’t forget, everything costs money, and annoy your population enough and they’ll riot.

In other words, you have to design and run a city…literally. How is that mindless?

I will, however, be fair here. Some games are just button mashing, purely ‘twitch based’, needing very little thought at all…but the same is true in any media. Think of it. You can have your important, mind expending media experiences, like watching a good play, reading a good book etc, or you can go and see ‘Charlie’s Angels’ or ‘Rambo’.

Now before anyone decides I’m a moron who ‘wastes my time’ playing computer games, who is desperate to validate his little hobby as meaningful, let me state I’m not a ‘Games good, books bad’ person. I have a degree in language and literature, and I absolutely adore reading. I’m not an idiot, I have a 140 IQ.

But that brings me to my next point. The usual comment from the annoyed parent is “Stop wasting you time with that computer game, go read a book!”

Let me say this right off. Books can be just as mindless and stupid as any computer game. Trust me, I’ve read a lot of them. However, the mainstream viewpoint is that if it’s written down, on paper and bound together in book form, it’s automatically worthwhile and intellectually stimulating.

This type of thinking goes so far that any electronic media, such as the internet, is considered a waste of time. Germaine Greer stated in an interview that ‘You can’t think on the internet’ and she’s considered an ‘intellectual’. An ‘intellectual’ who decided to dismiss the most important information service of all time out of hand.

In my opinion, that’s just a case of ‘I don’t understand it, so therefore I’ll call it stupid and dismiss it’.

As you know from some of my past posts, I have commented on the weird and pointless stuff out there on the Internet…but there’s lots of good stuff out there too.

However, for some reason, reading off a screen is a waste of time, but reading off paper is always a good thing…However, anyone who reads a lot will tell you that that just isn’t true. Try reading anything published by ‘Mills and Boon’. Throw in a man, a woman, a European city and about 15 euphemisms for penis, and you’ve got a Mills and Boon novel. Entertaining for some, of course…but is it art?

I mean I’ve read some awful stuff, I mean truly awful. The kind of book you read and wonder which moron read it and decided it was worth publishing.

It doesn’t end with books. Movies can be just as bad. Take ‘Pearl Harbor’ for instance. This is a film about one of the most important events in recent history. It should have been great. However, the movie consisted of one impressive, CGI heavy attack sequence that someone had tacked a little love story to. It also seemed to last about 18 hours. You get visions of someone making that attack sequence, showing it to a movie exec, and the exec saying: “I like it, get some good looking guy and a hot girl, throw a love triangle in there and we’ve got a hit. Screw the story…we’ll put a 5 minute glimpse of the attack sequence in the trailer, and let people know Ben Affleck is in it, and people will go and see it no matter how crappy it is!”

Yet movies and books automatically attain art status.

In fact, even ‘art’ sometimes isn’t art. Take the 2002 (I think) Booker prizewinner. What was her ‘art’?

An unmade bed.

I know that art means different things to different people, and one person’s trash is another person’s art, but that unmade bed struck me as a complete and total piss take. It’s a case of ‘Do some really off the wall shit, and no one will tell you its crap because they’ll be afraid that everyone else will like it and laugh at you for not ‘getting it’.

Apparently, if I sat naked on a mound of sand and flung my own poop at people while singing the theme from ‘Batman’ at the top of my voice…I’d be in contention for the Booker prize. If you call me an idiot, I just tell you that you’re the idiot for not getting ‘my art’.

This is the crux of the matter, the thing I don’t understand. ‘Pearl Harbor’ is art, a sheep cut in half and pickled in formaldehyde is art, putting saffron colored arches every 10 feet around the walkways of central park is art.

Computer games aren’t. Despite the fact that they can have stories that rival the Hollywood blockbusters. Despite the fact that the artwork and design can be staggering. Despite the fact that they actually put you in the story and let you affect the outcome. Despite the fact that computer games can make you emotionally involved with your character, make you laugh yourself silly, or scare the living crap out of you.

Computer Games are not art.

My question is:



SL said...

Excellent piece. Brilliantly argued. I have but one question: who cares?

Computer games=art? Seriously, who cares? There are those who see the benfits of games and those who don't. Those in the latter camp dwindle every year.

Games have there place and that place grows like a Sim City. That's good enough for me.

Oh, and:

"Throw in a man, a woman, a European city and about 15 euphemisms for penis, and you’ve got a Mills and Boon novel."

Stealing lines from 'Friends'...tut tut... ;o)

Paulius said...

Well in answer to who cares...the answer is me, obviously, as well as the few million gamers and game designers who have a valid art form relegated to 'silly' status.

As for the friends quote, you caught me. I knew I'd got that from somewhere...just couldn't remember where

Paulius said...

Also, Games=Art isn't really the point.

My point was that Games=Complete waste of time with no redeeming features completely wrong

SL said...

My point was that Games=Complete waste of time with no redeeming features completely wrong

And with that, I have no argument.

Anonymous said...

Gaming Widow ??
My husband is a real gamer - PS2, X-box, gamecube, 2 PC's. I could have ended up a gaming widow, but haven't. I normally sit in same room & read but there is many a time I stop reading & watch him playing the game. It's interesting, it's like watching a movie a times - plus gets you a bonus point for taking an interest - as long as you don't distract them at any crushal point.

Kato said...

Excellent post, I totally agree. I think it comes down the fact that non-gamers will never understand games or what we gamers find so enthralling about them. It is totally outside their understanding (though that's not to say they couldn't understand it with some effort) and thus seemingly deserves no merit.

You made some very good points about games as an art form. Story is certainly one good example. There have been many games I've played where the story totally sucked me in and the universe was alive for me (ex. "Deus Ex", "Max Payne", "Half-Life 2"). I played not only because it was fun but because I wanted to experience more of the story, find out what happens next, etc., just like in a movie or a book. Another aspect that doesn't get much credit, which should qualify it for art status, is the art itself in the games. Art direction has come a long way in video games and there is some fabulous work out there. Half-Life 2's near-future post-alien invasion Earth is gorgeous, as is Far Cry's lush tropical jungle and island paradise, and even games like the MMORPG World of Warcraft have been praised (by us, at least) for its vibrant colors and unique art design. Sound work, too, in many games can be exceptionally well done, as can voice acting (for instance, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic).

Games now have the budgets and resources rivalling the movie industry and at this point can pull in profits in excess (see Halo 2). And just as there are comedy, drama, romance, and just plain action films, so too are there a variety of gaming experiences.

The respect isn't there yet, but it seems like games and gaming will eventually overcome that stigma. Of course, do we really want to share our passion with the rest of the world?

Paulius said...

Kato asked the question 'Do we really want to share our passion (games) with the rest of the world?'

Well, yes and no. Yes, because true mainstream acceptance means one More money equals higher budgets, equals better games (in the most part).

The only problem with that is when big business gets involved, control is taken from the artist and given to the bean-counting suit who understands nothing about the industry.

I'll be happy when big business is writing the checks, as long as creative control stays in the hands of people like id software, Sid Mier...and the sadly missed Interplay.

I saw an interview on G4 where a games company was taken over by bean counters. The previous owner was constantly forced to justify every expense and said every say he heard things like "Do we really need this, it's only a game!"

"It's only a game."

The very thing I'm fighting against.

Games are truly blowing up right now. Only time will tell if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Paulius said...

Just remembered something...about what you said about art direction in games, which truly highlights the attitude to the industry.

Back in the 80's when the movie 'Tron' was released, despite the fact that it was the first use of CG in the movies, and despite the fact it was truly was not nominated for any award for special effects.


It was done on a computer, therefore didn't count as 'real' art or special effects.

Mainstream acceptance of computer based special effects led to some groundbreaking movies (Jurassic Park, The Matrix etc).

Lets hope mainstream acceptance of games leads in the same direction

Anonymous said...

Good article, but I think you'll find that the Booker prize is for books. Tracey Emine's "Bed" won the Turner prize.

Her ex-boyfriend, a "performance artist", showed up at the Tate with a buddy one day, and made his own art by having a pillow fight on it. Apparently, it cost several thousand to rearrange it again into the correctly "unmade" state for which Trace had originally been paid.

But, then, art's expensive. If you charged thousands of pounds, or sold hundreds of tickets, before throwing poop at people, then it might just become a contender for the Turner prize. If you did it in your backyard for free, you'd probably be arrested (as was Tracey's ex).