Gaming grows up: A video game revolution

As it turns 40, the medium is maturing into more of an art form

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Mario the Plumber

Mario the Plumber (October 31, 2012)

The video game is 40.

Its exact birthday is arguable. Cultural historians likely would date its origins further back, roughly a decade or two; prototypes of arcade games flourished in university computer labs in the 1950s. But “Pong,” the first viable mainstream video game, blipped and blooped into bowling alleys and bars in 1972, and the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home gaming console, arrived 40 autumns ago. So, let's agree, 40 years old.

It may be the last time we agree.

Because chances are you find the video game a marginal presence in your life, at best a time-killing commuter distraction, somewhere on the cultural scale between Honey Boo Boo and "Ice Age" sequels. But you would be wrong. The video game at 40 is having a midlife identity crisis, albeit one that is redefining what the medium itself means. If you haven't touched a joystick in decades, you would be disoriented: Metaphorically speaking, Mario's Kart is a Passat now, Donkey Kong more of a tweedy Dr. Zaius. The video game at 40 is often thoughtful, aesthetically sophisticated, more diversified than ever and rigorously thought about. Lately, it's been wondering whether it's art or should even aspire to the label; often, the reply is, yes.

But it's complicated.

The video game at 40 is also self-conscious and stuck in its ways, its direction uncertain. It loses its car keys a lot now. Financially, it's unstable. Creatively, it's not sure what anyone expects of it anymore. It can be flatulent, frustrating, juvenile, insular and needlessly abrasive — as technologically innovative as it is intellectually inert. But here's the thing: Those contradictions are OK, even welcome. Because, in the life span of any art, 40 is like 15, and while rock 'n' roll considers retirement, the movie wonders about senility and the book ponders the grave, the video game, four decades old and more ubiquitous than ever, is maturing.


Even rebelling.

"You can't deny video games increasingly do what art does," said Julian Dibbel, a University of Chicago law student who once literally made his living buying and selling virtual items in online gaming worlds. "Video games shape identities now, they have ideas that carry weight in the world. There's a culture there, and games with larger meanings. In many ways they are a tighter fit with contemporary culture than more traditional arts. In fact, why even hold up novels or films as what games should aspire to when, if we think of art as central to the way we live, the interactive nature of games is more relevant? Why aren't other arts more like games?"

Nobody said puberty was pretty.

The problem is, try getting anyone to settle on what maturity should look like here. Does a mature video game culture mean a culture that is grim, serious and ambitious? A culture that accepts itself as broad entertainment? Or a culture that, as with film, literature and theater, reflects multitudes?

"You can't expect the video game or video game culture to ever be entirely mature," Nolan Bushnell said when I asked what he thought of the medium he more or less created 40 years ago. In 1972, Bushnell and programmer Ted Dabney started Atari, then developed "Pong," which popularized video games in general a few years later when Sears sold a home version. "Considering all the threads that exist now in video game culture, I think it would be impossible for the video game to be entirely mature. Would you even want it to be?"

Of course not, though surely he had loftier aims for the video game than gobbling quarters?

"There was theoretical stuff involved," he replied. "We learned it was all about balancing difficulty and ease. See, you wanted it to be easy enough for people to play but not so easy that they got very far every time."

In other words, no loftier aims.

But even cinema had to work its way toward "Citizen Kane." The fact that video game culture has arrived at the point where we can have a serious discussion about its maturity is itself a sign of its maturity. If becoming a viable art means having a worldview, affecting the way people think about the real world, drawing on its classics to create new works while recognizing that the older works are as rich as newer works … well, then, that culture is rich, ingrained and here. Next year, there will be a video game titled "Watch Dogs" that explores the modern surveillance state — and, whaddayaknow, uses an intricately mapped digital Chicago as its sandbox. Opening Friday, "Wreck-It Ralph," the new Disney movie, celebrates decades of video game lore, much the way "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" did with a century of animation.

"Did we do demographic research to arrive at this subject?" asked Clark Spencer, the film's producer. "No, it was less strategic. It was because we wanted to make a movie that appeals to everyone, and video games have become such a part of the daily fabric, it was very odd that it hadn't been done before." He said when the film was in early preproduction, a sheet was posted in the Disney animation department that asked for suggestions of which classic characters from the genre to include. The list quickly became many hundreds of names long.

When Pitchfork, the Chicago-born online music magazine, decided last summer to expand into other arts, it partnered with the smart gaming literary journal Kill Screen (launched by a former Wall Street Journal journalist) and started Soundplay, a companion site dedicated to the thoughtful discussion of video games. Asked why games, why now, Pitchfork President Chris Kaskie said, "We are interested in emerging culture, and the indie game scene, with its roots in digital, feels closest to where indie music is now." Indeed, the independent game development scene, bolstered by the ability to distribute its work cheaply through mobile phone apps and the Xbox 360 marketplace, is not unlike the indie rock scene: awash in invention, often as committed to serious ideas and reimagining tropes as it is to reinforcing entertainment value and escapism.

Tracy Fullerton, the influential director of the Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, recently began work on a game based on the philosophies of Henry David Thoreau. She told me she had been playing "Animal Crossing" with her niece and noticed that underpinning the game was the idea that, to progress in life, one had to acquire a bigger house and the approval of the community. She found it depressing. "So on a trip to Walden Pond, I wondered if you could make a game that expressed the ideas of Thoreau. If by using sounds of the forest, his ideas about basic needs, you could capture his spirit through a game." The result, "Walden, a Game," partly funded with a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, is among a growing subgenre, the meditative art game. (Fullerton will talk about her work Nov. 11 during the Chicago Humanities Festival.)

When I asked Ian Bogost, a game developer, professor of digital media at Georgia Institute of Technology and among the best of a new wave of video game critics, what this all meant, he sighed for a long moment.

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