I only half watched Sony’s new “Michael” ad late one night (see below if you haven’t seen it yet), as I was fixing myself something to eat during a commercial break. I stopped, somewhat mesmerized by the array of video game characters that suddenly appeared as (more or less) live action characters on my television screen.
The sight of a “real” Solid Snake discussing war in a throaty whisper was what gave me pause. Then I was kind of charmed by a portal opening behind the flaming head of Sweetooth and catching a fleeting glimpse of Chell briefly flitting by. It was the Little Sister, peering at me through the crowd in that ever eerily distant way, that left me a little stunned.
I’m not sure exactly why. It was seeing that strange creature transported out of her home medium into the “real world” of the televisual that made me realize that “my characters” had somehow arrived in what I think of as the “real” mainstream media. You know, television, that thing that my mother and father watch, not video games — that space left for me (a late-thirtysomething in obvious arrested development) and the kids.
Sony’s ad is at once captivating and maybe even a little embarrassing. Suddenly “my characters” have to speak and act within a medium that may not always exhibit the greatest quality material in its own right but is at least taken seriously by generations older than myself. I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted them there. What if they sound stupid, look stupid? And, of course, they do look kind of stupid. These are more or less super heroes and super things (I’m looking at you, Sackboy) that appear in game worlds, not something that (in my mind at least) more commonly looks like real worlds, like a television commercial.
Then the final indulgence, the message of the commercial. All of these heroes of video games exist in this space to praise the valor of someone else, the player.
My immediate response was to feel total embarrassment at the sheer self indulgence of the commercial. Sure, Sony is trying to sell the Playstation 3 at its new price through the commercial, so it isn’t so much about me (or “Michael” as the commercial has chosen to frame me) as it is about my pocketbook. Nevertheless, what it recognizes about games is my self indulgence in playing games, as constantly trying on the roles of heroes is maybe a pretty narcissistic past time.
My second thought on sitting down to actually watch the commercial closely on YouTube was a little different, though. I recalled having fairly recently written an essay on ”Why Video Games Might Not Be Art” in which I discussed why (from some several traditional aesthetic perspectives) games might not easily qualify as artistic experiences. I actually didn’t write the essay in order to advocate for the idea that games aren’t art (I am of the opinion that they can be), I merely wanted to clarify why those who object to the idea that they are art might be reasonable in doing so. Essentially, the objection that games change the relationship between an artistic piece and its audience in a manner unusual to other media by really “personalizing” rather than creating a distancing effect between artistic work and audience could be seen as troubling from some traditional aesthetic descriptions of what constitutes art.
This commercial from Sony, a potential self indulgence of sorts, so clearly recognizes and emphasizes that difference, that “unusual quality” of the medium, though, by placing the player front and center in the medium by (ironically) clarifying that he is behind every major character in video games.
In a sense, this commercial is kind of the dream of those that advocate New Games Journalism, the idea that writing about games should necessarily focus on player experience. Again, by emphasizing our own personal experience in the medium as paramount to gaming as an occupation, it is the medium very clearly recognizing its “unusual qualities” as what is important and valuable (and different) about the medium. The game requires the player and calls for him because without him, the show cannot go on. Something, perhaps, true of the film or the novel, for instance, but both media merely require voyeurs peeping over the fence into their fictive worlds, not operators that drive the action of virtual worlds and virtual lives.
The question that I titled this post with “Self Indulgence or Self Realization?” is not intended to be rhetorical, nor is it one that I have settled on an answer to in regard to the commercial. I’m still a little embarrassed by the centrality of “me” that this art form seems to call for, while at the same time I’m kind of pleased that the commercial seems to realize so clearly what medium it is selling and what might be so interesting about the way that it reconsiders the relationship between art and its audience. While games may have messages of their own to convey, they also provide a place for their audience to not merely interpret those messages but to express their own as well.
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