[28 January 2004]
“Of course, video games aren’t old enough to warrant academic scrutiny.” I paused in surprise, the vol-au-von I was about to devour poised inelegantly in the air. Fortunately my interlocutor was only just beginning his luddite tirade against the ludic, and I was evidently not expected to respond to the statement immediately. Slowly, thoughtfully, I chewed on the buffet offering, politely nodding and smiling at the man’s opinions, and avoiding his over-zealous gesticulating with due care.
The venue for this unfortunate exchange was a recent academic conference in Britain. My attendance at the conference had caused some raised eyebrows, though nothing on the level of this full-scale affront on my discipline. This wasn’t a video game conference, though such things do exist, thankfully. Video game conferences have grown in number since the pivotal Games Cultures Conference at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, 2001. But this more recent conference was, by and large, populated with those who practice and theorize more traditional performance forms such as dance, theatre, television and film.
My own undergraduate training is of a generalist nature, with a specialism in radio production, so I certainly feel at home discussing related issues with assorted arts practitioners and theoreticians. There is clearly a lot, I would argue, that live performance and recorded performance share in common with the video game: I would also argue there is also a lot, of course, that separates my discipline from these others. My attendance at the conference was propelled by the belief that it is essential for disciplines to talk to each other: no subject is an island, I guess.
So I’d fallen into conversation with this respected film scholar, an amiable if opinionated sort whom I liked a lot; at least up until he launched into his tirade. Apart from bridling moderately at the attack on my academic discipline, in which myself and many others have invested a large amount of time analyzing and producing, I was also astonished at the thrust of the assault. The root of the criticism wasn’t the familiar one that, well, video games are frankly too trivial to be pursued critically, analytically (at least I don’t think it was: I’ll give the gentleman in question the benefit of the doubt). My professional life and private life are surrounded by people producing and consuming all sorts of “low” culture and who would, thankfully, be appalled at the suggestion that video games that popular, sophisticated, important new(ish) artform are somehow not worthy of academic study. Film studies, it’s worth pointing out, has frequently been in a similar situation itself; and still is sometimes.
What really threw me was the idea that we have to wait for cultural artifacts to reach a certain level of maturity before we can analyse them. This seems to me, both at the time and in hindsight, a very problematic attitude and one that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Do we have to wait 50 years? Is film now a legitimate object of study because it’s passed the 100 year mark? Video games have been around over 40 years. Doesn’t that count for anything? And what about board games like Chess and Snakes and Ladders? Or physical games like football or tennis? Okay, so these games are different from digital games, but aren’t there clear commonalities amongst them? Doesn’t the existence of board and physical games extend the longevity of video games still further back through history?
I’d forgotten about this lecture until this Christmas and the arrival of two presents. My first present was a GameZone, which, at the risk of sounding like a British High Court Judge, is a really remarkable new gizmo which stores deep breath 118 classic video games in a handset. The handset simply and conveniently plugs in to the back of the television set. Hey presto, instant retro video gaming pleasure. I hugged myself in nostalgic zeal.
Suddenly I found myself hooked back on the thoroughly daft but immensely engaging Joust, in which I’m tasked with controlling a colourful knight perched atop an ostrich, my intention being to knock into other knights on ostriches in order that I might steal their eggs. I was entranced by the bouncing balls and bricks of those elegant reinventions of Breakout and Arkanoid, complete with insanely repetitive beep-boop music. As I strummed away distractedly at my handset, their dancing primary colours reflected in my spectacles, I thought of the ways in which these games are indicative of the speed at which the game form evolved in its early days. One minute I’m chasing ghosts around a neon maze in the simple, elegant Pacman and the next I’m racing against another athlete in the figurative, compellingly addictive Track and Field.
Contemporary games are also indicative of time periods in which they’re made, but these days it’s perhaps harder to see the differences between old and new games. Often it’s a tiny technical difference; such as a nuance in a particular approach adopted by one incarnation of a genre that slightly alters what went before. This is evident, perhaps, in the detail offered by an increased polygon count that kind of thing. It would seem great leaps forward in video game technology are harder to come by than they used to be.
My other Christmas present was Backroom Boys, a sublime new book by Francis Spufford and published by Faber and Faber (2003). The book, apparently originally entitled Spitfires in Space, tells the stories of recent British technological triumphs which, and let’s face facts in light of the heartrending failure of the UK’s spit’n'sawdust Mars mission Beagle 2 to satisfactorily report back to Earth, you wouldn’t immediately anticipate you’d be able to weave an entire book from. I spent the festive season reading about the forgotten British rocket programme and the sheer technological indulgence of the beautiful and much missed Concorde while digesting my turkey and coming to terms with my numerous hangovers. Of particular interest to me was the chapter dedicated to Elite, a seminal British video game which more than any other seems to somehow capture the zeitgeist of the 1980s.
I was supremely lousy at the game when it arrived on the scene, mainly because it was designed for Acorn’s BBC machine and my only way of getting access to it was through early morning or late afternoon attendance in the computer room at school. The game situates you in a spacecraft, but this is no shoot ‘em-up a la Star Raiders, which as I’ve written previously holds a special place in my heart because it was the first video game I ever owned. By contrast Elite is a trading game, inspired in part by the role playing board games which proliferated in the 1980s and which still command the attention of (mainly) adolescent players today.
As Spufford explains, Elite solved the familiar problem of memory compression in a brilliantly lateral way. The creators of the game, David Braben and Ian Bell, wanted it to be a truly immersive experience, and weren’t satisfied with constructing, say, a mere ten solar systems for the player to venture through: they wanted a universe of exploration. Braben and Bell used the Fibonacci Sequence as a means of solving the problem. As Spufford details the Fibonacci Sequence is a mathematical oddity which consists of seemingly random numbers that are in fact totally predictable. Adopting a comparable approach enabled Braben and Bell to squeeze unique solar systems into a mere 12 digits of hexadecimal code. As a clever way around a knotty problem this makes Elite an historically important artifact, over and beyond it’s emblematic stature as a game that expresses, perhaps more fully than any other digital game of the era, the Thatcherite approach to the wider universe.
From the other perspective, the ways in which contemporary video games seek to represent history (while boasting forms of realism not available to their pixellated predecessors) is increasingly worthy of discussion. The always engaging British literary journalist and video game commentator Steven Poole suggested some time ago that Vice City, with its frequent references to the 1980s, is the first example of a “period” video game. This is a contestable statement: a fair number of games have used historical settings as a basis for action; from the notorious Custer’s Last Stand to EA Games’ hugely successful Medal of Honour World War Two sequence. But it is certainly true that Vice City is very effective in the manner in which it evokes a particular recent era of history. We can speculate that in the case of Vice City music, that most immediate of signifiers, connects us more effectively than any other aspect of the game’s elaborate design to the (sometimes grim, sometimes wonderful) memories of that same Thatcherite/Reaganomic era that produced Elite.
Games that seek to represent the present will themselves become historical documents, but uniquely in the case of historical documents, ones which we can still explore in time to come. Sony’s The Getaway, which is set in a virtual version of contemporary London, has already started to date, and will provide future generations with the ability to explore a key world city at a point just after the turn of the millennium. And frankly if the world continues heading in the disastrous direction it’s adopted since the turn of the millennium, video game renderings of key world cities may be all our descendants have to go on as a guide to the recent past.
Game developers are as historically situated as any other artists. When they produce work either set in a contemporary era or in the past, both the objects of the representation and the means by which the representation is brought to life are influenced by manifold historical pressures. They are history and they are of history, which, I would argue, are reasons enough for them to be the subject of academic scrutiny. And we would do well to remember that.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/harvey040128/