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Book Review: Racing the Beam

12 February, 2010 (12:01) | Literature Review | By: walker

Montfort, N., & Bogost, I. (2009). Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. Platform Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System


Just want to give a brief rundown on a really great read I’ve come across. MIT has started a “Platform Studies” series of books where the idea is to examine a platform and its technologies to understand how this informs creative work done on the platform. Platforms could range from gaming consoles, to a programming language, to an operating system, or even the Web itself if this is the platform upon which creative work is being made. The platform in this case is the Atari Video Computer System, the first Atari home system, later referred to as the Atari 2600 in the wake of the newer Atari 5200.

The authors examine the Atari VCS as a computing system, and take care to elaborate the unique (really exceptionally odd) constraints found there. Six games are investigated in chronological order, giving the reader a sense of the programming community’s advancing skill and knowledge of the system: Combat (1977), Adventure (1980), Yar’s Revenge (1981), Pac-Man (1982), Pitfall! (1982), and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1982).

The most prominent technical details are explained in first few chapters, and they illuminate each game’s construction as an exceptional act of engineering and ingenuity. Just to give an idea of the unique affordances of the Atari VCS, here are a few of the most characteristic details:

  • The custom sound and graphics chip, the Television Interface Adapter (TIA), is specifically designed to work with a TV’s CRT ray. The ray itself sprays the electrons onto the inside of a TV screen, left to right, one horizontal scan line at a time, taking a brief break at the end of each line (a “horizontal blank”) and a longer break at the bottom line, before resetting to the top and starting over again (a “vertical blank”). A programmer only has those tiny breaks to send any instructions to the TIA, and really only the vertical break provided enough time to send any game logic to the system.
  • It was imperative that game logic be sent at these breaks because the Atari VCS had no room for a video buffer. This meant there was no way to store an image of the next frame of the game, all graphic instructions are written in real time (sound instructions had to be dropped in on one of the breaks). A designer or programmer could choose to restrict the visual field of the game in exchange for more time to send game logic instructions. Pitfall! is an example of this.
  • This means there are no pixels on the Atari VCS. Pixels require horizontal and vertical planes, but for the Atari VCS, there is only horizontal scan lines. There is no logical vertical division at all for the computational system. As the beam goes across the screen, a programmer can send a signal to one of the TIA’s register to change the color. Thus, the “pixels” are really a measure of time (the clock counts of the processor) and not space.
  • Sprites, such as they existed for the Atari VCS, were hard-coded into the ROM of the system. Programmers had five: two player sprites, two missiles, and one ball. Reworking that setup (clearly designed for Pong and the like) into something like Adventure, Pitfall!, or even the Pac-Man port is an amazing feet.

The book doesn’t refrain from the technical. I could have used even more elaboration than what is presented in the book, but after a certain point the book would turn into an academic or technical tome, so I appreciate the fine line walked here. The authors succeed at illuminating technical constraints enough for the general reader to understand the quality of the engineering solutions being described. Moreover, the authors leave room to discuss the cultural significance of the platform, and to reflect on how the mechanics and aesthetics of these Atari titles have informed genres and gameplay presently.

Making the Water Move: Techno-Historic Limits in the Game Aesthetics of Myst and Doom

24 January, 2010 (14:22) | Literature Review | By: walker

Hutchison, A. (2008). Making the Water Move: Techno-Historic Limits in the Game Aesthetics of Myst and Doom. Game Studies, 8(1). Retrieved from http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/hutch

 

This 2008 Games Studies article examines the effect technology (or the “techno-historic” context of a game work) has on game aesthetics. The author defines the “game aesthetics” as “the combination of the audio-visual rendering aspects and gameplay and narrative/fictional aspects of a game experience.” It is important to note that audio-visual aspects are included in this definition along with the narrative/fictional components. This is because the author later argues that advancing audio-visual technology will play an important role in advancing the narrative aspect of games.

The article begins with a comparison of two iconic computer games of the mid 1990s: Myst and Doom. Specifically the design response in each game to the technological limitations of PCs at the time is examined. Very briefly, we see that Myst takes the “slow and high road” to rendering and first-person immersion, while Doom adopts the “fast and low road.” As the author explains, each response was prompted by the limitations of rendering that a personal computer could perform at the time. For its part, Myst’s design chooses to simply skip actual present-time 3D rendering and use only pre-rendered, impeccably crafted (at the time) images to move the player through the world. Minor exceptions exist when Quicktime video is cleverly overlaid onto these images to animate a butterfly, bug, moving wheel, etc. This overall effect very much informs the game’s aesthetic, as anyone who played the original can recall. Myst is a quiet, still, contemplative and mysterious world. Continuous and looping sound is crucial to the identity of the world and the player’s immersion. Nearly every visual element is important and serves a purpose. The designers could not afford to draw scenes extraneous to the gameplay. The player’s observation of the scenes available is key, and the player can generally be assured that all elements in the Myst world warrant some kind of attention. Hardware limitations of the time, such as the slow read time of most CD-ROM drives, serve to reinforce this slow, methodical gameplay and visual aesthetic.

Doom by contrast uses realtime rendering at the expense of visual nuance and detail. Doom achieves immersion through visceral and immediate responsiveness, and its aesthetic is one of quick action and relentlessly urgency. The low resolution of the art and characters is compensated by the quick passing of those textures and objects, and by the near-constant survival crisis at hand. Redundancy of visual elements and spaces is not an issue: the player can face down hordes of identical opponents in similar spaces (sometimes the exact same space) and not mind at all because the dynamism of the gameplay is engaging enough to allow such repetition. Pac-Man had the same strength.

From this comparison the author goes on to speculate how techno-historic limitations inform aesthetics in general, and whether the increasing capacity of personal computers to render audio-visual components in extreme and realtime detail will inform the narrative/fictional aspects of games as well. One only needs a passing familiarity with games to know that this aspect of games has been widely disparaged in the media and in some academic writing. Some quotes the author uses to characterize the degenerative trend of popular media and the game industry’s complicity in the coming intellectual apocalypse:

Perhaps lending strength to this phenomenon is a current popular culture stylistic trend which emphasises “spectacle” over narrative and gameplay. Peter Lunenfeld has identified this broad movement in popular culture generally:

Our culture has evacuated narrative from large swaths of mass media. Pornography, video games, and the dominant effects-driven, high concept Hollywood spectaculars are all essentially narrative-free: a succession of money shots, twitch reflex action, and visceral thrills strung together in time without ever being unified by classic story structure (Lunenfeld, 2000, p.141).

And more specifically dealing with games:

“It is a paradox that, despite the lavish and quite expensive graphics of these productions, the player’s creative options are still as primitive as they were in 1976” (Aarseth, 1997, p.103).

Most interesting is the observation that richer media capabilities does not necessarily translate to glossier, superficial renderings. Richer media can mean a more meaningful experience for the player. Nuance and subtlety can be introduced, more information-rich media can mean more powerfully conveyed characters and a more fully realized narrative.

On top of this, one can expand the definition of “story” and “narrative” as id developer Tom Willits argues in this Gamasutra report:

“If you wrote about your feelings, about your excitement, the excitement you felt when new areas were uncovered [in Doom] — if you wrote it well, it would be a great story,” Willits says. “People call it a ‘bad story,’ because the paper story is only one part of the game narrative — and people focus on the paper story too much when they talk about the story of a game.”

Information, he maintains, is learned through experiences, and the experience of playing a game is what forms a narrative, by its nature. Delivering a story through the game experience is the “cornerstone” of id Software’s game design, and the key when developing new technology.

Whatever your opinion on what constitutes story and narrative in media, the author of this piece has made a compelling argument that advancing technical capabilities could directly inform the narrative/fictional aspect of a game’s aesthetics, and certainly has done so in the past.

Guarding Intellectual Property

27 October, 2009 (11:50) | Literature Review | By: admin

Roberts, Paul F., “Havok Finds Haven for Game Codes,” eWeek 22, no. 40 (2005): C1-C11.

In my previous post about incremental innovation, I noted that intellectual property becomes particularly important within a stagnant industry.  Rather than continue to develop new technologies for each game, studios often rely on one or two of the most consistently successful technologies developed by other companies.  Thus, the studio that develops these coveted technologies have the most to gain from a rational industry uninterested in radical innovation.

In Paul F. Roberts’ 2005 article, he presents an example of just how important such technological IP can be.  Irish company Havok, developer of the Havok Physics Engine, has sold its tech to several successful game franchises, chief among them the Madden NFL franchise from EA Sports.  At the time this article was written, Havok’s engine was receiving a great deal of praise, but it was also under attack by hackers looking to leak the engine’s code to the Internet.  In fact, hackers did succeed in leaking the source code for Half-Life 2, which included portions of Havok’s code.  Because of this breach in security, Havok was forced to take measures to protect its code from future theft, using a variety of digital theft prevention services, which occasionally made accessing Havok’s services more difficult for those entitled to it.

Clearly, Havok and others in the industry recognize the importance of protecting coveted IP, perhaps the most valuable resource in a stagnant industry.  Despite complaints from those who said the security made using Havok’s engine more difficult, the studio maintained that such protection was absolutely necessary for the continued success of their company.  Havok certainly recognizes the power that it derives from this engine.  With so many game studios depending upon Havok’s technology to provide the physics processing so that the developers can focus on making incremental innovations in other areas, Havok can essentially set the terms of use for its product, no matter how difficult or annoying they may be, without worrying about industry backlash.  This may be one of few incentives for other companies to develop their own major innovations: the potential to reign over a particular segment of the industry.

Incremental Innovation

27 October, 2009 (10:46) | Literature Review | By: admin

Tschang, F. Ted, “Balancing the Tensions Between Rationalization and Creativity in the Video Games Industry,” Organization Science 18, no. 6 (2007): 989-1005.

In this 2007 article, F. Ted Tschang argues that increased financial success within an industry often results in an increased hesitancy toward creativity, using the U.S. video game industry as an example.  As he notes, “product innovation usually gives way to efficiency considerations…[and] the market locks into a specific, dominant design that is based on certain firms’ superior technology, productivity, fit with the market, and capabilities.”  In other words, as the industry begins to notice growing potential for financial gain, a more rational focus on productivity overtakes the initial creative tendencies that provided for these gains. 

Thus, a tension arises between the financial desires of the companies within the industry and the creative desires of the individuals working in those companies.  In order to appease these creative needs and also differentiate their products, each video game development studio allows for what Tschang calls “incremental innovation, which involves minor changes to the products’ components.”  As in the film industry, these incremental innovations are frequently made within a particular genre.  For example, games like Doom, Quake, and Duke Nukem 3-D were part of a radical innovation in computer gaming that resulted in the formation of a gaming genre called “first-person shooters.”  In the years following this initial innovation, various studios have developed incremental innovations of this genre with games like Goldeneye, Half-Life, and Halo, which introduce new weapon ideas, creature types, and landscapes but are ultimately unwilling to stray too far from the basic gameplay forms and visual styles that made previous entries in the genre so successful.

Clearly, such a development strategy does not permit radically creative thinking.  Each development studio recognizes a certain number of genres as being consistently successful and requires its creative branches to work within those genres, cutting off the potential for wholly unique ideas from the very beginning.  Then, while creating games that fall within one of these genres, game designers are only allowed, at best, to develop one or two major gameplay innovations, just enough to assure consumers that they are buying a new experience but not revolutionary enough to scare those consumers away.   

As Tschang notes, these tendencies make important the creation and acquisition of intellectual property.  In particular, two kinds of intellectual property are highly sought after in an industry reliant upon incremental innovation: (1) a coveted game engine or other piece of often-used technology and (2) a license for the use of a pre-sold property (popular film, tv, or book franchises, for example).  Because incremental innovation does not allow for the creation of a new graphics engine for each new game, each genre has essentially settled upon a proven piece of technology for use in most games.  Returning to the first-person shooter genre, Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, after wowing developers and consumers in the original Unreal games for which it was made, other studios began to use the engine in their own games.  Thus, while the development of game engines remains stagnant within each genre, Epic, through its ownership of a frequently used engine, enjoys continued financial gain.  A license for the rights to a pre-sold franchise also has proven to be one of the easiest ways to differentiate a particular products from others in its genre without requiring major innovation.  A studio can make essentially the same game it has made before, but this time with characters from Harry Potter or Spider-man, and market it as an entirely new product.

Ultimately, this industry tendency toward incremental innovation means that the products independent game studios, working outside of the profit-driven rationalization of the major studios, are absolutely crucial if the industry is to continue making major creative innovations.  With the major studios having hit upon “what works” and choosing to focus entirely on those genres and gameplay elements, it is left to the independent studios to drive industry creativity forward.  As Tschang notes, individuals who feel their creativity is being stifled within the major studios frequently branch off to form their own, independent studios, where fresh gameplay ideas can perhaps result in the creation of an entirely new video game genre, which will then be picked up and expanded through incremental innovation by the major studios.

Mark Methenitis’s “Copymark”

23 October, 2009 (08:55) | News and Commentary | By: TimA

Mark Methenitis is a practicing lawyer in Dallas and he rights a blog called Law of the Game in which he talks about various legal issues as they relate to videogames and the gaming industry in general.  Not surprisingly, he writes extensively about the complex nature of copyright law as applied to videogames and other software.  Recently, Methenitis has started a series titled “Intellectual Property 2.0″ in which he discusses instances in which “the law has lagged behind the practicality of intellectual property management,” and he suggests possible solutions to these issues.

In the “Intellectual Property 2.0″ series on May 14th of this year, Methenitis posted an entry titled “Convergence of Copyright and Trademark.”  Essentially, as the title suggests, Methenitis proposes that we fuse together the rights of copyright and trademark into a “copymark.”   The age old problem that Methenitis is trying to address is that the date for release of copyrighted material into the public domain stands at 1923 and will probably continue to do so while Disney has the requisite funds to lobby Congress to keep Mickey Mouse from going into the public domain.  Underlying this problem is that although Mickey Mouse is a trademark of the Disney Corporation, the trademark will expire in the event that Steamboat Willie (the first appearance of Mickey Mouse) is no longer protected under copyright.  So extending copyright is all well and good for Disney and for other corporations who would like their money-making brands to stay out of the public domain, however 86 years of history are in danger of being lost forever because no one has access to certain copyrighted materials.

There has been a lot of talk about how the copyright system is broken and about how we need to revise our system of protecting peoples’ rights over their works while at the same time ensuring public access.  The idea of copymark is so simple that I’m surprised I’ve never heard of this idea before.  Essentially, under a copymark provision, a company would forego their traditional rights to trademark and copyright over a given expression.   Under copymark, however, they would retain the same rights they would normally have to trademark and copyright, but they would have to renew the copymark periodically.  If they failed to renew, then the work would automatically be released into the public domain regardless of the 70 years after the life of the author provision as it currently stands under copyright law.

This would create a situation, of course, in which Disney could continually renew the copymark over Mickey Mouse indefinitely, however the alternative is that Disney and other corporations continually lobby Congress so that nothing that was created after 1923 ever goes into the public domain.  Methenitis also points out that something which is copymarked would still have fair use provisions.  So copies of copymarked material would still be available in libraries and archives.

For the most part, I think that this is a fascinating idea.  One major potential flaw that I see in a “copymark revolution” is – to whom do we allow the right to copymark materials?  If we allow it to everyone, then everyone could potentially copymark everything they create and then nothing would ever be public.  The solution, then, is to charge a fee which would be steep enough so that only those who are making significant amounts of money off of their copymarked material would have the incentive to renew their copymark.  This would potentially create a kind of heirarchy in which only industries could maintain a copymark, however if traditional trademark and copyright laws were to remain intact, I’m not sure that this would be a problem for individuals.  Disney could also, of course, balk at the requirement to pay to copymark their intellectual property, but they’re essentially doing the same right now by paying (who knows how much?) to lobby Congress.

At the very least, I think Methenitis has proposed an interesting idea, and it is ideas like these which need to start circulating if we are ever going to have public access to the history of the generations which are alive today.

Hardware gimmick or cultural innovation?

22 October, 2009 (21:40) | Literature Review | By: walker

Y. Aoyama and H. Izushi, “Hardware gimmick or cultural innovation? Technological, cultural, and social foundations of the Japanese video game industry,” Research Policy 32, no. 3 (2003): 423–444.

This 2002 article (written 2001) looks at the success of the Japanese video game industry and attempts to illuminate the unique factors behind its success. Japan’s video game industry is especially remarkable given the dominance of “English language-based exportable cultural products” and the origin of the video game industry, which began in the US with Steve Russell’s programming of Space War for the PDP-10 and Nolan Bushnell’s subsequent creation of Atari to market and sell such arcade games.

Mega Man, hero of the early NES platformers. The design has characteristics of the <i>manga</i> style.

Mega Man, hero of the early NES platformers. His design has characteristics of the manga style.

The authors give a history of the industry and observe Nintendo’s very early interest and involvement with electronic toy games. This began as early as the 1960s with the emerging popularity of shooting games with optical sensors. Nintendo was able to recruit technical expertise from consumer electronics and provided them with early successes like Game and Watch and Color TV Game (totally cool old ad at gamepressure). But Nintendo’s historic rise in the console market with both the Famicon and NES was due in no small part to its attention to quality software; the company made sure to foster in-studio works (Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers) and hold alliances with outside game developers.

After the mid 90s Nintendo falters by retaining cartridges for their games rather than the CD-ROM; this among other factors allows Sony to rise in the market. The authors continue the brief history up to the approximate time of the article, but one main point can be drawn from the narrative: hardware and software are intricately linked and related; success frequently hinges on a deep synchronicity between the two engineering pursuits. The authors go on to elaborate this point, emphasizing Nintendo’s early collaboration with domestic electronic consumer goods firms.

The article describes three types of software publishers:

  • in-house publishers of platform developers (e.g. Nintendo)
  • comprehensive software publishers with in-house capability for most development (e.g. Square)
  • publishers that act as producer/coordinator and outsource most functions (e.g. Enix)

Read more »

What Went Wrong? A Survey of Problems in Game Development

19 October, 2009 (20:48) | Literature Review | By: walker

Fábio Petrillo et al., “What went wrong? A survey of problems in game development,” Computers in Entertainment 7, no. 1 (2, 2009): 1-22.

This February 2009 article from the Computer in Entertainment magazine of ACM takes a look at the game industry and compares its difficulties to the larger software industry. Specifically the authors analyze twenty postmortems from the archives of Gamasutra.com to characterize the problems that plague game development. I believe Gamasutra has discontinued this series but postmortems are still published by sister publication Game Developer.

A postmortem “designates a document that summarizes the project development experience, with a strong emphasis on the positive and negative aspects of the development cycle.” After reviewing the literature discussing problems present in the software industry, the authors begin to analyze the problems described in the postmortems. The games covered and the problems identified and quantified are in a table that describes the number of occurrences and overall frequency (click for larger image). Note: sometime in the future (the Web 2.0 future?) I would provide a link to the actual dataset rather than a .PNG  showing you a picture of the dataset.

=Occurrence of Problems in the Projects

Occurrence of Problems in the Projects

The authors’ categories provide a helpful navigation to the issues that arise in a game development project. As they note, this study sees the most cited problems as unreal or ambitious scope and features creep, both constituting 75% of all problems described. Notable for game archivists is a 40% frequency for the lack of documentation problem as well. The authors note low occurrences for crunch time and over budget (25%), both “said to be ‘universal.’” It’s difficult however to draw expansive conclusions from a small dataset. Moreover postmortems were not team projects or collaboratively written, rather a single participant is responsible for the postmortem. The authors usefully provide other limitations to put the data in context.

The authors conclude that the electronic games industry does indeed suffer from problems in the larger software industry (overly ambitious plans and poor requirements analysis) as well as woes peculiar to itself: the first to experiment with new technologies, tool problems, and collaboration between disparate professionals, among others.

On a final note, the postmortems are still available at Gamasutra, and they are really fascinating reads. It really becomes clear just how young an engineering and creative discipline digital game-making is, and how much fluctuation there is in how a game turns out. There are some great examples and stories there; the authors of this article cite quite a few of them.

Space Invaders

2 June, 2009 (11:01) | Emulation and Vintage Gameplay | By: walker


Space Invaders unit decoration, and an early example of inaccurate promotional art for videogames (space werewolves not present in-game).

Space Invaders is iconic. You need only look at UT’s own Videogame Archive logo to get a feel for the pervasiveness of its visuals and the sort of shorthand it’s become for videogames in general. Back in 1977 game developer Toshihiro Nishikado began work on Space Invaders, creating by hand the hardware necessary to programming the game. What happened after its release in 1978 is now gaming history, so I decided to take some time to find and play the most “original” version of Space Invaders I could find.

Of course here we enter shaky grounds. The most original version might be a Japanese black-and-white cocktail table unit with woodgrain sides, largely unadorned, with a two-way joystick for control. Or you might consider an upright unit with movement buttons and two cellophane strips (for coloring sections of the screen) to be original enough for your purposes. A bibliography of Space Invaders’ complete gamut of ports, bootlegs and revisions would be a very considerable undertaking.

For the curious person not willing to seek out original units, emulation is the natural way to go. The best general site I’ve located for getting a handle on the multiple versions of the game is CAESAR, which will often sport all kinds of image captures (logos, units, screenshots) of various versions of a game. The best general emulator for arcade games is MAME. Though presently only a 0.131 release, it’s very functional and well-polished, and is available for Windows and Linux users. I used an OS X port of the project, MAME OS X.

The other bit of shaky ground are the disk images, or ROMs, themselves. ROMs are full data captures of read-only memory chips, in our case arcade memory chips. Theses files are what the emulators read to generate a copy of the game on a personal computer. Arcade ROMs are available at many sites like ROM World, but it should be noted that copyright restrictions are still in affect for some properties.

To sum up: search for the ROM you want at ROM World or a similar site, run MAME and load this ROM, and if you like, go to CAESAR to try and determine exactly which version you’re playing.

A word of caution: playing ROMs with emulators is presently in the realm of the hobbyist, and as such all the kinks are not ironed out. You may run into problems trying to play certain ROMs. Your ROM, which contains several different files, may be missing some critical ones needed by the emulator. This is because another version of the game, or another game entirely that uses some of the same instructions as the ROM you’re attempting to load, will have those files instead. In that case you’ll need to download those files as well. If you encounter this problem you may consider downloading all the versions of the game, or go to an emulation forum to try and determine which ROM package will have the files you need. Aracde@Home, an excellent resource itself, has very active forums.

Logitecs bootleg of Space Invaders

Logitec's bootleg of Space Invaders

CV's version of Space Invaders

               
On to Space Invaders. I played two different versions: Logitec’s 1978 bootleg of the title, and the “CV” version (though I still haven’t found what that stands for), also 1978. Both versions use actually-colored pixels to emulate the cellophane-colored screens of the original units, and as you can see, the CV version emulates more strips of cellophane than the bootleg, though I prefer Logitec’s sparser color scheme. I imagine it to be closer to the real thing.

Gameplay has been described as simplistic by today’s standard, though I don’t find this to be entirely true. While Space Invaders certainly features simple dynamics and play, these aren’t necessarily any simpler than other shoot ‘em ups today. There’s strategic use of cover, nimble placement of your fighter to hit the sides of the invaders rather than the center (opposing shots cancel each other), and careful picking off of invaders at the extreme left and right to increase across-screen travel time for the invaders.

It’s rather the (slightly) slower pace and lower visual stimulation, as well as the less frequent positive reinforcement Space Invaders provides that elicits the simplistic descriptor. Witness the debilitating addiction afforded by PopCap’s recent release Plants vs. Zombies to see how keenly some game developers understand the elemental appeal of well-polished and finely honed reward systems.

But along with the pleasant explosion-graphic of the somewhat aquatic-looking aliens, Space Invaders has the high score reward, the only indication you have that you were ever there, and the only way to “win” the game. Space Invaders tugs at what must be a basic need to hold out as long as possible against impossible odds. The story ends the same way every time: the space invasion is a success, and you’re dead. But for the few seconds that Space Invaders captures your attention and you’re still alive, you are wholly in its web.

Developer Harvey Smith noted in a talk that the arcade genre distills games to the most basic and demanding mechanics. In place of compelling characters, story, writing, acting, and perhaps graphics as well, are the fundamental draws of satisfying character control and incentives. An arcade game’s world, its limitations and the role the player has within it must be intuitively grasped. Space Invaders still succeeds on all these points, and its 30+ year-old mechanics are still solid, cohesive and rewarding. I can only imagine how much more entertaining the game would be with a joystick and big red fire button.

Are Videogames Art?

6 April, 2009 (13:41) | Literature Review | By: TimA

John Lancaster recently published an essay in “The London Review of Books” titled “Is it Art?”.  The essay considers the position of videogames in global culture and asks the question: should videogames, which have surpassed music and video sales in the United Kingdom, be considered a form of art?  This is a huge and difficult question, and in order to answer it, one would have to consider that other overwhelming question -”what is art?”  Finding an answer to that question is beyond the scope of this humble blog post, but in reading Lancaster’s essay, I have derived five things-to-think-about in regards to the status of the videogame as an art form.  In no particular order, they are:

  1. The level of creativity and agency the videogame grants to the player. Lancaster states that most videogames “offer a model of play which is oppressively close to work” and that gameplay in most games is “repetitive, quantified, and structured.”  Recently, however, games like LittleBigPlanet and Neverwinter Nights have bucked the trend as they allow users to create their own game content.  Other games such as the Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls series have what Lancaster calls “sandbox potential” in that they allow players to ignore certain tasks and wander about the game world freely.  While one could make the argument that a videogame which only allows the player to go through a series of predetermined motions has little artistic potential, art is by nature a creative endeavor.  If a videogame allows the player to create their own content and/or narrative, that sounds pretty artistic to me.
  2. The visual aspects. This should require no explanation.  Human-made visual imagery has been considered art for centuries, and I would argue that the art direction and cinematography of videogames has reached a parity level with that of film and television.
  3. The artist vs. the corporation.   This is an inevitable struggle in all forms of media, however because the technology needed to create videogames is prohibitively expensive, it is difficult to find successful independent game design studios who do not have to dance to the tune of Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo.  As in most corporate ventures,  the corporation considers only the bottom line.  Lancaster points to the “proliferation of sequels” as evidence that corporate interest takes precendence in the production of most games.  So, unless the price of gaming technology decreases (which isn’t likely, considering that newer technology is generated regularly) independent game designers may never be able to get a significant slice of the market.
  4. Better content writing!!! I think most gamers will know what I’m talking about.  While the quality of the visual aspects of videogames are on par with other forms of visual media, the writing is generally cliche and sophomoric.
  5. The degree of difficulty. Does degree of difficulty matter artistically?  I think it’s fair to say that most people would consider that both the creation and comprehension of any art form requires a certain level of skill.  Videogames certainly require skill.  Someone who has never played a videogame  would be hard-pressed to master Left for Dead or Fallout 3. However, as Lancaster states, “one of the most common complaints regular gamers make in reviewing new offerings is that they are too easy.” Here we have to think, again, of the role of the corporation and their desire to appeal to the bottom line in order to sell as many games as possible.  If a game is too difficult then players might get frustrated and not recommend the game.  Of course, the game can also be too easy and therefore a waste of time and money.  It has been stated in this blog previously that older games tend to have a higher degree of difficulty.  It is sad to think that the future of videogames might be an endless stream of “hollywood blockbuster” style games which are created to appeal to the widest possible audience and therefore require little skill to master.  Lancaster states, however, “if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desireable.”  Such is the state of modern life.

Video Game “Extras”

6 April, 2009 (12:06) | News and Commentary | By: admin

In his article “Toward a Virtual Reenactment of History: Video Games and the Recreation of the Past,” Brian Rejack discusses the game Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 and its “extras.”  As the player progresses through the game, he or she can unlock bonus features that can be accessed from the main menu.  Similar to the extras that accompany films on DVD, these extras take gamers behind the scenes to see how the game was made. 

In the case of Brothers in Arms, the game developers provide side-by-side comparisons of World War II photographs showing, for example, soldiers standing next to a tank with the corresponding image from the game in order to strengthen the game’s claim to authenticity.  However, the player only has full access to these extras once he or she has completed the game.  Thus, Rejack argues, only when the player plays through the game a second time will he or she recognize those parts of the game that are based on historical truths.

In the months following the publication of Rejack’s article in September 2007, though, many games have provided these extras immediately to the player as DVDs do.  In fact, a large number of major video game releases are now offered in a “collector’s edition” package that includes a bonus DVD disc containing behind-the-scenes footage.  In these instances, the back of the game box, in addition to describing the game itself, will point out that the game includes bonus features; the Platinum Edition release of Call of Duty 3, for example, notes that a bonus disc includes the “Making of Call of Duty 3” feature.

With these bonus features becoming increasingly prevalent, we ought to consider how these videos should be treated with regard to archival video game preservation.  As we have discovered with our own project, many major developers are naturally unwilling to provide behind-the-scenes access to their programming innovations or their artistic creations, worried that competitors might steal their ideas or that their designs might become known to the public too early.  Thus, in our understanding of the creation process for a game like Gears of War, we may be limited  to the official “making of” features that the developers provide in these collector’s edition game packages.

So, should we be preserving these features in our video game archives?  When the developer is so hesitant to contribute the material creations that would normally be considered primary sources of research, do these documentary features then become our primary sources, or the closest thing to primary sources that we can obtain?  How will the archives be affected if game developers continue to commodify information?