State of the Art pt.2 – “Original Sin”
Like any new means, when the video-game medium originated, it was an exciting, unexplored new world filled with promise. But like in any realm of the unknown, there were no guidelines on how to garner the potential of that vast reign of unfathomed possibilities, which lied feverishly in wait in the tips of programmers’ fingers. And it was precisely in that now distant moment of genesis, that the original sin of the video-game means was committed. The moment in which that glorious plain of infinite potential was transformed into the claustrophobic gallows of technological toys. But it was not a sin that came by chance, for it was the natural course of things taking its toll.
Video-games never were anything more than virtual shapes built on intrinsic webs of computer hardware and software. Such objects, much to our dismay, could only be crafted by engineers; with their front row seat in the creation of video-games, came the comprehensible urge to imprint a technological and scientific paradigm into them. Painters and sculptors would have surely thought differently, but alas, they knew not how to program in assembly. But even engineers were nothing more than modern craftsmen; they knew not how to mold video-games on their own, and thus had to seek outside influences for inspiration for that monumental task of creation.
Inspiration eventually came from games: from sports and tennis, to board-games like monopoly or go; these were the defining models that shaped the medium. There were many reasons for that misled choice: from the playful nature of the original video-game applications (“Nimrod”, “OXO”, “Tennis for Two”, “Spacewar!”) and consoles (such as the pivotal Magnavox Odyssey and the later ATARI Pong), which seemed perfect for a younger demographic, to the estrangement that most adults had with computers, which made it impossible to reach different audiences, down to the fact that it was a language that engineers understood, whilst art for example, was something well beyond their cultural and academic background. With these two worlds conceptually intertwined at the very conception of the medium, video-games soon became the technological counterpart, or evolution if you will, to traditional games… and thus it was that the word “video-game” was born.
In a quiet instant, computer engineering companies – Capcom (originally named Japan Capsule Computers), ATARI (which stemmed from Nolan Bushnell’s Syzygy Engineering), and game/toys/entertainment companies – Nintendo (which started in the hanafuda cards business), Sega (formerly named Standard Games, a company that built coin-operated amusements), Namco (initially devoted to building children rides), Konami (percussed by a jukebox rental and repair company) – had taken the leading role in the industry side of the medium, designing hardware and software applications. The origins of these companies subtly dictated their own orientations and the mind-sets of their creators, eventually determining what the video-game medium would stand for. Despite all the good that came from these and many other companies (e.g. the later Sony and Microsoft), they still ended up branding video-games with a specific image that, in the long term, has become prejudicial to their own business.
The term video-game is not neutral or associated with a vaster conceptual ground, like Cinema or Music are; video-games are seen as nothing more than computer games made to entertain little kids and adolescents. Just think on how close the aesthetic of a vast majority of games is to that of toys, action figures and cartoon series. And how similar, on an abstract level, is the interaction of games to that of a board or sports game. How equally inexpressive all these mediums are on an emotional level. That is why games are never associated with a powerful cultural medium that can take on artistic forms and expressions. If you’ve ever been to a museum showing an interactive media work, you won’t see the term “game” or “video-game” written underneath. Yet if you see a conceptual film, the word film will surely be in its description. This is the type of prejudice that has become associated with the term game… a prejudice that, in my opinion, is completely understandable.
But what malicious archetype is this, so strong that it can dictate the complete lack of depth and maturity that is pervasive to such a potentially powerful medium? What is this thing that sucks up so much artistic vision and technical prowess, that we so rarely get to experience something that escapes its clutches? And how come so many visionary works are understated and underrated in a vast sea of glorified computer toys, that have become the de facto standard of the means?
It is the sin of games’ ludic paradigm.
[In the next part I will address the reasons why games shouldn’t be just “games” and why ludism is such a malicious influence on an artistic medium. In the coming articles I will continue delving on these issues and explore how everyone can help change the current video-game landscape.]