State of the Art pt.2 – “Original Sin”

William Blake's "The Temptation and Fall of Eve"

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.

Allan Alcorn's "Pong"

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.

e3-2006-new-gears-of-war-screens-20060509031016166

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.]

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  • Comments (8)
    • mors
    • June 25th, 2009

    Brilliantly written as always and an awesome reminiscence of many talk about that mysterious world of the “interactive art”sy games.

    I suppose this will be answered in the next issues but some questions pop into my sightly fascist mind. In a society such as this and in a time of crisis, what’s the use of artsy games, as awesome as they may be? They won’t make money for those how make them and the benefits we’ll, as Humanity, see and reap can only be touched in the long run. Surely the big corporations that make “video-games” won’t stand for it, they make their millions by reinventying the weal, and the nerdy folk that we see in the Linux Torval room downstairs won’t care about them.
    So we would need to take people from other mediums. The problem here is that the same way I don’t see Mr.I-like-to-shot-people-in-the-face appreciating a Vang Gogh, I can hardly picture a bookworm specialized in Shakespeare playing and liking Shadow of the Colossus.

    A mentalities’ shift is necessary for that to work. And be the time we get get it, IF we get it, which I don’t believe, the video-game leap will be the least (maybe not) of our joy. 🙂

    • ruicraveirinha
    • June 25th, 2009

    “In a society such as this and in a time of crisis, what’s the use of artsy games, as awesome as they may be?”

    I think you know the answer to that question.

    “They won’t make money for those how make them.”

    Right now, that’s true. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. Artsy/Indie movies and bands make money. Forward thinking comic books also make money. And, in all honesty, there are some noteworthy examples of games that have made money (once again… Shadow of the Colossus). The setting is bleak, but if players start demanding that added level of quality and maturity from their games, then the industry will respond accordingly through the market law. The thing is, most players don’t want better games, and those that want are still a small minority. On the other hand, most gamers don’t even know what a good game is, because the media labels huge pieces of electronic crap as the second coming. For that small minority to grow, there must be an educative role on part of the industry’s media, as a ways of culture gamers into more advanced forms of video-games.

    “I can hardly picture a bookworm specialized in Shakespeare playing and liking Shadow of the Colossus.”

    Though there are great examples of games that have been designed with non-gamer audiences in mind (e.g. “Myst”, “Gadget”, “The Path”,…), I think that’s a change that must be addressed at some level. Because people do feel interested in playing games like “Colossus”, it’s just the complicated interface that eventually deters them from actually experiencing the game first hand. Whatever the case, in time, the generations that were born with video-games will have come to adulthood, and the percentage of “non-gaming” audiences will decrease. The problem, more than anything, lies in how low the standards of these audiences are. But in all honesty, I think there are many bookworms out there who would love to play games. I’m a bookworm of sorts, so…

    “A mentalities’ shift is necessary for that to work. And be the time we get get it, IF we get it, which I don’t believe, the video-game leap will be the least (maybe not) of our joy.”

    100% with you.

    Thanks for the awesome comment. Come back anytime 😉

    • Tomás Lázaro
    • June 25th, 2009

    Hi,

    I earn my living programming (casual) video games, I have waited my whole life, since I were 3 or 4 years old, to create video games. It’s only been 6 months since I got this job and from day one during social meetings, parties or whatever I was always waiting for people to ask me about my job so I could proudly say “I make video games”.

    “I make video games”… can you believe that nobody cares? whenever I say that, a creepy silence fills the room and you can hear crickets in the background. Everyone thinks I’m a kid or that I’m childish and regard my job as not serious. My job is damn hard, as hard as making boring stuff and requires in many cases much more skill, intellect, knowledge and creativity that most of the usually considered “serious” jobs. Eighteen years passed since the first time I played a video game when I was 3, all my life struggled because people thought my interest for computers would lead me nowhere and here I am, at the true beginning of my dream and nobody cares.

    I have always dreamed about making great games that would teach people, have value, make them feel, make a game with a soul. Games are art, and I will produce a master piece someday even if everyone still think I’m immature.

    Let’s make room for great games by not polluting the shelves with crap and not buying games with the same old formula. Save the Art, play good video games!

    Great article, really enjoyed it. Keep up the good work!

    PS: Sorry If I double posted, couldn’t tell if it worked so I’m trying again.

  1. It’s very brave of you to engage in this sort of discussion and, not surprisingly, you emerge from it almost unscathed and with enviable courage. So I give you my praise for all the merit of this sequence of posts that is yet to be finished.

    A few observations: I would not consider Nimrod, OXO, Tennis for Two or Spacewar! to be “videogames”, much less the seed for the original sin you so aptly refer to: these are primitive attempts to enable electronic (not digital) devices to respond in real time for the sake of an experience that is the complete opposite of what the general public thought computers could provide. They are ingenious, experimental, naive and brilliant: additionally, they come to life years before the creation of the word “videogame” – which brings me to a second point.

    The term “videogame” is to be used after the invention of the first electronic device that allowed simple games to be played on a video (or television) screen. And that was Baer’s patented Brown Box model (some might dispute that argument, of course). If you refer to these early experiments by the “founding fathers” – Goldsmith Jr., Ray Mann, Douglas, Higinbotham, Russell, Baer and others – as the original sin in the videogame industy, then I must emphatically oppose it. That sin would only be committed many, many years later. And none so serious as the sin being committed today That is the sin that I condemn, not the innocent decisions of inventors and engineers from the mid 20th century whose creations were nothing short of magnific; but the opulence of the studios and companies that have transformed this industry into a revenue generating machine. We now grieve the consequences of their ambition.

    In this scheme, the public is less of a victim than some might think. Which is why I always draw a line – call me elitist, but the art you so much crave for has always been a product of the elite. We desperatly need a videogame elite of creators whose vision is beyond the basic assumptions you listed in this text.

    New life needs to appear from them as videogames leave this old cocoon behind: it served us well for many years but something new must derive from it before its final decay. Something that will hopefully meet your expectations and my expectations. The whole idea seems impractical nonetheless: as for now, only a few games are able to hold us back from walking into the abyss.

    Cheers Ryu-San!

    • ruicraveirinha
    • June 27th, 2009

    Kombawa dieubussy! I thoroughly agree with your comment. Perhaps my text wasn’t as clear on some points, so I will naturally clarify, in order that we might reach an agreement on certain issues.

    Nimrod, OXO, Tennis for Two or Spacewar! were the precursors of what we know call video-games. My mention in the text reports only to the playful, game-like nature of these applications which later, I believe, helped lead designers into exploring that “game-y” line of thought for interactive applications. I did not mention them as to imply they are the originators of the original sin. Instead, I mention them as referring to the background that eventually lead designers to think about “games” in a certain way… which is what eventually lead to “video-games”.

    As to what the original sin really is, I think we will have to agree to disagree. The original sin does not lie in the early experiments of those visionary creators, no, of course not. But it lies in how the closed nature of those experiments, and of the companies that backed them, eventually lead to a certain conception of what a “video-game” should be. The sin lies thus in the merging of two major paradigms, the technological and the ludic. These, in themselves, would not be negative if they would’ve been counterbalanced by other paradigms, such as an artistic or narrative one. But because these only appeared much later in the medium’s lifespan, they were not in line with the common definition and assertion of video-game. They have been subservient to that tecnholudic paradigm that game designers uphold above all else. Cinema, for instance, is a medium that, besides technical craftsmen, had artists involved from day one, which is one of the (many) reasons why it bears a much broader specter of paradigms, creation philosophies and authorial currents. Games only had engineers and toy-makers.

    The commercial aspect of the industry, and its success, reinforced that definition, and eventually perpetuated it, and more importantly, exponentiated it with time. Because the second generation of designers that are now in place, grew up believing that games had to be “video-games”. Their definition of the term was biased, as well as society’s own view on “video-games”. None ever ever saw that vast plain of possibilities which the first generation of designers beheld.

    And that is why we need that elite you speak of, as to revolutionize the landscape… but an elite needs an audience, which is what I will talk about in future articles.

    As always, I am thankful for your insight, and your remarkable historic references. I wasn’t hoping this to be a thorough article, as my only source is wikipedia 😉 , so sorry about any inconsistencies or inaccurate facts I might have posted.

    Cheers Dieubussy-Sama!

  2. (This article is quite thorough in a way and it did raise many questions.)

    I still don’t see how we should consider these people’s work to be a negative influence. It’s not a coincidence that these applications are games, since this form of entertainment is deeply rooted in our culture.

    If you have the technology to make something work, like in the case of William Higinbotham and Tennis for Two, the insertion of game rules is a valid solution to organize the contents and give them interactive appeal. These people were by no means aware that they’d be, in fact, laying out the table for generations of specialized game developers ahead of them. This was the 50s and the 60s: how are they to be blamed? It was either “electronic game” or nothing. What credible form of art would be allowed by a small oscilloscope and such primitive circuitry? Guilt lies further ahead when the technology, public and resources could have provided videogames the ideal conditions to evolve.

    The word videogame, back then, had a narrower meaning than that which it holds today: it literally meant “game that could be played on a television” and it has been kept until now out of convenience. The problem lies not in the ludic component of videogames as any other thing would be a major countersense. If it is a game, therefore it must be ludic (ludique meaning “to play”), given the wide array of different genres.

    The problem here, however, may be purely semantic : the word videogame is no longer applicable to many digital entertainment experiences available at present that, in spite of running on the same systems (and being interactive) are not entirely identifiable as “games”. I find this to be very surprising in a society that has the obsessive tendency to divide the larger part into micro-partitions: and yet we still cross our arms as we watch videogames and interactive pieces of art (be they realtime or not) associated in the same group – and we could spend a whole day debating the reasons why.

    In short, videogames must be ludic. They must obey the rules of games in different proportions. Any divergence from this model, from the word and its truest meaning, should then result in the appearance of something else. I think it is possible to have art in games, as it was already shown on a number of occasions; and if we take it to another extent, then we must evade the game component – and it is in this evasion of ludic components wherein the divergence towards a parallel medium consists (may Herman Melville forgive me).

    • ruicraveirinha
    • June 28th, 2009

    I think it is not thorough enough, or else I would’ve made myself more clear and rigorous 🙂

    “I still don’t see how we should consider these people’s work to be a negative influence (…) how are they to be blamed?”

    Again, I do not see them as negative, and I haven’t blamed them of anything. You’re misinterpreting my words (perhaps I should have been more careful or have finished these articles before :D)

    The “blame” lies in the way the work these authors and its legacy are viewed today, and how they are interpreted as dogma for an entire medium. In these 30+ years, we haven’t seen a lot new forms/genres/currents/movements of video-games (whether we call them videogames or not is besides the point, you’re arguing semantics, while I am viewing the medium as whole, independently of its nature and name).

    The fact is, we have the same themes and genres Chris Crawford had 27 years ago, which is symptomatic of the decay of the medium. In my opinion, this derives from many factors, one of the main being how the medium was born as a merging of two closed worlds : children entertainment + computers. Though it was impossible to have happened differently, hypothetically, a broader and more open mixture of worlds and ideas, would have things turn out differently. Today we have that eclectic mix of people and companies in the medium, but we (players, journalists, designers) are so claustrophobic, that we shun any new attempt at revising the ideas of those early visionaries. We cling to a notion that a *insert_word_that_defines_interactive_medium* has to be a “videogame”, independently of all else that can be done in the same medium.

    And it is true that there are ludic works that are “art”, or even may be seen as art. But that is not the solution. Because a ludic model is still a model, and as a consequence, it constrains on a conceptual level what can be done with the medium. While good ludic games are welcome, they must be part of the landscape and not the whole. I do not want a landscape of video-games with only Uedas and Ueda-like creators – that is not that much better than what we have today. We need realtime art, conceptual indie games, casual, etc, We need every little different thing that exists today, plus we need new ideas to explore that vast expanse that is still untapped and untamed. We need the medium to grow and evolve, and we cannot do that while clinging on to the ideas and dogmas we created over what a “video-game” is.

    Art has no form, model, or constraints. It is as free as the minds of its authors. It lives only because of that freedom to construct anew whenever something gets old and banal. If “video-games” (or whatever we want to name them) want to be an art medium, then they must stop upholding “ludism” as a dogma. It has its place, but it should be part of a whole, and not the whole itself.

  3. Be sure to bring this up next time we sit at a table! 😉

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