Television HUD Creep

Perhaps it is the NFL that’s starting to look more like Madden?

The creep towards cinematic experiences in games should be apparent to even the most casual video game observers. From Journey to Uncharted, cinematography, intricate musical scores, and fleshed out characters are increasingly used as tools to convey meaning. Games like Dead Space go to great lengths to minimize any traditional signs of a video game: health meters, ammo counts, and mission waypoints are all either carefully rationalized in the game world or given as little screen time as possible.

What’s been more subtle is the concurrent movement in the opposite direction when it comes to television. It has happened slowly, but more live action broadcasts are starting to develop HUDs. It’s easy to get acclimated to these new ways of conveying information, but it’s worth noticing them both because they change the way that we watch television and because they are a reminder that the transfer of visual styles isn’t always a one way street.

I was reminded of this topic because I just started watching House of Cards (yes, yes, welcome to 2012). I knew very little about the show or it’s visual style, so I was intrigued by how it handled text messages:

Texting has become one of the most common ways of communicating, but it’s a hard dynamic to convey on screen. Most shows (even House of Cards seems to do this in later episodes) fall back on the predictable choice of simply zooming in on the phone screen. It’s serviceable, but awkward. Huge block letters, grainy pixels, and a need for cut away reaction shots slow down scenes and misrepresent the core social dynamic of texting. It is quasi-instantaneous, since you can be doing multiple things while shooting messages back and forth. At the same time, it’s fairly isolating and time consuming. In the absence of either the courage or the opportunity to instigate a direct interaction, you can easily find yourself waiting on a chunk of plastic to give you your next instructions.

In either case, texting is something that shares space with other actions in your life. It can happen around the periphery of your attention or it can be front and center, but the point is that it is integrated into a scene rather than the dedicated focus of the scene. They dynamic appears time and again in video games. Sometimes there are actual in-game text messages like in Grand Theft Auto V, but things like quest markers, timers, objective popups, and even life meters all fall into this category of information that needs to be on screen but shouldn’t steal complete focus from the scene. When House of Cards pops text message bubbles onto the screen, the feeling of verisimilitude is actually enhanced. Text messages don’t exist as animate objects in the real world, but their presence in life is conveyed by giving them physical presence of the scene.

The second and more obvious place that I see this augmented reality assert itself is in sports. Here, I think, the prevalence of digitally-superimposed finish lines, graphics, and timers is probably more a factor of the technology catching up with the concept. The technology and techniques for doing this kind of live modification weren’t feasible until relatively recently, but their clear resemblance to long-standing video game UI elements is a validation that such things are valuable.

Long before every sports broadcast had a live game clock and score box emblazoned across the top or in the corner of the screen, we had them in video games. The NFL has actually started to look more like Madden in recent years, since football broadcasts can highlight players on the fly, quickly pull up super slow-motion replays, and even give on-line viewers control over camera angles. The recent Winter Olympics dynamic lap lines and times were superimposed onto the various tracks and mountains. Runs of previous skiers were layered on top of one another to make them look like they were simultaneously on the same track in a way that struck me as amusingly Mario Kart-esque. These were world class athletes, but we were being shown them competing against “ghosts” in much the same way that we would see in racing video games.

Since the earliest days of Pong, competitive video games have done a great job of consistently presenting crucial match data, and now we’re seeing live broadcasts do the same. The next frontier is the audience control we see in games like Dota 2, in which spectators have not only the information, but also the ability to frame the match in a way that’s most interesting to them. Again, we’re seeing some of this in NBC’s on-line NFL coverage, but the limitations of the television as a relatively passive object mean that video game interfaces will probably be more customizable and sophisticated for years to come.

All this isn’t to say that on-screen graphics should be mandated for television, nor is it the point to declare the supremacy of one medium over another. There can be value in spartan art direction and un-doctored images from both aesthetic and historical perspectives. The point is to remember that channels of influences flow both ways; video games aren’t always the ones striving to incorporate material from TV and movies. Innovative ideas and technological advances make for more visuals, regardless of what we’re watching.

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