Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Lasting Impression of Videogames

Over on GoNintendo.com, there’s a post mentioning how someone is making a call out to videogame enthusiasts to share with her how and why videogames are important to them. She has friends who are into gaming, but by and large she thinks they are a waste of time, and she honestly wants to know why we lot love them so much and spend so much time with them, talking about them, reading about them, and of course playing them. Here then, is my personal reasoning.

Videogames, and this is a heavily contended debate these days, are art. Maybe not in a traditional sense, like a book or painting, but certainly in the same breadth of scope as a film. There are producers, directors, writers, tech people, even actors in some cases. There are set designers (artists), wardrobe people (character artists), and so and so forth. All of these parts come together to make one wholly envisioned piece of electronic entertainment… just like a movie. We’ve even had our own Ctizen Kane in the form of a boy named Link saving the world with a horse and an ocarina. Like silent films to talkies to big budget digitally animated adventures, games have grown in terms of execution at an alarming rate.

But all of this is beside the point. In my book, what makes a game art is the fact that it shares one overarching characteristic with a book, an album, a painting, or a film: the mark it leaves on a person. Really now, I’m not being cryptic. Think about it. Just as we have favorite movies, or scenes, favorite books, favorite paintings… we have favorite games. There are games, just like movies, that make heavy impressions on our memories. I can still remember the first time I ever held a Nintendo controller.

I was five. It was in my neighbor’s parents’ bed room. My sister and her friend we playing Super Mario Bros. They let me try. I closed my eyes, hammered the A button, and ran to the right. I nearly finished the level by a shear stroke of luck. The next time I kept my eyes open. I wasn’t scared of it anymore. I was enthralled. Over my childhood, I played hundreds of games on everything from the NES to the Dreamcast as a teenager (yes, I’m young). Across those many systems there are dozens of gaming experiences I remember fondly. Playing my brother for an entire Saturday in NBA Jam on our SNES. Spending an entire Christmas vacation at my Dad’s holed up in the bedroom, playing Breath of Fire and Clayfighter.

I remember my first real RPG on an old Compaq Presario: Ultima VII – The Black gate. I remember how I had an entire virtual world at my disposal. I could be evil or good, I could rob from people in the night as they slept. I could sail the seas. I could lead my own life as a fantastic hero. In the Ocarina of Time, played over the course of 2 months stuck at home with a torn ACL as a high school freshman, I can still remember how great it felt to defeat Ganondorf and save Zelda. It felt so vindicating, to finally beat a game that has stumped me a dozen times over with its puzzles.

Those moments, just like a scene from Star Wars or When Harry Met Sally for a movie buff (I am one of those too), are ingrained forever in my schema. They make up a small part of my persona, just as any experience does. And just like a film, a book, a painting… I won’t forget them. It’s not that they’re important. Really, it’s not. Like any form of entertainment, we could all do without them. But the memories they shape, especially those rare times when my brother and I weren’t fighting, or when my Dad picked up a controller to try playing football on the Dreamcast… those memories wouldn’t exist without games. I’m repeating myself a lot I know, but like a good movie the games I’ve played have attributed to a lot of my fondest family memories. Is that weird? I’m sure I’m not alone. That’s why games are important to me. That’s why they matter.

They are art. They are entertainment. But most importantly, they’re a big part of my life. They don’t define me, by any sense of the word, but I can’t escape the feeling that I’d be a different person without having spent so much time lingering on them. Not better or worse… just different. And being that I like who I am… I wouldn’t change my love of games for the world.

Thanks Jeebus my wife’s a closet gamer. That makes the love affair with Mario easier.



Aaron Miller said...

I played a ton of NBA Jam with my brother as well. Good times. Clay Fighter was a lot of fun, too.

I haven't heard any reasonable argument yet that games are not art. They might usually be poor art, but they're certainly art.

The problem, I think, is more in defining what a "game" is. Do you think that "game" or "video game" has as concise a definition as "film" or "book"? Are Spore, Habbo, Puzzle Quest, Halo, and Command & Conquer no more different than Schindler's List and Groundhog Day, or Moby Dick and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

I'll have to think about it more, but my initial impression is that those games represent more significant differences and perhaps different categories altogether. Maybe I'll blog about it tomorrow.

Bildo said...

"The problem, I think, is more in defining what a "game" is. Do you think that "game" or "video game" has as concise a definition as "film" or "book"? Are Spore, Habbo, Puzzle Quest, Halo, and Command & Conquer no more different than Schindler's List and Groundhog Day, or Moby Dick and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?"

That's precisely my point, Aaron. I would not dare to say that Vanilla Sky the painting is at all a similar experience to Vanilla Sky the film, nor would I expect the experience of a Vanilla Sky video game to be anywhere near the experience of the former two.

Videogames are art. As you say, they may be often poor art (but getting better as ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami etc can demonstrate), and much like a film, they're an amalgamation of several different aspects of culture. Take a look at a game like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and tell me that the recreation of the Miami vibe, the 80s culture, and even the story scribed within the game are anything short of masterful.

They're art. But like you say, they're entirely their own category of art.

What I'd like to see is more critics taking the stance that they are. Instead of constantly parading them as a geeky hobby. I'd like to see more N'Gai Croals, Stephen Totilos, and even Matt Cassamassinas.

Before games can be taken as art by the masses, we need the one thing literature, music, and film have that makes them taken so seriously... whiny people who spend entirely too much time talking about the medium, as if their opinions were the only ones that mattered. You know, people like Ebert. :) (Hope some of you get that dig.)

Frankly, videogames are a very young art form. For a long time, indeed not until after Citizen Kane, movies were just plain old entertainment for the masses. But Kane changed the film world.

So maybe Ocarina of Time isn't our Citizen Kane. Maybe we're still waiting for our Orson Welles.

heather (errantdreams) said...

IMO, games are, just like books or movies or TV, a form of entertainment and escapism. Many people spend most of their weeks glued to their TVs, and love their watercooler talk about this show or that show and what the characters are doing. I don't see why enjoying video games is any different---and in many ways it's more interactive/active, and less passive, which can be a good thing.

Heh... thinking of you being happy your wife is a closet gamer, I actually MET my husband through our RPG (tabletop) hobby, so we already knew we had a lot in common. :)