Despite the comparisons, video games are a wholly new medium, allowing an interactivity, agency and complexity most other media just can't provide. Brooke talks to Kill Screen Magazine editor Jamin Brophy-Warren, novelist Nicholson Baker, and journalist Tom Bissell about the power and potential of video games and video game design.
[GAME SOUNDS/UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The descendent of Atari’s arcade game Pong is the wildly popular cell phone game Angry Birds, produced by the small Finnish company Rovio. With your finger, you pull back a slingshot holding a bird –
[ANGRY BIRD SOUNDS] - calculate the angle and catapult it into an increasingly elaborate array of structures sheltering evil pigs.
[ANGRY BIRD SOUNDS] I can't stop playing it. Maybe we're hardwired to send things flying in parabolas because cavemen did it to capture prey or something, I don't know. Jamin Brophy-Warren, editor of the literary gaming magazine Kill Screen, says we engage much more than we know with the work of game designers, but where he sees art the mainstream media see toasters.
JAMIN BROPHY-WARREN: The words that are used to describe video games, most major publications do not place video games in italics or quotation marks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The titles of specific games.
JAMIN BROPHY-WARREN: The titles of specific games. They don't -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As they would with a novel, say.
JAMIN BROPHY-WARREN: As they would with a novel. They treat them like a Toyota Prius, right? We would never put a Prius in quotation marks, or [BROOKE LAUGHS] Windows Vista, right? And I think that that distinction is very important, and it changes the way that people think about video games. They think about them as technological product, as opposed to something that was created, that there were artists, that there was a team of people who were responsible for it. And I think that that gesture is symbolic of how most mainstream publications think about video games. You know, our - our core demographic is 21 to 45. They live in cities. They generally make more than 60,000 dollars a year. But the big thing is that they're cultural consumers, so we asked them what, what other things do they do. So they play video games 5 to 12 hours a week. But their favorite network is HBO. They - they read The New Yorker and they read Wired. They buy a book once a month. They go see a movie once a month. If you didn't know that they were video game players you would describe them as cultural elites. They are people who grew up on video games, and now they have discretionary income, and they think, oh, it’s very natural for me to have an Xbox. In the same way that I have my movies and maybe I have some graphic novels and then I have my books, I also have video games right next to it. There’s no distinction there for them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is this why you have a problem with the word gamer?
JAMIN BROPHY-WARREN: I do. I think that perception of who plays video games is changing a lot. And there are a lot of people who don't think of themselves as video game players who are, people who play Farmville. Farmville is the Facebook game where you basically set up a farm and you buy in-game items and then -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how many people play Farmville?
JAMIN BROPHY-WARREN: Over – I guess it’s over 200 million, something like that. It is incredibly popular. So if it’s a 50-year-old mom in Kansas and she’s playing Farmville 40, 50 hours a week, by any other description those are hardcore gamers, but they don't think of themselves as gamers. So people who play Angry Birds, anybody who’s played Angry Birds [BROOKE LAUGHS] for hours and hours and hours, you are a gamer!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jamin Brophy-Warren is the editor of Kill Screen Magazine.
[VIDEO GAME MUSIC/MUSIC OUT] Once I tried to play a massive multiplayer online game called EverQuest.
[EVERQUEST MUSIC/UP AND UNDER] I could have been an elf or a human or a troll but I chose to enter that magic realm as a gnome named Kreplach. Kreplach took her maiden steps into EverQuest and fell down. And, like the old lady in the commercial, she – I – tried and tried but couldn't get up. For all I know, Kreplach is still lying there. Novelist Nicholson Baker wrote in The New Yorker about his own journey into video games when, in an effort to suss out his son’s obsession, he plunged into the first-person shooter.
NICHOLSON BAKER: I thought the only way to make sense of it was to do the equivalent of taking a trip down the Nile. With the help of my son, I just came up with a list of eight or nine games that were the big releases, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed. The first thing I learned was that video games are extremely difficult.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you learn how to play well enough to be able to understand what your son and his friends might be getting out of them?
NICHOLSON BAKER: Yes, I started to enjoy it, especially Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which was the biggest hit of last year. I got completely caught up in it and fascinated by the kind of odd political message that it had, or the cynicism, or maybe it was sincerity. I couldn't figure it out. But the main thing was that I died a lot, and every time I died they gave me this aphorism from all sort of people – Dick Cheney, Gandhi, Confucius. That was a good one. “Before you embark on a journey of revenge you must dig two graves.” Well, there’s a lot of truth in that. [LAUGHS] But it comes after you've died in this miserable firefight, and you’re often exhausted because you've been through the same firefight say seven or eight times and failed. I think that outsiders underestimate the importance of learning how to fail at something very complicated over and over again and then finally make it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was towards the end of your experiment with video games that you played Heavy Rain, which you said was one of the most self-consciously artistic of the games on the list.
NICHOLSON BAKER: Yes, the script 2,000 pages long, branching possibilities. You know what? As soon as you call something an art form, which obviously video games are, the people who are doing the thing kind of tense up and they start thinking we're artists, so we should be arty. What does “arty” mean to people who aren't really having fun? It means it’s a downer. And, I don't know, I, I felt that Heavy Rain was a deeply [SIGHS] unhappy experience. I mean, you know, you watch your own son die in front of your eyes and, and then you spend the rest of the time trying to save the life of your other son, and one way or another you chop off bits of yourself and kill other people. And it’s so hackneyed. Why can't things be funny and arty? Why can't they be maybe bloody, but bloody in a fresh way? Why do they have to be echoing cop shows that we all have seen from the '80s and '90s?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Novelist Nicholson Baker. Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, agrees that video games are least artful when they try to mimic other art forms. But, as he told us earlier this year, when video game designers play to the strengths of the genre, violence can be a profound experience.
TOM BISSELL: In Grand Theft Auto IV, they created this really tormented kind of awful character named Niko.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
NIKO: During the war, we did some bad things, and bad things happened to us. Maybe that is no excuse, but I need money. This pays, and I'm good at it.
[SOUND OF GUNFIRE]
TOM BISSELL: Niko is trying to escape his nature, and that's what the game is really about. Niko is fundamentally a bad guy but he has a decent sense of right and wrong, and you sense that he kind of wants to do the right thing. Now, the problem is that the game actually asks him to do bad things throughout the entire game [LAUGHS], and he does them with varying levels of enthusiasm. To me the really riveting part of the game was rooting for him and trying to play it in a way that honored my conception of him, which was as a legitimately tormented person.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're animating Niko.
TOM BISSELL: You're both observing him and you're also portraying him, which is this really weird thing that video games do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You make a point of saying, you know, that what books allow you to do is to inhabit the consciousness of another person. Is that getting better in today's games?
TOM BISSELL: Well, no. And I, I don't think it really can. I really think if you work in a medium your point is to bring out what the medium does best. As a fiction writer, what I seek to achieve is that sense that you, the reader, has entered into another human being who is suddenly a living person, and you are getting a guided tour of their mind. And that's the thing that only fiction can give you. All of the juice of video game storytelling comes from those moments in which — for instance, at the end of Grand Theft Auto, Niko has this run-in with someone who betrayed him, and Niko's been looking for him the whole game. This man is like a pathetic drug-addicted wretch. And Niko has the gun to his head and suddenly the game gives control back to you, and you have to decide what to do with this guy. Do you walk away or do you kill him? Your impulse is to show him mercy because you're a human being but, at the same time, you can't forget what Niko has sort of suffered because of this guy. That is the kind of storytelling that I love about games. It actually gives you this weird and often very troubling kind of agency. And fiction can't do that, movies can't do that. That's the kind of things that I love about games, is those moments of just jaw-dropping scary freedom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Writer Tom Bissell.
[TETRIS MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Bissell says there’s something inherent in the video game medium that creates a weird push and pull between the creator and the audience, and that sometimes they wrestle for meaning. And it doesn't leave you when you leave the game. Tetris slips behind your eyelids, raining rectangles even as you try to sleep. It’s called the Tetris Effect. How might expecting rewards and penalties from every action change you? How might long hours pulling the strings of the conflicted Niko change you? How might those experiences shared by millions change the world? Some informed speculation up next. This is On the Media.
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