Gaming grows up: A video game revolution

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Mario the Plumber

Mario the Plumber (October 31, 2012)

"It's hard to say, but it's a conversation that has to be had," he said, "because people, surrounded every day by games on their phones and Facebook and Xbox or whatever, don't necessarily see themselves thinking about video games or understanding the video game. But they do and they are, and the broadening of the medium is key.

"As with photography, television, what makes an art powerful is not that it is placed in a gallery, but that it becomes so commonplace we don't notice it anymore. A domestication happens. We have to face the music of what that means, that one of the challenges of maturity is recognizing this is OK."

To put it another way: The end of the video game as a niche is the new beginning of the video game.

I don't know how I feel about this.

Video games were my first love.

I still play video games. I am a lifelong gamer. My current game, my go-to for the past couple of years, is a visceral little war number called "Battlefield 1943," in which I am thrust onto a side (Japanese or American), then fight my way through an elaborate match of Capture the Flag. I am very good and often dominate every match I am placed in, mercilessly dive-bombing Iwo Jima, then circling the digital island and striking again. It's how I unwind. It's not high-minded, there is no narrative. And as for having emotional resonance in the real world: Well, I play against real people who are logged in around the world; they swear at me over headsets and send notes via the Xbox that curse me in exotic languages. Does that count?

It's not grown-up and I don't care. I sort of hate this is true, but it is: Before movies, books, music, "The Brady Bunch," I was hooked on games as fun. When I was 8, video games were 7. We grew up together. I developed a Stockholm syndrome attraction to the medium, buying every new system the day they came out, acquiring a lifetime of questionable, expensive decisions.

Which is why I cringe every time I see a grown man on a sitcom transfixed on his couch, playing a video game. It just feels too close. As with any love, video games have always been a source of guilt. Indeed, they were the reason for my first ethical dilemma: Unbeknownst to my mother, I won an Atari 2600 in a Little League raffle. Though I already owned an Atari 2600, I kept it anyway — just because. There is something selfish and myopic about the lifestyle.

Consider Dave Lang, who started Iron Galaxy Studios, a well-regarded Chicago video game development firm. He grew up in Richton Park. He lost a childhood to video games. In sixth grade he received a Commodore 64 and spent his summers in his bedroom, developing games on it. Because he made something of this, he doesn't sound particularly conflicted.

But when I raise the question of games as art — whether games should aspire to be more than fun — a familiar unease creeps into his voice. "Developers pushing games in new directions has no doubt expanded the base of players," he said, "but to be honest, when developers aspire to art, subvert expectations and go for serious subject matter, it's interesting. But if it's not fun, I don't care."

That's how I feel: torn.

He pointed me toward a new PlayStation3 game, "Papo & Yo," which begins with the hero growing up in an abusive home and navigating his demons, however metaphorical. The game, a work of autobiography, even starts with a dedication: "To my mother, brothers and sister, with whom I survived the monster in my father."

Without developers willing to push boundaries, the medium founders. But the pretense can be unpalatable.

To an extent, Chicago was a small catalyst at stoking that ambition: In 2005, Roger Ebert wrote a column dismissing the idea that video games could ever attain the resonance of a traditional art form. Since games require choices, he reasoned, while serious film and literature require passivity and "authorial control," games would always be at a fundamental disadvantage.

However questionable his logic, he had a point: Being unable to affect the outcome of a work of art, being unable to stop Moby Dick from drowning Ahab or Michael Corleone from selling out his ideals to become the Godfather, being forced to look on helplessly is intrinsic to what makes many works of art affecting.

Jonathan Blow, a San Francisco-based video game developer, arguably the most controversial in the medium, answered this argument famously. Like many game developers, he sees the future of games not in generating narrative but emotion and thought. A few years ago he released an ingenious game on Xbox, "Braid." It was popular, fun and relatively familiar, about a hero rescuing a princess from a monster. Except, scene by scene, you begin to grasp that the princess is actually fleeing the hero. The game is about a breakup and regret. It aspires to pain.

His next game, due next year, is existential, he told me, "about what it means to walk around in a (digital) world, see and do things — a broad but difficult question."

He sniffs that he doesn't even consider himself part of the video game industry. He compares the development of the video game with the comic book: "There is nothing about the comic book itself, sequential pictures on a page, that demands it be constrained to superheroes. Yet here we are. Video games have a similar legacy of inertia, and I don't know if anyone can break it, frankly. The Wii, iPhone games — it may broaden the reach of the medium, but it doesn't mean it will be for mature, reasonable adults, either."

Which is fair, somewhat naive, lacking generosity, though maybe necessary: "The kind of tension that Jonathan represents," Bogost said, "is natural to the evolution of the medium. A David Lynch is only possible if you already have a Michael Bay." But where the medium could get hung up, Fullerton said, is in the worry about being an art: "The question should be more fundamental: 'Is this important to people?'"

About a week ago I was standing outside the Chicago Theatre. Going on inside was the rehearsal for a concert featuring the music of Nintendo's 25-year-old "Legend of Zelda" video game series. The Chicagoland Pops Orchestra was running through a pounding, intense score, though on a screen behind it were comically mundane, old 8-bit images of Zelda gliding around a digital kingdom. The whole thing felt middlebrow, silly.

But on the sidewalk out front I met three guys in their 20s from Palatine. When I asked why they were going to this (sold-out) concert, they said they were fans of the "Zelda" series, they had never been to a concert of video game music, but "when you hear the music, it jolts you back to how you felt when you first experienced it." They could have been talking about the Beach Boys. But there was nothing middlebrow about it. Another characteristic of genuine art is that the memory of a work is as rich as the work itself.

Dan Greenawalt, creative director of Microsoft's decade-old "Forza Motorsport" series of ultrarealistic racing games, calls this everyday integration of the medium "the gamification of the world." The "Forza" series, for instance, is so detailed the game is used at automotive-world board of director meetings to virtually kick the tires of new car models. Greenawalt routinely hears from people who use it as an alternative to test-driving cars in the real world.

Jaap Hoogstraten, director of exhibitions at the Field Museum, said, "We're not looking to make a 'World of Warcraft,' and we don't know much about what (video games in museums) means yet, but some kind of video game is becoming a standard part of shows." Indeed, Sean Dove, a Chicago graphic designer who often finds himself using the design and iconography of games as his inspiration, has an Xbox on the floor of his North Center studio.

But that integration is slow. When new students come into the game development program at DePaul University, they also tend not to have thought that much about the relevance of the medium, Jose Zagal, an assistant professor in the program, told me. In fact, he said, they're often deeply resistant to the concept.

"They haven't started to think critically about games, the messages given off, why a game makes them feel or not feel a certain way," Zagal said. "I'll ask them if it's an art, and they say, flat out, "Not really.' They haven't considered the idea of free will in the 'Call of Duty' series. They tend not to have thought about the medium at all. Though more and more, we do see students who have. We see students who dig into old games the way a filmmaker might look at the movies of the 1970s for inspiration.

"People don't question the idea that movies can be philosophical anymore; nobody asks if it's art. But I bet 80 years ago or so, that debate mattered."
Twitter @borrelli

About this series
Gaming Grows Up is an occasional series that will look at the ways a 40-year-old medium is maturing (and not maturing), what it means to different people and how it quietly is taking a place alongside more established arts.

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