Monday, September 15, 2008

Seeing Games in Things

I've been mostly taking a break from games over the last week to enjoy some totally unearned vacation time. There's been some heavy flirtation with Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap and Metroid Zero Mission, both of which are delightful and non-habit-forming. I've been avoiding any serious engagement with my copy of Fallout in the interim, and I wisely avoided slipping my copy of Civilization 4 into my laptop. We all know where that leads.

But I did happen upon an antique Neo-Geo cabinet at Cosmo's Pizza in Kill Devil Hills, and was pleasantly surprised to find it sported a copy of Samurai Showdown IV. I'm not one for nostalgia, as a rule, but putting my old hand Ukyo Tachibana through his tubercular paces today was like slipping a madeleine into tea: it transported me back to the many hours of my teens I joyously squandered at the Eastgate coliseum in Mayfield Ohio, shoveling my coffeeshop wages into Samurai Showdown II while disregarding the cigarette-smoking kids who mocked my boy's-school uniform. Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdu, indeed.

Games have a weird way of infiltrating our perception of the world. The experience of seeing bathroom tiles swim with colored pieces after abusing Tetris is universal at this point. Back when I was hitting Katamari Damacy pretty hard, it was difficult to see the neat lines of parking meters peopling our streets without fantasizing about their incorporation into a rolling, squealing heap. Whenever I've been playing GTA for too long, I begin to think that I shouldn't be walking the city streets like a schnook when I could just violently seize transport from unsuspecting nearby citizens.

All these phenomena are just phantoms of an overstimulated mind, to be sure, but as games have become a mass medium they're beginning to have this real effect on how we perceive rest of our culture. During the Maryland-Cal game on ESPN last Saturday, one the commentators started talking about how a running back's spin move off the right tackle was “straight out of NCAA 09... he just hit the X button there and bounced off.” Maybe I'm just unnaturally attuned to these sorts of offhand remarks at this point, but it got me thinking about the way that a generation of gamers has come to view real-life sports through the prism of their simulated counterparts.

When games are evoked in popular sports culture, they are used as shorthand for transcendent, physics-defying excellence. The athletes that play football these days all grew up with Madden, and as a result you have colorful monikers (like Dante “The Human Joystick” Hall) that equate on-field brilliance with its on-screen cousin. I get this sense that the idol of many an aspiring running back wasn't Barry Sanders, actual dectuple pro-bowler for the Detroit Lions. It's Barry Sanders, the whirling untackleable ubermensch of Madden NFL '93 for the Sega Genesis. (My personal ego ideal was Phoenix Suns power forward Tom Chambers, he of the unstoppable triple-pump dunk.) A lot of the fun of these mid-nineties sports games was reveling in their brokenness and the attendant superhumanity. As Madden has “matured” it has converged on football, eliminating these imbalances and adding passing cones. (Who ever wanted to punt on fourth down? Why is the fact that we're unable to fake every field goal anymore a point of pride?) This is fine, I guess, but in dropping its penchant for simple, appealing absurdity Madden has also lost its distinctive place in our collective imagination.

Back when I saw the IMAX version of 300, I had this feeling that the logic of video games had begun to work its way into movies as well. The visual style, virulent anti-catholicism, and xenophobia come straight out of Frank Miller's original graphic novel, but the structure and pacing seemed to have been pilfered from God of War. Watching 300, I couldn't shake the feeling that the level had supplanted the act as the basic narrative increment. The heroes lay waste to a preposterous number of foreigners, kick back for 15 minutes to exposit, and then head back to the fight. Maybe Roger Travis is right that this whole narrative rhythm (battle-cutscene-battle), along with many other game conventions, were cribbed from Greek epic in the first place; maybe if we went back and watched '80s action films they'd strike us the same way. But it seems to me that some film directors have begun to key in on the way that games engage their audience and have tried to reproduce that structure in cinema. I don't think this effort makes for good film-- 300, like many a game, is grossly deluded about its essential silliness as a representation of human action-- but I do think we're going to see more of this kind of thing. Games have been aping film, with mixed results, for years now; turnabout is fair play.

I kind of hoped that these stray aperçus about the place of games in our cultural zeitgeist would assemble themselves into a thesis in the course of writing this post, but I've had no such luck. (All I'm coming up with is “things that boys like-- war, sports, video games, action movies-- all begin to resemble each other over time,” and this is a stupid and obvious thing to say.) Since I've been writing this blog, I've been worrying these various notions about what our enthusiasm for our new medium says about us. Maybe games are just one receptacle among others for our myriad empowerment-fantasies. Well, they're definitely that, but they have to be something else too, right? The McLuhan in me says that the way we engage with games is qualitatively different from the way we've engaged with other media, and our culture is going to change because of it-- It's already happening, but I'll be damned if I have any good ideas about what it means. What I do know is that I actually turned up the volume when I heard the Edgar Winter Group playing Frankenstein on the car radio this week, and I could see rows of gems unfurl in my head as I listened. Is this progress?


Brian O'Blivion said...

I remember circa 1995 I played hours and hours of Doom. I remember going to the MFA one night and thinking I would see some horrible demon jump out at me around the corner.

And I enjoyed Snakes On A Plane, [colletta factor] when Kenan Thompson's character, who had hundreds of hours on a PS2 flight sim game, flew and landed the plane after the snakes got the pilot.

What's the difference, really, between interacting with a game and interacting with the real world? There has to be some part of your mind that doesn't make the distinction, and the orderly mind wants to integrate its experience into the whole. Meaning, your lizard brain tells you to be ready, because there just might be a hideous demon in the Impressionist room. Maybe it's connected to the way we learn? I don't know, you're the philosopher, I just write an excellent blog.

chade fallstar said...

I kind of hoped that these stray aperçus about the place of games in our cultural zeitgeist

Wow. This kind of statement is why I tune in.

I use the word "zeitgeist" as an example of a word that is cognitively "hard" in my talk (c.f. the word "dog.")

Reading your post, I wondered if you are aware of all the research showing that playing lots of video games can actually alter your brain in various ways? Could that count as "something more?"

Nels Anderson said...

And then there's all the ARGs and pseudo-VR games even further mucking about in games overlapping with the real world. Pretty soon, it will all be eXistenZ and we won't even know it.

Anonymous said...

@nelsormensch: Wow. I sure dug that film. Total riot.

@iroquois pliskin: Feeling kind of bleak, eh? Questioning progress is heavy stuff. Though it's even more frightening when you consider something like Wii Fit.

Not to be a downer or anything. Switching gears...

At the beginning of your post, you mention Minnish Cap and Zero Mission, terming both "non-habit-forming." But is it possible you're not seeing the big picture here? For me, it's titles like these that I can't quit. I've been mainlining similar narrative staples for years. The puzzle, fighting, and rhythm games that I play are little more than momentary distractions. Sure they're all-consuming; they definitely permeate my life in all the ways you mentioned. Still...they're more like culinary adventures in my regular diet of single-player story-based action. Those games scratch an itch that other genres just can't. And they always teach me something, even if it's only about myself.


I guess what I'm saying is that maybe you oughta tackle Fallout. Or perhaps that's just me projecting. Back to Deus Ex!

Unknown said...

Great post, Iroquois. I really enjoyed your observations about sports and gaming. And I totally know what you mean about seeing things in the Katamari Damacy way!

By the way, do you have a PS3 and Xbox 360 already? If not, I suggest you take a look at this Stacker 2 contest going on where you can win the system of your choice. All you have to do to enter is design a 6 Hour Power t-shirt, which is surprisingly easy to do online. Right now there are less than 325 entrants, and there are also weekly prizes being given away such as Rise of the Argonauts and 6 Hour Power energy shots (which are great for gaming sessions). Take a look at the contest details here:

By the way, I hope you don't mind me commenting on your blog... I work with 6HP so if you have any questions about the contest or the drink itself just let me know. Be sure to tell me if you enter too, as I'd be happy to vote for your designs. Good luck!

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Iroquois Pliskin said...

@toaster: Your blog is pretty excellent. Also, I bring a rocket launcher to the MOMA for very reasons you cite.

@laz: I love the word Zeitgeist, which means time-spirit in German. Although I'm pretty ignorant of the brain science, I'm led to understand that games, like other cognitive activities, can have effects on the brain over the long-term. but because I'm ignorant I tend to hone in on those touchy-feely humanities questions about what these new media mean for society and culture and whatever.

@mtvernon: I'm not bleak at all, really. And no dissing wii fit! I'm still resentful about it calling me a fatty, but it's a fine product.

All I was saying 'bout Zero Mission and Minish Cap is that they were enjoyable in short stretches. They're impeccably designed, and I like that I can just pick them up for fifteen minutes or so to take a break from whatever else I"m doing and enjoy myself. This is a virtue sometimes.

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