Living History: How Video Games Can Surpass Film

In this excerpt from All Your Base Are Belong to Us, author Harold Goldberg looks at how video games can evolve into interactive history–and into a fully accepted art form.

All Your Base Are Belong to Us

Whether next year’s or next decade’s games will have colossal or infinitesimal budgets, whether they’ll be mind-bogglingly high-tech or appear humbly in our browser windows, it’s undeniable that gaming has already changed our lives and our culture. Blockbuster TV shows and movies are influenced by the action sequences in videogames–every week. But beyond the braggadocio and hype, beyond being trivial playthings that are mere toys for some, there is real depth in about 10 percent of each year’s releases, and that’s akin to the best of our major movies and TV programs. Sony’s Heavy Rain proved that a serial killer story could be influenced by the subtler, sinister human emotions à la Raymond Carver. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, with its nineteenth-century penny dreadful influence on a story surrounding Marco Polo’s lost treasure, let you feel as though you were in a melodramatic movie with all the spills and thrills of an Indiana Jones adventure.


So these are more than toys, as educator and game designer Ian Bogost suggests in his book Persuasive Games. Games can have their own kind of rhetoric–not oratory, but a procedural rhetoric that lures us into thinking and changing our points of view. So-called serious games with low budgets are used in politics, education, and medicine not to make money or to be played by millions. Rather, they attempt to convince stricken children, say, that a kind of cancer can be defeated with chemotherapy. One question to mull in the future, beyond ideas for technology like holographic play, may be whether
serious games can become subsets of more commercial games. Could a game like Gears of War take time to slip in some of the makers’ inspirations from real war battles, kind of like a battle history-fueled featurette in a DVD? Could a portion of Madden take time in a mini-game or in coaching mode to help us better understand football plays themselves? And what if, in a series like Sony’s brilliant God of War, which waters down the Greek myths, there was a section in which you could enjoy snippets of Bulfinch’s Mythology? It sure would make games far more acceptable to the nabobs who say that they are throwaway ephemera. You could say, “Screw them, I just want to play,” and you would mostly be right; but adding such stuff in a seamless way might well make the game a deeper experience.

In the opening scenes of Rockstar’s ambitious cowboy epic, Red Dead Redemption, you see John Marston, the game’s ultra-cool but scarred protagonist, who’s perhaps named after a fifteenth-century poet/satirist, board a train to a dusty, nowhere town. Quiet and alone, he sits listening to the nearby passengers, including bigoted old women who talk about politics. Then, a teen girl tries to school a Luddite preacher about the coming technology that includes airplanes. Man will never do that, replies the preacher. “Flying is for the angels.” It’s an understated history lesson of a time when the United States was in utter transition in everything from politics to religion to technology. And it doesn’t stick out painfully because it’s done with wit. It’s entertaining, but it’s delicately stirred into the Rockstar recipe of Palahniuk-esque anarchic energy and social commentary. And it all works better than similar scenes in, say, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, which tries to shoehorn history into the drama and often fails in the process. But game makers also have to stop falling back on the idea that the games industry is still in its infancy, a childhood that must be given a cultural pass even if its creations are full of cliché design and childish writing. The industry is not a baby anymore. Games have transformed from curiosities to a conquering form of mass entertainment. Do it thoroughly and thoughtfully or don’t do it at all.

As I write these words, many critics and pundits are rubbing their hands together in glee at reports that the videogame industry has been hit by the recent recession, and they are pouncing upon this news as another opportunity to denounce videogames as shallow playthings. But if you look at the history of popular art, this is hardly surprising. Novels were once forbidden and considered deleterious, leading Voltaire to pen a parody called “Concerning the Horrible Danger of Reading.” In the late 1800s, Anthony Comstock tried to ban everything from Whitman to Tolstoy, and critics were pooh-poohing the content within the popular penny dreadful novels. When movies became the sensation of the late 1800s, Maxim Gorky worried that in viewing them, “we will be increasingly less able and less willing to grasp the everyday impressions of ordinary life.” When movies were finally considered worthy of being called art, the movie critics disparaged pop music from the likes of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. And when videogames came to the fore, all those established critics–book, movie, pop music–ridiculed this growing form of expression. That’s what critics do–they sniff, they rail, they bellow and try to snuff out whatever it is they vehemently disagree with. But Transformation 2.0 is just around the corner as more and more developers elevate their games to something that’s beyond action. Soon, there will come a time when the pundits can no longer hold their noses and shake their heads. Soon, they’ll forget their concentration on the stupid shovelware games. As they look to the new diversity that will flourish, they’ll no longer be able to deny that video games are more than just toys.

Until then, those of you who love games will find the art of the game within yourselves. And until then, you’ll sure have fun playing, fighting ever more malevolent grues and traveling to new worlds on roller coaster rides that allow you quick and satisfying escape, and sometimes profound thought, and sometimes, as that non-gamer Coleridge wrote in 1817, the “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Bring it on. Bring on more gems like Shadow Complex. Bring on 3-D without glasses. Bring on holographic gaming. Bring on the next generation of Will Wrights, Shigeru Miyamotos, and Houser Brothers–along with the startling, lambent genres they’ll create. Bring it on. Bring it on. As Nightmare growls so ravenously in SoulCalibur II, “My thirst is endless.”

Excerpted from All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture, Copyright @ 2011 by Harold Goldberg. Reprinted by Permission of Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.