Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Tenth Art - Videogames are possibly the first bona-fide medium to emerge in decades.

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in India Today's new technology mag, Gadgets and Gizmos.

Have you ever been the new kid in class? Everyone regards you with suspicion. The kids gang up on you. They spread stories and titter among themselves. All without really bothering to get to know you better. Recognize the feeling?

That's exactly what's happening to videogames today. Recently, a respected senior journalist sniggered on her blog about people who considered videogames a 'serious hobby'. A noted film critic wrote of a film that 'like videogames, was all fluff and no substance'. People all over the world blame videogames for everything from mass-murder to the food in their fridge smelling funny.

Which would really be quite all right, if any of these people had bothered to play some the games they are so quick to criticize. Without the relevant understanding and experience of the medium, their ignorant, even if well-meaning, criticisms are essentially worthless.

Consider these words : “A pastime of illiterate, wretched creatures who are stupefied by their daily jobs, a machine of mindlessness and dissolution”. And that wasn't someone speaking about videogames; these word were written over eighty years ago by french novelist Georges Duhamel, about the cinema. Scepticism and mistrust about new media goes back a long way. Socrates believed that written texts, as opposed to the oral teaching and storytelling traditions, would make people lazy and forgetful. Novels were once considered too low-brow to be included in university literature courses.

Unless they want to end up sounding as silly as their unfortunately myopic predecessors, videogame bashers would do well to listen to Marshall McLuhan's words of wisdom, and focus on studying the medium itself rather than the content that is expressed through it.

Videogames (more on the term later) are arguably the first bona-fide new medium to emerge in the last thirty years, especially if you belong to the school of thought that believes that the Internet is merely a mashup of existing media (text, images, moving pictures, audio). When playing a videogame, users engage with the content in a constant, real-time feedback loop wherein their input influences the content, which provides instantaneous feedback to the user, who responds by altering the next input, and so on. All this happens in real-time, blending to create an interactive, immersive experience that is far beyond what is possible in any other medium. What this means is that the user and the content interact with each other in an intricate dance where each one controls the other's movements and responses, until it all comes together and the 'fourth wall' is broken – suddenly you're IN the gameworld, not merely viewing it through a TV screen. Coleridge coined the term 'suspension of disbelief' to describe the reader's willingness to accept the oddities and quirks in a fictional world that they would normally question, in order to heighten their enjoyment. More than any other medium, videogames evoke this behaviour in users, and reward them with experiences that, in terms of immersion, surpass anything that the movies or books have to offer.

Unlike the more passive media, gaming allows users to influence outcomes rather than merely experience them. Games like Oblivion, The Sims, or Spore merely set up the framework that allows millions of gamers to create millions of unique stories – since each gamer's experience is an 'emergent' story that wasn't scripted by the game designers, but played out through the gamers' actions. Titles like 'Boom Blox' and 'Little Big Planet' are merely new ways of tapping into the same joys of playing with Lego, Play-Doh or Meccano kits – with features that simply wouldn't be possible in physical media. And the party's merely starting.

With technologies such as BrainGate and AmbX taking the gaming experience closer to a full sensory experience, the medium continues to grow at a frightening pace. Already, games like Tom Clancy's Endwar enable you to control the game by speaking voice commands into a microphone. Force Feedback vests simulate the effect of bullets pounding into your armour when playing Call of Duty. Soon, you will be able to control gaming systems using thought commands. You'll feel the heat burning your face as you run through a burning wreckage to make your escape. You'll smell the rotting zombies well before they charge at you with raised hand-axes. Users will experience levels of immersion not even dreamed possible a few years ago.

Alain and Frederic Le Diberder, in their seminal book L'Univers des Jeux Video, call videogames 'the tenth art' ( Tradition names six : music, poetry, architecture, painting, dance and sculpture. The Le Diberders add TV, cinema and comics to the list.) Whether you agree or not, there's no disputing that the gaming revolution is already here. The worldwide videogame industry is worth over fifty billion dollars.

Now, stop for a moment and think of the possibilities that open up when the medium matures, and people start using it for purposes other than racing cars or killing things. The print, audio and visual media are all used not merely to entertain, but also to inform, educate, train and so much more. Already, games are being successfully used to train people in areas as diverse as military tactics, disaster management and flight operations. Schools all over the world are discovering that using games to teach children a range of subjects from math to history to language are incredibly effective. Game technology is finding application in creating explorable virtual spaces for industries such as tourism, architecture and real estate.

Which is why the term 'game' is actually a rather misleading word to describe this new medium. It describes the message more than the medium itself, much like the word 'comic book' is used to describe rather serious works in the horror, adventure or romance genres. It's more due to the fact that, at this stage of relative infancy, the medium is almost solely used to create products meant only to entertain. Happily, the term is likely to stick, at least until someone comes up with an equivalent to the convenient 'graphic novel' moniker that Will Eisner invented to broaden the scope and appeal of comics.

It's an exciting time – the opportunity to actually watch an entire medium take birth and evolve is an exhilarating experience. For those of us who've been around long enough to have seen a PONG machine, experiencing Niko Bellic explore Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV isn't merely a thrill, it's a signpost that shows the way to the future.

A word of advice to those of you who think videogames are evil or dangerous or just plain stupid : Get to know that new kid in class. He just might become your boss someday.


  1. Wow you kicked some senior journalist butt there. Great going. =D (standing ovation)

    PS: May I know who that journo is? I would like to troll that blog, just kidding I think I would looooove to explain it out to them much like you did =D By the way whom are you writing for next? New Indian express, now India Today... next?

  2. Indeed!

    This is a perfect example of "History repeats itself"

    It all plays like a story. Something new gets introduced, it gains wide acceptance with the younger generations, but its disregarded by the "learned elders" (i.e old people) as something the kids like because they dont know any better.

    Just like denial is the first reaction when it comes to change (for most people). People devoted to the "present arts" have nothing but contempt for the new thing that's gaining *street cred*.

    Like the new kid in the class. It could also be that new,popular person in class who you'll brush off giving many reason why he's bad (not necessarily true). who will probably steal your girlfriend :P Also something like Malena where the most beautiful lady in the town is told off as a ___ by every wife. Oh wait.. I'm repeating myself (and what you said :P )

    I like listening to all these "games is art" debates/Op-Eds and observe things like a member of the audience of this "Yes Vs No" play.You know.. like those historian, who love observing and recording, have an opinion, but wont necessarily take part in the debate.

    Its obvious that after a few years(maybe decades?) it will gain recognition as one of the arts.

    The best thing is to not care and keep doing it.. the people of tomorrow will grow up with it, they'll understand and accept it. Start doing things like first integrating into institutions, then the next phases.It will all turn out fine and future wont even know there was struggle (like we didnt know about Socrates and all that about movies till we read in some obscure books :P )

    But one thing I am most looking forward to is.. what will be that thing that all the future "artists" (game people included) will brush off as nonsense. (which will start the cycle again) hehe..

  3. @balu

    Many movie reviewers said that when they reviewed Terminator Salvation and evaluated that likeness to games as the "bad" thing about the movie. check []

    Also, Roger Ebert [].. the world renowned Movie critic (think of him as that villain from Ratatouille only he doesnt improve later on). Is the biggest person who is against recognizing games as art. He has said things about video games like what Georges Duhamel said about Movies.