Monday, December 18, 2006

Video Games On Tape

In response to the idea that the length of recent blogs makes them difficult to respond to and comment on, I’m going to try something a little different for the next segment of discussions. I’m going to do one blog on one idea. So no “Thirty Year Old Art: II”, just some more issues that relate to part one, starting with one that I have a really hard time fitting into any other discussion very well.

As far as how people consume and interact with them, video games are an interesting combination of movies and books. This was really surprising to me when it came to light (thank you Stuart) because I'd always sort of assumed that video games were most similar to movies. My concept of a video game was basically a movie that was interrupted by gameplay, or a movie in which you controlled the action. The only similarity I saw to books was the fact that they had a story. But the way games are experienced, not just the way they look, is in fact very similar to how people read.

Obviously different kinds of games share different things with other art forms. Abstract puzzles have little in common with any narrative art. But for the most part, and especially in the post 8-bit video game era, games have taken on much of the visual style and appeal of manstream movies and video media of similar subject matter. For example, science fiction settings in video games tend toward the robots and lasers that mainstream film uses. Explosions, gunfights, highspeed chases, panoramic landscapes, shapely figures and dramatic camera angles have all worked their way into video games as the technology to create interesting images becomes cheaper and more accessible to developers. Especially as CGI becomes a staple for action/adventure movies, the visual style of movies becomes imitated by video games. Video games and movies always seem to be interwoven, as they make direct use of each other's subject matter and pump out movies of games or, much more often, games of movies. Direct inbreeding of the two media never seems to work though. I wonder why...

The fact of the matter is that video games and movies employ vastly different methods of engaging an audence. Movies, television, music, theater, painting and sculpture are all what I would consider arts which require passive participation by the viewer. The audience participates in their mind, relates to the work in a personal way and adds to the work by bringing their own perspective, but the art will continue whether or not the people are paying attention or even present. A person can zone out in a movie and the movie persists. This is not the case in either literature or video games. The art will only exist if the viewer actively invites it to. If you stop reading the book, the story stops. There can be no story without the abstract shapes being translated into meaningful ideas as they are read. Similarly, there can be no video game unless someone plays it. It is true that a person can zone out reading a book too, or absentmindedly play a game without any thought, but the disruption to the artwork in these instances is substantial and different from the way a person can passively observe a movie or listen to a song without focusing.

I think this may be something that turns people off to gaming the same way people sometimes get tuned off to reading. There is a significant amount of effort involved in each that is needed to get the information contained in the artwork. Books and video games require some imaginative input from the audience to be fleshed out in their entirety. In 8-bit and 16-bit RPG gaming especially there's a lot of imagination necessary to become immersed in the world. The graphics and dialogue are limited and beg the player to mentally fill in the dramatic and visual gaps to make the story come to life. Those who are willing to do this find themselves in wonderfully emotional and exciting stories. Those who aren't find a flat, unengaging series of electronic bleeps, pixellated bodies and simplistic dialogue. Obviously there's a lot of imagination that goes into reading a book too, since you can't actually see or hear anything you read. The images and ideas in a written story only exists in the mind of the reader.

Games also need some imagination and thought to complete at all. Decisions have to be made, puzzles need to be figured out, initiative has to be taken to get anywhere. That is of course the point of playing, but especially for non-gamer types, this may be too much to do for the sake of having a story told to them. In fact, in this respect games require more effort that books do. Video games are sort of a half way point, which sometimes makes them difficult for people to enjoy. They require more effort than just sitting and watching, and don't allow for as much imaginative oportunity as a book. I think this middle ground is also a reason some people love them so much.

The other really interesting parallel between video games and books that i think is worth mentioning is the fact that, more so than most other arts, video games and books require a vocabulary in order to be experienced at all. This is more true in books than in games. Obviously books require literacy, but more than that, books require understanding of the specific vocabulary that is being presented in the story. Many children would be considered literate are completely unable to read many books, despite their ability to pronounce the words on the page. Even many movies in a foreign language can be understood by what seems to be a fairly universal vocabulary of images. I know I can follow spanish telanovelas about as well as I probably could if I spoke spanish. Games require a vocabulary also. Games have commonalities in what's expected of the player, the sorts of solutions that will probably solve certain problems, how to control an object in the virtual world, etc. The best example of this is fighting games. Street Fighter II's quarter-circle-punch has been a staple in video game vocabulary since its inception. When a player new to the entire genre comes to the controls, the motion is completely alien and sometimes incomprehensible. Just the fact that video games require instruction manuals and training for each game shows how much of a vocabulary is require to experience the game. Both video games and books understand that this is a potential barrier between their art and the audience, so both have developed "media supplements" in the form of walkthroughs and line/cliff notes. These allow the art to be accessible to people who would otherwise pass it by due to a failure to develop the necessary vocabulary.

So there ya go. Books and Video games. Now, how do we get more old people to play video games...

(it's still pretty long isn't it...)


Anonymous said...

I think this similarity between books and games holds true on a lot of ground; a literature enthusiast can compare newer books to ideas presented in previous works of the same genre in the same way you can get hardcore gamers to compare new games with linear storylines and action to an old school side-scroller.

But maybe we can even go as far as saying that the size of the literature enthusiast demographic is about the same in proportion to that of video games? Think about how many avid readers you know compared to how many avid gamers you know. Is the percentile similar, maybe?

And if this is true in numbers, then why is the video game market so much more lucrative than that of literature? And why is it getting more attention?

And to bring up another dimension of this point, is the stigma against being a gamer similar to that of being literate? Hm...

Anonymous said...

Some very interesting thoughts, Evan. I thought it was cool how you pointed out that 8-bit and 16-bit gamers had to use their imaginations much more, but it made for a very vivid experience. I think that's the reason I remember FF4 much more fondly than say, FF9.

SnrIncognito said...

i think i would agree that the similarities between the media do breed similar lifestyles for those who enjoy them.

what this really lets us do is make comparisons about what will make a culturally valuable game, and what may limit video games, by asking those questions about books.

i think culturally influential books have a degree of universality to them, either in the type of story or the underlying message. this is somethign that video games have a hard time doing when they insist on using action/adventure subject matter. games like Guitar Hero and Katamari are surprisingly popular largely in part because of the fact that they make use of broad subjectmatter or very simple forms to be fun.

i think games get more attention because they are fundamentally designed to be fun. while this is one of my complaints about the medium, i have to admit that it's probably the reason for it's acceptance into the cultural lexicon.

people who "don't like video games" may play guitar hero or Wii Sports and be forced to admit the fun they have. it's hard to really get someone who doesn't enjoy reading admit that a book is enjoyable. they'll probably say "well, it's a great story, but i wish it was a movie" or something along those lines. the fact that video games are impossible to represent in any other medium is an industry advantage.