Interactive Media as Relevant Cultural Discourse

Steve Gaynor has started quite the dialog on his blog, waging a bet to any taker. He states:

I’ll bet you that video games will never become a significant form of cultural discourse the way that novels and film have. I’ll bet you that fifty years from now they’ll be just as mature and well-respected as comic books are today.

Already a number of very good counter-opinions have been cited, and the bet taken, by people including Borut Pfeifer, Marek Bronstring, Michael Samyn, N’Gai Croal (drawing from a very respectable knowledge base), and John Walker. All of these posts offer insightful reasons that games may well evolve into a more widely respected and poignant medium. However, I think there are a few points missing or under emphasized.I would also like to take this bet.Of prime importance is Michael Samyn’s observation that games are a subset of interactive entertainment. I would go farther, saying that interactive entertainment is subset of interactive media. While video games have had the widest adoption in the mainstream, and are the most readily known form of interactive media, they are not the only nor the first. There is a long history of interactive art stretching back almost fifty years. This other, more underground, more academic media world has developed in parallel with the games industry, each contributing to the other in myriad ways through the latter half of the twentieth century. Today there are countless examples of social installations, music performances, and personal media experiences that incorporate audience interaction. There is currently a wide discourse about these types of artistic works in the art world, and it is hard to find a college today that is not starting some sort of artistically based new media program. There are festivals around the world dedicated to media art, and (what is probably the most telling) countless tools being developed to deal specifically with these kids of artistic endeavors. These are not works fueled by corporations and capitalism, or by adolescent male fantasy, but pursuit of beauty and social commentary.So, while it has been proven that interactive media can provide endearing, evocative, and insightful experiences, it is still worth asking why this body of work hasn’t influenced game development more strongly.Mr. Gaynor posits several pessimistic reasons for games inability to be “culturally significant”. For most of his article he attacks the audience for either a lack of skill or interest barring them from effectively engaging with this medium in a significant way. I feel this view is a cop-out, and redirects the blame from the place it should be targeted…at developers. We, and we alone, are accountable for what goes into a game, and trying to pin the lack of mass produced artistic interactive works to the inability of an audience to experience our work is irresponsible at best. However, there are some grains of truth in these arguments, and to be clear I would like to consider his points and elucidate why I believe that, at best, they point to a cultural deficit in our current society as a whole and not to an inherent shortcoming to interactive media.He begins:

Video games are hard for people to get into. The barrier for entry is higher than perhaps any other popular entertainment medium. To read a book, all you need to do is go to a library, pick one up, and start reading (which isn’t usually an obstacle considering the high literacy rate in the modern world.) At the advent of popular film, you only needed to walk to a movie theater and pay your nickel (or nowadays, ten bucks) to see the latest release. Processing the experience isn’t an issue: sit, watch, and you’ve received an experience equal to anyone else in the audience.

The main problem here is that interactive media is a much less mature art form than either film, literature, or the visual arts. Compare the approximately thirty years of video game history with a century of film, five thousand years of printed word (from the Epic of Gilgamesh circa 2500 BCE), and an epoch of visual art (the earliest discovered, the Venus of Tan-Tan, comes from circa 500,000 BCE). The cultural knowledge built up by working with these art forms over many years informs practitioners on how to best convey meaning in their contexts. It also takes many years of the wider audience to become accustomed to the language associated with a new expressive medium, and for it to become ingrained in the culture. When the Lumiere brothers showed their early film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, it is said that audience members ran out of the theater because they thought the train was going to come crashing through the screen. Whether true or not, there were certainly astonished reactions to these early works, and it took time for the public at large to begin a dialog with film, and this dialog has changed over time.The assertion that “processing the experience isn’t an issue” is also false. It is simply not true that everyone in the audience receives and equal experience when viewing a film. The amount of attention given to a film and the background knowledge bought into the theater (both of the specific subject matter of the film, and of the medium) greatly influences what a viewer gains from the experience. This facet of engaging artwork is no different in video games than it is with books or movies.The only point that may be worth considering is the high cost of a game console, and this does indeed bar entry by the general public to some degree. But, with PCs becoming cheaper all the time and with Nintendo constantly pushing the industry where it should have been going all along, the iron curtain of unobtainable hardware will not be up for long.We are in an age where our technology is advancing at breakneck speeds. It does not follow however that our cultural, social, and psychological ability to deal with the new forms we are creating advances at the same speed. To call such a young medium doomed is shortsighted.Another point Mr. Gaynor makes is that the complexity of the narratives offered by todays games makes the inaccessible to the mainstream audience.

The strength of video games, what makes them unique, interesting, and affecting, is that they engage in a dialogue with each individual player. They ask you to invest yourself in the experience, to explore and understand the logic of their gameworld, and to activate the experience by doing. Video games require you to be involved, to take responsibility for your actions onscreen. They expect more out of you than film, television, the internet or a book does. You get from video games what you’re willing to put in. The audience at large only wants to take.

I have already said what I think of blaming the audience, so I will put that aside. However, I do think that developers are making drastic mistakes in the construction of their games if the intention is to bring more relevant cultural experiences to a wider audience. Luckily, again, Nintendo (most predominately, there are many others) is leading the way here with many of its Wii games. The main problem with most games is that they insist on having failure states. For some reason in the interactive entertainment world we are obsessed with the player being able to lose. There is absolutely no reason that a compelling narrative or an artistic insight about the world, with interactive elements, has to be coupled with archaic game play concerns borrowed from an earlier era where hand-eye coordination was the primary facet of play. Now, I enjoy Pac-Man as much as the next guy, and can play Galaga for ages, but when I am in the middle of an engaging media experience I do not want to die and start over. Why put up this artificial and unnecessary barrier to audience participation?Storytelling spans all media. Narrative spans all media. Mirroring the human condition spans all media. There is nothing inherent in any vehicle that negates these overarching artistic directions. When Aries died, many of us were moved.Just a couple more points I’d like to make. The first is an actual current barrier to artistic (and thus culturally relevant) works making their way into mainstream games. It is a tools problem. It is currently too difficult for a single artist, or a couple of artists, to overcome the technical hurdles in making a console game. The people with the inclination to hire the amount of specialists needed to create a modern game are more interested in money and industry than they are with artistic endeavors. Due diligence to shareholders. This situation is compounded by the fact that the licensing fees for consoles and their development kits make it extremely hard for independent artists to start making games. These concerns will be alleviated in the future by better canvases, more intuitive paintbrushes, and more accessible distribution methods for the public at large. The games industry has put off the fate of the music industry for a few more years, but as soon as the means of production and distribution are taken from the hands of corporations and given to the audience, then we will see a great influx of all kinds of exciting interactive art works.Lastly, I would like to make what is probably the most important point: Games are already a relevant form of cultural discourse. Look at how ingrained videogame culture is in our society! Mario is an icon that is widely known, so is Pac-Man. Look at how video games are blamed for everything from drugs to school shootings. They are discussed on prime time television, in papers, in magazines, and on the internet. If nothing else in this post has compelled you to accept the relevance of video games in our culture; this current dialog about the state of the world that is reflected in our media, and the state of the art imitated in the world, should be proof that games are an important and noticed form that inform and are informed by our culture. This alone wins the bet, and I will be happy to collect any time.