Recent shifts in the cultural zeitgeist have prompted me to take another look at video games, which I had pretty much abandoned since graduating from high school. I played a lot in my teen years, but mainly to find something to do with my hands while listening to lots and lots of music. Like many of my generation, raised on videogames but not necessarily videogame nerds, my gameplaying ended with N64's social gaming masterpieces (back when 'social' meant actual friends sitting together in the same actual room) of Goldeneye and Mario Kart 64. After years spent memorizing every shortcut and possible cheat available in the two games (and yes, there are many), my Goldeneye interest abruptly ended when one of our merry crew took things a bit too far and memorized the hundreds of spawn points in the order they occur (multiplayer becomes pointless when one guy can kill everyone before you've finished dying).
I still had great affectation for the games I once loved, but it became clear then that there was little more that videogames could offer me. For years, the only things that improved were the graphics; nothing fundamentally changed about the gameplay itself. Games that did seem to offer something new only offered more in the sense of breaking societal boundaries (i.e. paying for prostitutes, shooting them dead and then getting your money back). Then they'd start using hit songs in the game soundtrack itself, but that was no different to what I'd done through hours of mindless Zelda: turned down the sound, put on the 80s radio station. Fundamentally the act of playing was no different. It felt rote, repetitive and uninteresting. And so began a long hiatus from video games. I occasionally busted out the N64 for nostalgia's sake, but otherwise I never felt like I was missing anything; video games were something I'd grown out of.
My interest was rekindled with the infamous Roger Ebert vs. World spat about whether video games constitute art, which is a frankly stupid argument given that literally anything can be considered art if you want it to be. But I was intrigued by how long this debate went on and how passionately the video game side engaged in efforts to defend their perspective against a man who has long been considered an authoritative presence on media old and new. To my mind, based on my decade-old, well past sell-by date knowledge of what video games constitute, I had the feeling that video games weren't art because they weren't transporting. But as I said, I was a dinosaur. It was time to leave my preconceptions at the door.
Our new ability to take mini-computers with us wherever we go means more people are playing videogames than ever before. At the end of the day, the new 'social games' are the same games that hardcore gamers were playing twenty years ago, except now you don't need to know how to connect an entire system (the horror!), adjust to a joystick, or, more importantly, shell out upwards of $50 to make you feel less antisocial even when sitting in a dark room. The same people who once thought Simcity 2000 was for geeks are now horribly addicted to Farmville and Mafia Wars, and they can continue to feed their addiction even when they're on the go. Games no longer make you an anti-social shut-in.
Nintendo Wii and games like Guitar Hero have revolutionized the gaming industry: all of a sudden, games weren't diversions or time-wasters so much as they were instruments of wish-fulfillment with minimum learning curves. You could finally bowl 300s even with your bad knee, you could play Stairway to Heaven on a plastic "guitar," you could be in a rock band without any of the talent, effort or personality problems both necessary and endemic to real rock bands or live sports. The Wii made video games into augmentations of the self, makers of identity. We'd seen this before very briefly and at a much smaller scale with the Dance Dance Revolution craze; being good at DDR actually made you popular at parties (at least in high school. In college it meant you'd surrendered to social death). And the Wii's ultimate death strike against the traditional video game? It was so easy to use that even your grandparents could do it.
Then I discovered the fact that for whatever reason, videogames have begun to be covered in the so-called 'intellectual' webmags I frequent in my darker moods. But more curiously, literary sites like The Millions started to write about them on occasion. Why? The usual reason: follow the brain drain to the money. Authors, musicians, and filmmakers have found the video game business more lucrative than traditional production models, resulting in a symbiotic relationship improving the games themselves and creating opportunity for artists to do what they love AND make money.
CALL OF DUTY
Naturally I became curious. What is this new artistic vanguard, and is there a role for me? Or are they just the same old games sold in even shinier packages? There was a simple and logical starting point, but it took some time for me to get to it.
My parents, like many others, had bought the Playstation 3 not to play video games, but because, for years, it was the best blu-ray player on the market. But that's where the best games lived as well. So I convinced my brother to grow his videogame collection, and we went to Gamestop for a cheap used copy of Call of Duty. We weren't ready to spend $60 for the latest version (Black Ops), but we got Call of Duty: World at War for $20.
I was transfixed from moment 1. I had just seen The Thin Red Line for the first time, and there was a poetic symmetry in experiencing wartime horror passively and actually getting to "be there." The story even began the same way: American soldiers fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. And as visceral as Thin Red Line was, Call of Duty turned it up to 11. You feel very real terror when a grenade is ticking beside you. You feel the guilt and the perversity of shooting an already wounded enemy dead, just to make sure he doesn't stab you in the back.
Maybe it was because of The Thin Red Line that I was already primed and emotionally connected with the fear and terror and sense of futility that a soldier might feel when locked in deadly battle. Perhaps the movie did the heavy lifting, so the game automatically became more immersive. But I did know that it felt alarmingly real. The shots in the game were directed so similarly to those in the movie that the experience felt a lot like being an active participant. I am there, and I am interacting with Kiefer Sutherland, the American commander, and Gary Oldman, the Russian commander. It felt exciting and new.
In a more perverse symmetry, the day after I picked up a virtual gun for the first time in years, one Jared Loughner picked up an assault weapon and terrorized the nation. Predictably, the mainstream media trotted out the old canards about the 'culture of violence' gripping the country, and as usual the primary target was violent video games. We all know that the link is specious at best.
But here's the interesting thing: because the game was so immersive, so consuming, and so emotionally realistic, it made the truth, consequence and futility of violence very real. Just as the soldiers of so many wars past returned home with a complete abhorrence of violence, I too was absolved of any violent desire in real life.
I believe that is a truth of humanity that those of us who are not sociopaths reflexively recoil at situations of violence. And those people who put targets on a map of congressional districts have been divorced from real violence. As have those politicians callously making decisions about war as if they were playing a game of Risk.
So back to that question of whether video games could be considered art? If you subscribe to the David Foster Wallace theory that, in order for something to be considered art, it must reveal humanity to the consumer, then yes. I cannot argue that Call of Duty achieves that. And yes, I am aware that I chose another game to represent the opposite of humanistic decision making.
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER, SORT OF
So, what I'm left with, is that there are two distinct and separate trends in the cutting edge of videogaming: video games as a way to escape or overcome reality, and video games as virtual reality. The former is more in line with what videogames have always been, but the latter seems new and distinct, with potential to create a whole new form of entertainment in the future.
There is a whole new world for developers to explore as their consumer base has suddenly exploded massively, and suddenly there's room for competition again between game creators, when the leaders of the pack had been long entrenched. It's exciting to see where it's going, and I will certainly be following along as I can, though the classic problem still exists: money.
But guess what. When I am in a position to build my own media center, I will be buying a Playstation 3. And I won't just be using it to watch dvds. oncominghope out.