Video Games

A Popular Culture Phenomenon

“Each successive generation of video games has become more technologically sophisticated, more realistic, and more violent. The newest wave of video games, based on CD-ROM technology (the same technology people use for mu-sic recordings and computer software), is, in fact becoming more like film and television than what we traditionally expect of a video game. This is a major evolutionary step beyond the simple graphics of the classic Space Invaders arcade game so popular fifteen or twenty years ago or the tiny animated cartoon figures of the Nintendo system that have dominated the video game market in recent years.” —Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr. (Steinberg and Kincheloe, eds. )

In this book, I deal with video games, a popular entertainment phenomenon (with a focus on adventure or action-adventure video games) in terms of their social, psychological, and cultural significance. I also consider the size of the video game industry, new developments in video game player technology, and how video games have affected storytelling—and in this regard, compare narratives in print and video games. To accomplish these goals, I do the following things:

1. I consider what video games are and how they relate to playing;

2. I discuss whether video games are an art form or a new medium, 4 Video Games
3. I say something about the nature of narrativity;

4. I examine the role video games play in the lives of young children. and discuss how to analyze their cultural significance;

5. I offer a bio-psycho-social analysis of the video game phenomenon;

6. I analyze four of what are generally considered to be the most important adventure video games of recent years: Myst, Riven, Tomb Raider, and Half-Life.

7. I support my analyses by using quotations from many experts and authorities in the field.

A News Event of Significance for Garners

On October 26, 2000, Sony introduced its PlayStation 2 video game machine in the United States—a device that it believes will revolutionize home entertainment. Sony considers the PlayStation 2 (also known as the PS2) a “Trojan horse,” that will be purchased as a video game player but will eventually change the way Americans entertain themselves in general.

That is because the PlayStation 2, which sells for 5299, also can play DVD films, music CD-ROMs. and video games that were purchased to be played on the PlayStation I. (Sony is losing around one hundred dollars on each console sold in the United States. but will make up its losses on the consoles from its profits on the video games and in licensing fees.) The PlayStation 2 also has a port for a hard drive and another port that will enable it to support a high-speed Internet connection.

It will also when add-ons arc developed, let its owners make music mixes and edit their own digital movies. There are some questions about whether the Sony PlayStation 2 can actually become the center of household entertainment in America. But even if it doesn’t, it will unquestionably be a major force in the video game industry. We must remember that Sony is building on an enormous base: there are estimates that the Sony PlayStation I is found in one out of every six households in the United States. (Sony has sold something like 27 million PlayStation I consoles here in the United States and 75 million worldwide.)

I will discuss the different consoles used to play video games, which compete with the PS2, in more detail later in the book.

Most Americans are well aware of the existence of video games. There are occasionally articles about new video games in newspapers and the New York Times regularly carries a feature on new video games every Thursday in its “Circuits” section. There am also articles on the industry and various games in magazines such as Time and Newsweek, and there are many magazines devoted to video games. and hundreds (if not thousands) of Internet sites on every conceivable aspect of video games. Many video game companies have their own sites where you can find a great deal of information about specific games.

If you take interactivity as one of the main constituents of video games, there are also a number of interactive image-less fiction narratives, which might be thought of as an elite art form version of the video game without animated characters. So, there is a continuum of games that covers everything from relatively crude “bang-em-up” wrestling games to ingenious science fiction and adventure games to postmodern avant-garde novels.

Are Video Games an Art Form or a New Medium?

There is some confusion about what video games are. Are they an art form with many different genres. similar in nature to the novel, or some kind of new medium? There are decent arguments that can be made for both positions. Video games are interactive, but there are other texts and media that are interactive, so I don’t think interactivity means that video games should be considered a new medium—unless interactivity is enough to qualify anything like a new medium.

A novel is an art form using the medium of print (but now also, with the development of e-books, electronic media) that has many different genres—everything from genre stories such as mysteries and science fiction stories to non-formulaic, non-genre stories about individuals and their relationships. Thus, there is a wide spectrum of novels—everything from tough guy mysteries like Mickey Spillane’s 1, the Jury to James Joyce’s Ulysses.

I would like to suggest that video games are probably best understood to be similar to the novel in that there are many different genres of video games; both novels and video games are, then, from my perspective, art forms. When scholars write about video games, they often use the term “form” to discuss them.

For example, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin write, in their book Remediation: Understanding New Media, The tarn computer game coven a range of forms. including violent action games. role-playing and narrative games, erotic and frankly pornographic applications. card games. puzzles and skill-teeing MITIStS. and educational software. Some of these forms are clear repurposing of early games… Computer games are delivered on a variety of platforms … in all their forms and with all their modes of delivery. digital games illustrate the commodification of the computer. 

The authors use the term remediation to deal with the ways in which new media refashion prior media forms. This concept may help it understand how to categorize video games. Another author, Eugene F. Provenzo, also uses the term “form” in dealing with video games. He writes in his essay “Video Games and the Emergence of Interactive Media for Children” (in Steinberg and Kinchloe,):

I argue here that video games represent a new frontier for media in our culture. Video games are a comp and rapidly evolving from—one that most parents and adults pay relatively little attention to Authors use the term “form” because there are so many different genres of video games. lust having different genres, however, is not proof that we are dealing with an art form. Media such as film, radio. and television also has many different genres. so there is a logic to arguing that video games are a new medium.

I would suggest that because video games are played on television screens or computer monitor screens, and thus use an “old” medium, it makes sense to think of video games as art forms. The issue is not, from my point of view, a terribly important one.

What is most important is that we analyze video games and try to understand their impact on the people who play them and on society at large. We can think of each video game as a text, a work of popular art that is created collectively (like films and television programs). Video games are created by teams of writers, artists, musicians, and various kinds of other technicians. In critical parlance works of art are called “texts,” to make it easier for writers and scholars to talk about them without having to name them or describe them every time.

These video games are created by authors (teams of writers and artists) and are created in a particular society, directed toward a specific audience, and played on a familiar medium—the television screen or computer monitor screen. We can see these relationships better by putting them into a chart of what I call the focal points involved in analyzing mass-mediated texts. Let me deal with these focal points in a bit more detail. A video game is distributed on different kinds of devices that contain software such as CD-ROMs, cartridges, or DVD disks. The software is, in my scheme of things, the work of art, or in this case, the specific game. For example, there are five CD-ROMs needed to play Riven.

A particular game is created for a specific audience—garners who like certain kinds of games. Thus, some garners love sports video games, others like simulations, others like action-adventure video games, and so on. Of course, those who create and manufacture a video game always hope that players who like other kinds of games might be induced to purchase the game they have created and play it, also The video game is created and manufactured in some society and often reflects, in subtle and sometimes not easily recognized ways, the beliefs and value systems of the society in which it is made.

These values are filtered through the personalities, social class, beliefs, and values of those who actually design and create the game. This means that works of art, in all media, always contain elements of the personalities and life experiences of their makers and also of the societies in which their makers grew up. Video games are played in many countries, so they have to also relate to the interests of players all over the world.

For example, many popular video games are created in Japan but are popular in the United States and in many other countries. Video game makers must keep in mind the nature of their audiences—in particular, how old the players will be—and their particular interests. Finally, the artwork/text/video game is transmitted by some medium.

In the case of video games, as their name suggests, video games are played on video display monitors—either on television sets that are hooked up to game playing consoles or on computer video display monitors in the case of PC video games. I mentioned, earlier, that there are particular audiences for video games. That explains why there are many different genres or kinds of video games. If you take an art form such as the popular novel, you see that there are many different genres of popular fiction, such as detective novels, science fiction novels, romance novels, spy novels. western novels, and adventure novels.

The same applies to video games; there are many different genres of video games such as action-adventure, sports, science fiction, simulations. and role-playing. It is difficult, at times, to assign a particular genre to a video game because in recent years video game designers have mixed genres together. in the same way that many novelists have. As Michael Brown, an editor at CNET’S Gamecenter (HYPERLINK explained to me in an e-mail message:
Categorizing computer and video games is becoming increasingly dif cult. be-cause in an effort to build unique games. developers are blurring genres together. It used to be that in an “action” game. you’d run around and blow things up. In the role-playing game. you’d go on quests and develop your characters’ skills along the way. But now there are action-RPGs. like System Shock 2. and adventure-action games, like Mask al Etemay. It’s a good thing for gaming. but it does make our jobs more difficult when we try to categorize games.

Trying to decide which genre a given game should be put in is worth doing since it tells us something about the nature of the game, but we must keep in mind that as in other kinds of texts, sometimes a game has elements of several different genres in it. For example, many games are combinations of action and adventure or adventure and role-playing. though usually one of the two blended genres is dominant. I think it makes good sense to think of video games as a kind of text that comes in many different genres and blended genres—and thus as an art form—rather than seeing video games as a new medium. There are many video artists who use video to make texts of all kinds, some of which are very avant-garde. These texts are not games, however.


New Technologies Make a Difference in Video Games

So the medium of video is not the only important thing as far as understanding what video games are. The important thing, from my point of view as a popular culture critic, is to analyze the video game phenomenon and certain important video games and sec what they tell us about ourselves. What has happened is that as the technology of video games has evolved, from diskettes to CD-ROMs and DVD disks, the nature or power of the games has changed considerably.

The technical quality of the images and sounds in these games has improved to such a point that it can be suggested that they represent something relatively new in the entertainment world—interactive narrative texts with multi-dimensional characters. These texts now have the capacity to involve players to an extent unknown in earlier days, when the technology of these games was much more primitive. It is important to have an understanding of what interactivity is—a subject I will be discussing at various places in this book. .I. C. Herz offers an interesting explanation of interactivity in her book Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds. She tells us that video game designers often create their worlds first and then worry about characters and plots and adds that it isn’t digital cinematography that makes stories immersive, but something else:

What makes it (a video game] immersive is a world where no temporary is off-limits. anything you see is fair game. and all your actions have consequences. This is what game designers call a -malt= object-oriented environment.” which is to say time moves ahead and the world chums even in places you don’t care to look (or haven’t found). Characters exist independently. Options shift. Events—some completely beyond your control—unfold in a world that can age !with each tick of its internal clock. the fictional world changes.

The remarkable developments in video game technology have led to what, one might suggest, is a new (or, perhaps radically transformed is more accurate) entertainment form. It is one that now closely approximates film in terms of the qualities of images and sounds generated by the new video games devices but it is different from film in that players now can immerse themselves into the film-quality texts and participate in them.

This represents, one might argue, a considerable change in our narrative conventions. Reader response theorists have argues that readers play a role in the “creation” of literary texts, in the sense that they help bring them into being when they read them. With video games, the very notion of authorship becomes problematical, now that garners have the capacity to affect what happens in a game.

That is the point that Ted Friedman makes in his article “Making Sense of Software: Computer Games and Interactive Textuality”. He argues that the “oppositions” reading and writing now are connected and it is impossible to determine where one ends and the other begins. Fried-man quotes a computer game critic. Orson Scott Card (Compute. “Gameplay: Films can make lousy games.”):

What every good game author eventually has to learn … is that computers are a completely different medium. and great computer artworks will only come about when we stop judging computer games by standards developed for other media…Do you want to do the rebuilding of Atlanta after the war? SunCity does it better than either the book or the mono of Gone With the Wind The computer -don’t know nothin” bout birthin’ babies.- but what it does well. it does better than any other medium that ever existed.

The card’s point is well worth considering. He uses the term “computer” but we can extend it to mean console video games and Internet ones as well. What’s interesting to note is that now films are being made from popular computer games. Films may make “lousy” computer games. as Card asserts, but we don’t know yet whether computer games will make “lousy” films! A number of films, of uneven quality, based on video games, have already been made and others, such as one based on Tomb Raider, are currently in production.

According to many critics, all texts are related, in various ways, to previous texts (the technical term for this phenomenon is “inter-textuality”) and to older media; I don’t want to suggest that the new video games are totally different from any of the games that were created before them.

But the new machines make possible a considerably different game playing experience from earlier games, such as Pang and Pac-Man. It is fair to argue. I would suggest, that video games, in general, are a new popular culture phenomenon, and the more recent video games are major transformations of the earlier games. We’ve had video games for something like thirty years, but it is only in recent years, with the development of new consoles with incredible powers, that video games have been able to evolve into much more powerful and sophisticated works.