FOLLOWING ARE UNEDITED TRANSCRIPTS FROM "COMPUTER AND VIDEO GAMES COM E OF AGE, A NATIONAL CONFERENCE TO EXPLORE THE CURRENT STATE OF AN EMERGING ENTERTAINMENT MEDIUM," HOSTED BY THE PROGRAM IN COMPARATIVE MEDIA STUDIES AT THE MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY ON THURSDAY, 10 FEBRUARY AND FRIDAY, 11 FEBRUARY 2000. WE ARE IN THE PROCESS OF EDITING THESE TRANSCRIPTS AND WILL REPLACE EACH ONE AS THE REFINED VERSION BECOMES AVAILABLE.
THESE TRANSCRIPTS ARE THE PROPERTY OF COMPARATIVE MEDIA STUDIES AND A RE PROTECTED UNDER INTERNATIONAL COPYRIGHT LAWS. QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS DOCUMENT SHOULD BE ADDRESSED TO HENRY JENKINS OR ALEX CHISHOLM. THANK YOU.
THURSDAY, 10 FEBRUARY 2000
JENKINS: We'll go ahead and get things started. I'm Henry Jenkins, the Director of the Comparative Media Studies program, here at MIT, and it's my privilege to welcome you today to our conference on Computer and Video Games Come of Age. I think over the next two days, we're going to have an exciting conversation with leading figures in the games industry, as well as academics and journalists who are critically involved in thinking about games, and the state of this emerging medium.
I was watching the film Galaxy Quest the other week. I don't know how many of you've seen this recent film, but there's a moment in Galaxy Quest when the Shatner-clone character, (it's a science fiction story), finds himself in a hallway in which he's got to get through. There are things going up and down from the ceiling, and across this way - flames are leaping out of the floor,. He looks in a panic state and says, who would design something like this?
Well, part of what we hope to get out of this is to find out who the designers of games are, what this medium is about, what we think of as this form. But, also to recognize the fact that we all got this joke, and that the producers of this film recognized we would get the joke, that fact is itself a symptom of the changing status of games in American culture. We're going to hear a lot about that in this first panel-the ways in which the game industry has come of age. The ways in which it's having an enormous impact on all aspects, I think, of contemporary culture. We're lucky to have a sponsor and collaborator on this conference, the Interactive Digital Software Association, and I'm joined here by Doug Lowenstein. Let me read briefly the bio for Lowenstein. Lowenstein became the first President of the Interactive Digital Software Association, the IDSA, in June 1994. Creator and owner of the E3 Tradeshow, the IDSA is the only association exclusively dedicated to serving the business and public affairs needs of companies that publish video and computer games, for video game consoles, personal computers, and the Internet. As President, Lowenstein is responsible for the Association's operations and for industry wide initiatives that affect the nation's fastest growing entertainment industry, and he's going to open things up for us today, as soon as we trade mikes off.
LOWENSTEIN: I feel like there's radiation going through my bones or something. It's really a pleasure to be here, and to be part of this conference today. You know, I have a daughter whoís applying to college next fall, so in the last six months I've seen a lot of college applications. Having taken a look a few months ago at the MIT application, and having recently reviewed my own high school transcript, I can say with some high degree of confidence that this is as close as I'll ever get to getting in to MIT. It really, it really is an honor and privilege to be here, and I also want to acknowledge Henry Jenkins and thank him for his leadership in organizing this conference and for his vision in recognizing the growing importance of interactive entertainment in our society.
I feel like I'm a little bit on his turf. About six or eight months ago, Henry came down to my turf in Washington, DC and went before the firing line as it were, before the senate commerce committee, to talk about the impact of not only video games, but other entertainment on popular culture and media. I think Henry found that to be a rather daunting experience. He subsequently wrote about it, I think in the Atlantic magazine, and I feel as if I'm on his turf now, and I hope that you all treat me better than he was treated by the members of the United States Senate, many of whom, as Henry tried to explain what a Goth was, looked at him with complete and total confusion and befuddlement as he tried to explain the Goth culture. It was really one of those great moments in Washington.
I got involved in video and PC games six years ago, and at the time I think it's fair to say that people in the business really did have an inferiority complex. When it came to entertainment, we looked around and we saw the film industry, and the TV industry, and we saw the record industry, and they all got all the attention. Yet, our markets were growing faster, the quality of the games we made were pushing the outer boundaries of technological and creative frontiers. But, no one seemed to notice. We were, I think, the Rodney Dangerfield's of the entertainment industry. In many ways, I think today's conference represents the symbolic end of the "we don't get no respect" era for interactive entertainment.
Because, make no mistake about it, video games, PC games, and Internet games are now firmly entrenched in America's entertainment universe, and the signs are everywhere. In 1999, this industry generated $6.1 billion in retail sales in the United States alone. That's up from $5.5 billion the year before, which in turn was up from $4.4 billion in 1997. Let me put that figure in a little bit of context for you. The 1999 sales figures for this industry approached the total box office receipts generated by the US motion picture industry in this country. While this year may see a bit of a leveling off on those growth rates (the 15 to 35% growth rates we've enjoyed for the last four or five years), double digit growth is certain to return as new console hardware systems take hold, and PC penetration rates continue to climb. Video and PC games will remain the fastest growing entertainment industry in the world today.
Another sign of the industry's permanence is to look at how our markets have changed. We're no longer an industry dominated by adolescent boys. Instead, this is a mass-market business, with consumers of all tastes, all interests, all genders and all ages. We do an annual survey at the IDSA of consumer attitudes toward the industry, and it's probably the most in depth look that anyone does at the markets. And, when we asked respondents for information last year about the most frequent users of video games console software, we found that 65% were male, and 35% were female. 46% of the most frequent users of console gameswere under 18. 54% were over 18, and an astonishing one fourth was over 36 years old.
The profile of the most frequent PC gamer varied somewhat, but it was similar as well. 57 1/2% were male, 42 1/2% were female, which interestingly was a significant uptake from the previous year, when that number was around 37%. As in past years, our survey found that 70% of those who played PC games most often are over 18, and 40% are over 35. Sothis industry that people think about as adolescent boys, as a toy industry, whereas in fact the majority of people now who most frequently use video games and computer games are adults, not kids. Kids are obviously an enormously important part of the market, as we'll talk about as I continue here. But, what this reflects, this aging, if you will, of the Nintendo generation, is a demographic shift which in part explains what's been going on and portends a bright future for the video and computer game industry.
Specifically, we are living with the first generation to grow up with interactive technology at their fingertips. Don Tapscott, many of you may have read some of his work, is a best selling author of books like Growing Up Digital. He's a real highly regarded futurist, and expert on the Internet, and he says that kids and young adults today work, play and learn differently than their baby boomer parents. And, video games are integrated into their lives. They're integrated into how they work, how they play, how they live their lives. Kids playing new video games, Tapscott says, are analyzing, authenticating, developing strategies, evaluating, sorting out things, composing thoughts, and building games themselves. The San Jose Mercury News recently wrote the quote, the lasting impact of video games on children has been so powerful that many educators and technologists believe that video game industry has become a central part of US and international culture, recreationally, socially and psychologically. And, as kids become adults, as these kids who start out with this interactive technology, as so much a part of their basic lives, as they grow up, as they become adults, games are remaining a staple of their entertainment diet. That's why you see more and more people over 18 and over into their 30s, who are playing games, because they grew up with games.
Another indicator of the industry's strength and importance is seen in the wide diversity of products on the market. As a new class of casual gamers, popularized games like Deer Hunter, puzzle and board games like Monopoly, and classic games like Asteroids. If you just look, just as a sample at the top selling, some of the top selling PC games for 1999, you see titles as different as SimCity 3000, and Rollercoaster Tycoon, Half life, Command and Conquer, Who Wants to be a Millionaire; the top selling game last year for PCs, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy, Deer Hunter, and Cabella's Big Game Hunter, Everquest, and Barbie Got a Groove. Not to mention, not to mention numerous sports titles, racing titles, flight simulators. There was something for everyone. If you look at the console best seller list, you see similar diversity. Of course, you have the ubiquitous, there is no other word for it, Pokemon. Pokemon titles held down the top four or five spots as the best selling games last year. You had Grand Turismo, you had Final Fantasy Eight, and you had Madden NFL. Again, a great deal of variety at the top of the best selling list. So, it's really a sign of the diversity of the consumer base.
What is it beyond this, the demographic shift that helps us understand the reason for the popularity of all interactive entertainment? Again, we'll turn to our consumer survey, just briefly. Last year, we asked Americans which form of home entertainment offered the most value. Playing video games and PC games ranked not first, you think this is all going to be good news, but it wasn't first. It was second, at 30%. The really good news, I have to say, particularly in a classroom (I think this is a classroom, right?) is that, the number one form of home entertainment that was most valued was reading books, at 35%. Video games though at 30%, doubled. When we asked which form of home entertainment provided the most fun, playing video and PC games left every other form of home entertainment behind. Nearly 40% of Americans said video and PC games were the most fun entertainment in the home, with watching TV at 18%, and going to the movies at 16%.
You know, years ago there was a Bob Dylan song with the lyric "...thereís something going on, and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?" I suspect I'm probably dating myself, hideously by citing that lyric, but in some ways it is rather apt. There is something about this interactive entertainment game experience, which has captured the attention of more and more Americans. Let me suggest to you that what's going on is nothing less than a revolution in home entertainment, led by interactive entertainment in the Internet. Interactive entertainment is not (as some people would allege) taking kids and other people away from more presumably worthy activities, as playing soccer, or going to the schoolyard with friends, or doing homework. The time is probably, as near as we can tell, coming from activities like TV. What's happening is people are moving from a passive world, to an interactive world, and video games are at the center of this revolutionary change in our culture.
Writing in the January 1st issue of Newsweek, Seth Stevensen said, " in the century to come, the medium producing the most dynamic, vital and exciting new art will be video games". Stevensen said these games will be "more entertaining than movies, more profitable than movies", from his lips to God's ears, "and yes more moving than movies". For where the moving image was cinema's bold new advantage over previous media, video games boast interactivity - an even better way to engage the emotions of the audience.
Speakers at this conference will talk about how the new PC and consul technologies will redefine gaming as we know it today. But, let me give you at least a few headlines as a preview. 3D acceleration is becoming a mass-market technology, and is dramatically boosting the graphics capabilities of PCs. Developers are beginning to explore in new ways the potential for plot and story in video games and computer games, further blurring the distinction between games and film. More processing power will allow developers to explore human emotion, showing tears, facial expressions, and emotional reactions in characters. Artificial intelligence will be so sophisticated that actions of game characters will evolve based on the decisions made by the players. Forced feedback technology will add to the realism of both consul and PC game play. Sound hardware accelerators will become available in music. What is now mostly background noise in video games will be used to drive the game and create moods and tension, much as it's used in other forms of entertainment.
The hardware side of this business is about to go through an extraordinary transition, and will offer tremendous growth potential to this industry. The introduction of new platforms, by Sega, by Sony, by Nintendo and perhaps even Microsoft, will further redefine entertainment as we know it. These machines will play video games on DVD, which means developers will be able to pack yet more content on a single disk. Their processing power will be so great that they will be able to handle massive graphic files, which will take us to new levels of visual realism. The machines will play DVD movies, audio music, connect to the Internet. In all probability, you'll be able to download content onto these machines, games, music, movies, and other things directly to your new console.
You know, there were dozens of conferences over the last five years, in which analysts talked about the convergence of the TV and the PC, but few really were thinking about the video game industry in this light. But we're about to see convergence at a mass-market price in about three or four months, and it's coming to you from the video game industry. The final element that's helping, (one of the most defining elements of course) is the Internet.
I would guess that there are a lot of people in this room who are players of games like Ultima online, and Everquest. These games have created massively multi-player persistent worlds -involving not a few thousand players, but more than 100,000 of them. On a typical night, 35,000 to 40,000 people log on to play Everquest - a game where players form guilds and work together to beat opponents. I suspect we'll hear of other exciting activities in online gaming at this conference. Microsoft's GameZone logged in its ten millionth subscriber last November, triple the total that it logged a year earlier. And most of those customers are driven not by real high-end games like Ultima, but by family-oriented games, board games and card games.
AOL and EA inked a deal recently to bring EA game content to this dominant online service provider. And even the giant Internet portal site, Yahoo!, has announced a game called Yahoo! Towers, an action puzzle game in the Tetris model. Last week, as pros competed in the Pebble Beach national pro-am golf tournament, spotters on the course noted their exact shots and locations, plotted the coordinates on hand-held PDAs, which relayed the data in turn to EA's web site, and allowed 300 or so cyber golfers to simultaneously in real time compete against the pros playing golf at Pebble Beach. That's the kind of stuff that's beginning to happen with Internet games. It is allowing people to play together, to talk together, to plan strategies together. It's creating new forms of social interaction, and it's completely redefining the game experience.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I've talked about markets, demographics, introduction to new gamers, the Internet. I think I should at least touch briefly on a few of the storm clouds that we do face as an industry. It's not all a bright and positive outlook.
First, we're a technology industry. And as much as we are an entertainment industry, technology is a huge part of what we do. Thatís one of the distinguishing characteristics, I believe, between our industry and film, and recordings. Technology is a huge player in what we do. But unlike most other industries where technology tends to lead to new efficiencies, new technology in this industry increases costs. For example, the launch of the new console platforms - with the increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence and 3D graphics - means continued upward pressure on development budgets. Top games can cost now $5 million to $10 million to develop, and take 24 months or more. Now this might not be so alarming or even troubling, except that it occurs at a time when prices are falling. So the question for our industry, the challenge for our industry is going to be managing that squeeze play between rising costs and falling, or stabilizing prices. How that plays out, and how well we do at it, will not only determine some future growth, but also will determine which companies will be dominant and survivors in this business.
Second, even as we marvel at the Internet games and the applications I was discussing earlier, it's important to realize that for all that excitement, Internet games are still only a fraction of today's interactive entertainment business. This is really remarkable when you think about it, because if you start thinking about growth numbers, and I gave you a number of $6 billion for the U.S. alone, that number would be about $6 billion more or less for Europe, somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 or $4 billion for Japan. Probably in two-thirds of the world we can't even sell legitimate products. So when you talk about growth potential for this industry, it's extraordinary. And the Internet is just a tiny, tiny slice of that right now. It's a niche industry, the Internet game sector. It's perhaps where Pong and Asteroids were when we were as an industry 20, 25 years ago. For all the talk about Internet games, there remains one overwhelming problem impeding their true breakthrough. And that problem is money. More precisely, the difficulty anyone is having making money at the Internet game business. Nobody doubts the impact that Internet games will have on our industry. Nor does anyone question the potential that games have for re-mapping our entire interactive entertainment world, from how games are played, to how they're distributed, to even perhaps how they're made. But at this juncture, question marks do surround the internet game sector, what games will succeed, how can companies create profitable business models, and how much will it cost to do so.
Finally, perhaps the greatest challenge we face is piracy. I would guess that there are people in this room who routinely steal games, who violate copyright laws using any number of self-serving justifications. But let me tell you, this industry loses $3.2 billion a year on a worldwide basis due to piracy. That's money that's coming right out of potential development and other applications. And that doesn't even include losses attributable to piracy on the Internet, which is growing at a frightening pace. This business is ultimately about content; who owns it, who makes the best games. And as we sit here today, our industry's control over its intellectual property is at greater risk than it's ever been before. Piracy is rampant around the world, even in industrialized countries with strong copyright laws.
I just came back from Hong Kong and Singapore, and I visited a market in Singapore called Sim Lim Square, which is a legitimate shopping center right in the heart of Singapore. There amidst legitimate electronics retailers were at least a half a dozen stores selling counterfeit games, including games which had just been released in the United States literally one or two days before. The price for the games was about $5 or less U.S.
( I have to digress just for one second, because I was standing in this store, not a single legal product in sight- hundreds and hundreds of illegal products. And I looked over toward the cash register, and right over the cash register is a big, very large printed sign, and it says Warning: Shoplifters will be prosecuted. [LAUGHTER] So maybe they have a conscience, I don't know.)
But the Internet, let me just briefly touch on that with respect to piracy, because again, for all its potential, it actually is a very double-edged sword for us. Web piracy is huge, and is proliferating. I shudder to think how much piracy probably occurs right here on MIT's own servers. Free PC game downloads, some probably, before they're even released. You can go on the Internet now and get games that haven't even been released by publishers. Mod chips and other devices to circumvent console copy protections, counterfeit cartridges and CDs, it's endless. And, in fact, online auction houses and search engines are lending an air of legitimacy to the fencing of entertainment software on the Internet. T truth is, it is easier to steal our industry's games than ever before, and there's no question that that's one of the real business challenges we face amidst all the growth and all the excitement that I was talking about earlier.
So there are some uncertainties, but as we begin this conference, I think it's fair to say that overall, this is an extraordinary and exciting time for the interactive entertainment industry. Speaking at last May's E3 show, Don Tapscott said, " Media are becoming digital and interactive. Much of how we play, learn and work will be based on the genius of your industry. You have an historic opportunity to become the most important industry on the planet." Now I don't know about that. Maybe a little bit of a hyperbole there. But I do know that our industry is having a profound and positive impact on our society and our culture. Over the next day or so, you're going to hear from developers who are the Busby Berkleys and the D. W. Griffiths of the video game industry. They're helping to define and create a new art form. Where they and those who follow them take this craft is anyone's guess. Newsweek's Seth Stevenson wrote, " It took 40 years of development before the cinema produced Citizen Kane. We don't know what the masterpiece of video games will feel like, but we can bet it's on its way."
So looking in the future, one can look at this industry and you could say, well, you know, it's an industry like any other, or you can see it in somewhat brighter tones. And I want to close perhaps with a joke that I've always enjoyed that perhaps sets up the contrast reasonably well, and maybe as a metaphor for the two views that I've just mentioned. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson - my apologies if you heard this joke before - go on a camping trip, and after a good meal and a bottle of wine they lay down in their tent and go to sleep for the evening. But some hours later, Holmes wakes Watson and nudges him. He says, "Watson, look up into the sky and tell me what you see." Watson says, "Well, I see millions and millions of stars." "What does that tell you?" says Holmes. Watson thought for a minute and he said, "Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past 3:00. Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small. Meteorologically, I suspect we'll have a beautiful day tomorrow. What do you see?" Holmes was silent, and then he said, "Watson, you moron, someone has stolen our tent!" [LAUGHTER] As the joke was told to me, moron was a different word, but I thought I should clean it up. Now you say, what does that have to do with video games? And as I thought about that and think about the future of this industry, my vision really is closer to Watson's as he looks at the night sky. I look up and I see a future constrained only by the limits of human imagination and creativity. The talent in this industry, some of the people you're going to hear from today, have shown there are no boundaries, only possibilities. Thank you very much, and I look forward to the next day. [APPLAUSE]
Jenkins: As I've been talking to my colleagues about having a conference about video games at MIT, we've gotten a range of responses. And I've found myself periodically trying to explain why a conference on video games at MIT - why now? Doug's given you some explanation for that, but let me offer some suggestions from a humanist point of view. I'm not a game designer. I'm not a technologist. I don't claim to be even an expert game player, but as a humanist looking at this medium, I see some important developments that I want MIT to be centrally involved with. I also have some questions that I think we as a culture need to be asking about the medium that's emerging here. One is I'm simply looking at a 25-plus year history of computer and video games, which represents a moment to think back on where we've been and to look forward in new directions.
The question of firsts are always debatable, but many historians ascribe some of the experimentations by the MIT model railroad club, and some of the playing with punch cards that took place here at MIT as an important breakthrough in the emergence of the computer game as a form. Some of the early experimentation of computer games took place here. And to think about punch card games, and think about where we are now is an extraordinary thing to look at. Having found myself in the last 12 months talking an awful lot about video game violence, I have been more and more frustrated. Imagine cinema 25 years into its history. If the only articles ever written about cinema were on the topic that all movies are violent, we would think that the critics, the journalist had missed something that was vital about the emergence of that form. And I don't mean to suggest that's the only story ever written, but the predominant story out there today about this form is whether or not this game or that game is violent. I think there's a huge universe of important questions that need to be addressed about this medium, precisely because of its economic performance, its cultural importance, its social importance.
Thereís a generation plus of students raised on video games, and it's been central to their lives. In a classroom at MIT, it's clear thatís the generation there right now; more are interested in becoming game designers than in being film makers. That wasn't true when I started teaching here a decade ago. But if I talk to students, "What is it you want to do? Why are you taking my courses?" More and more of them are interested in game design, and game design principles. Itís clear we have to as an institution keep up with that, and respond to that interest, because they're talking about some of the people in this room the way that my students a decade ago were talking about David Lynch, or Greenaway, or Steven Spielberg. If these are figures they know, they're critically debating these games, they're assessing what makes a great game, what makes an important game, and those conversations are the beginning, the important beginning of critical conversations we need to be having about the future of this medium.
There's also an economic rationale, clearly, and we've seen the numbers about how the game industry's competing with Hollywood - how it's becoming more and more a core sector of the entertainment field. There's a story about the diversification of the game audienceI did a book from Barbie to Mortal Kombat, along with Justine Cassell here at the Media Lab, and we tried to map some of the voices of women in the games industry, and the pressure that women were putting on the games industry to address different audiences, to involve young girls in this technological revolution. I'll say more about that as we go forward, but I think it's an important force. We're seeing this diversification of audiences, which I think is enormously important. We're seeing the cultural impact. We're seeing the aesthetic impact. There was an important article last year in Entertainment Weekly called 1999, The Year that Changed Hollywood. Its core argument was that the film industry last year reinvented itself. That it created a new aesthetic. Many of the films that they cited, they cited in part because of the way they had absorbed techniques from games and from digital media more generally and absorbed it into the mainstream of cinema. In fact, any film scholar today who wants to talk about what's important in contemporary cinema, has to read cinema alongside games. Has to respond to the aesthetic pressure the game industry is placing on cinema. I think that's an important factor.
I would suggest, it is the game industry that has become the most culturally important side of experimentation with interactive and non-linear story telling. With all respect to my friends at Brown and the people who do hypertext and so forth, for the average citizen, the vision of the future, of a participatory or interactive median that they're given, is the game industry. Those of us who care about the future of interactive story telling have to be centrally interested in games. We have to be paying attention to what this medium is doing. Even the fact that it is involved in social and political controversy,( even the Washington hearings that I testified about), speaks to the centrality of games as a subject people have to talk about. I want to, in a minute, come back to the moment in the history of cinema that I think parallels this one. One of the markers that you can tell film is an important medium was that politicians felt compelled to talk about it, the pressure of regulation. Felt compelled to debate the merits of particular works in the halls of Congress. And that moment is one in which you can say something important is taking place. It may be bad news from the perspective of the industry that has to deal with some of the controversy, but it suggests the impact the game industry itself is having.
We're on the edge of a major technological shift - an enormous increase in processing power. Whether we're talking about the PlayStation II or the PC games, there's going to be an expansion of what games can do over the next handful of years that really creates an opportunity to think from the bottom up. What is a game and what is its social and cultural function? What kinds of communities is it speaking to? Those are some of the questions I think will crop up over and over throughout this conference. As I thought about this conference, I reflected back on a book very few people in this room will have ever heard of,a book by Gilbert Seldes, written in 1924, called The Seven Lively Arts. In 1924, Gilbert Seldes writes this book in which he's looking at comic strips, jazz, Broadway musicals and the cinema and saying these are the vital centers of American creative contribution of the 20th century - that these are the important arts that we should be paying attention to. He sets them up against what he thinks is the banality, the stuffiness of the parlor arts, the traditional arts, the arts associated with the Boston Brahmins and their equivalent class. He's saying, "We've got to pay attention to the liveliness of popular art." He's not a polemicist; he's not laying out a systematic argument; he writes about specific works. But what he says is that we've got to pay attention to these because they're deeply embedded within everyday life. This is art that citizens engage with. This is art that everyday consumers are embracing; that speaks to them.
He harkens back to traditional functions of art in culture as the expressive form for the entire culture, not for an educated elite that's only interested in going to museums and operas and so forth. That the arts have to speak to everyday citizens. That's a standard that he's applying. They also, interestingly enough, exist in response to commercial culture. He says that's one reason why people, in his class - he's a part of the literary salon culture of his time - were having trouble dealing with it, -the commercial side of it. But he says that we've got to recognize that art in American context, in the 20th century, is going to be commercially driven. We have to swallow that and say, what is it comes out of commerce? Is it necessarily a bad thing? If what it does is pushes art closer to the people, pushes art into people's everyday life, there's important things to talk about in terms of that.
He says, what's important about this art is it's emotionally engaging. It stirs the passion, it provokes us to new kinds of experiences, it awakens our eyes, and that, he said, was the central function of art and why he said these were the lively arts. As opposed to art that was based on very familiar patterns and long-standing traditions. These are throwing out the rulebooks and introducing a more vibrant kind of culture. That people needed to be engaged with. He said, these popular arts were both conventional and experimental. That is, they had a space in which they followed formulas. They did familiar things, but they had to continually break new ground. They had to introduce new things. But it was experimentation that was tied to a popular audience. It couldn't just be experimentation for experimentation's sake. It couldn't just be art for art's sake. It had to be something that spoke immediately to a consumer, and, therefore, it had to be grounded in its culture in a particular way. He thought it was very interesting that the art that was emerging, these lively arts, were both modern, technological arts, and urban arts. That was suggested as the directions that American society was going in, in 1920-1924.
Why I turned to Gilbert Seldes, in part, is because I'd like to propose that video games be understood as the eighth or ninth, depending on how we count the 20th century, of these lively arts. That this category of lively arts is the way to think about what's going on in video games today. Now, Seldes' claims were shocking and controversial at the time he made them in 1924, but they represented a moment of recognition of changes with hindsight we can see building throughout the first several decades of the 20th century and many of his specific claims. Those about film and jazz especially have been more than borne out. I mean, if people talk about what were the great arts of the 20th century, those claims are not controversial at all at the present moment. So what kind of factors made his arguments credible in the 1920s? As I run through these, think about what I just said about video games today because I think this checklist lines up pretty well with where this industry is at today.
One was cinema's emergency from a parlor entertainment toward social respectability, aesthetic complexity and thematic maturity. We may now forget that cinema began as a parlor toy and that's the way people talked about it. The discourse of the Ď20s was that cinema was a toy that had grown up. It seems very close to the idea of games growing up, games maturing, but that idea of cinema as a toy was still in the air in 1924 when Seldes wrote this book.
Second, was the emergency of a stabilization with technology of the cinema. That is, much of the visual vocabulary that would be essential to cinema as an art form had taken shape by 1924 through localized experimentation. We are starting to see, by 1924, major accomplishments. There are a number of major technological revolutions ahead that Seldes maybe has premonitions of in 1924 - the coming of sound which will rock that industry. We can think of it as an enormous increasing of processing power as it were, to expand the vocabulary and what it could do, but he is responding to a consolidation over time of devices for telling stories in a visual language.
Third, he would be responding to a standardization or stabilization of the means of production distribution and exhibition - the emergence of the studio system, an economic market that is, by 1924, thriving in the United States. Hollywood's dominance is well established and we can count, in economic terms, the impact of Hollywood film on the American public. He would also have pointed toward the diversification of the audience that had taken place throughout the 19-teens, 1920s to reach a point where the average American of all ages went to the movies twice a week in 1924. That broad appeal included both casual consumers of film and hardcore film fans who read the magazines - who were themselves tinkering with the technology and wanted to be filmmakers. T hose two crowds existed side by side in terms of the Hollywood market at that time.
He would be pointing to the fact that there is a commercial industry that is doing exciting work (Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett), but he also will be pointing to, on the margin sites of experimentation, faces where innovation can occur. This is a question we may want to pose. Is such a site emerging in the game industry and where is it where the new works are going on, the Eisensteins, the German expressionists of the game world. There is an emergence of vocabulary of genres that are shared by audiences and film makers that recognize what it is to sit down and watch a western or to watch a slapstick comedy, to watch a melodrama. There is an emerging sign of influence of movies on the other arts The modern arts, futurism, cubism are starting to respond to the film influence by this point. There is an inclusion in major political and social debates. That goes back to about 1914 when D. W. Griffiths' Birth Of A Nation becomes a centerpiece for debates about race in America For many middle class Americans, Birth Of A Nation was the first film they went to see, in part because it was criticized by members of congress and by the NAACP on the one hand and because it was praised by Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, on the other. It was a subject of controversy and that controversy meant that if you were critically engaged with the debates of your time, you had better go to see movies.
The most important piece, or one of the important pieces, is the emergence of a critical vocabulary for talking about what is going on, a set of spaces where people could critique films, could evaluate them, set standards of judgement and set theories for understanding what made film an important art. That's the piece I see this conference contributing to as well as other events that have started to take place. Can we create a critical vocabulary for talking about games in a way that is not just an academic game and not just an industry discourse, but actually has an impact on the way the general public understands this emerging form? Again, if we think about 1924, what are the sources of a critical vocabulary?
One was the trade press. Winthrop Sargent writing for Moving Picture World might be thought of as the equivalent of the various trade publications or game industry publications that are existing right now doing interviews, doing important critical pieces, asking questions about what makes a good game... Another source is intellectuals. People like Maxime Gorky or Vachel Lindsay were writing about cinema and about general ways and specific works pointing to its importance. We might look at someone like Robert Coover who occasionally writes thought pieces for the New York Times about interactive media to one degree or another. We are a little short on the intellectual side so far, but I think there is real potential there to emerge.
We would have to talk about journalists and critics - Seldes himself would fall under that category - and then we might talk about someone like J. C. Herz from the New York Times as playing an important function in terms of opening up this space. There were practitioners. Sergei Eisenstein was a film maker who did some of the first important writing about film, and we might think about some of the game designers who were laying out core principles at conference presentations, on the web, or through Internet conversations as playing the same source of function for this emerging medium as the Eisensteins play.
There was a role for academics like Hugo Munsterberg or Rudolph Arnheim who laid out a vocabulary of what film might be. One would point to people like my former colleague, Janet Murray, from MIT, in her book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, representing the emergence of an academic theory of games of interactivity. I think Replay was an important conference in New York that Eric Zimmerman was involved with. It brought some of these groups together and that's what we want to do here.
So, what are the functions of this criticism in theory? It provided a training ground for artists and designers, which helped them to recognize their own basic building blocks and core principles, and it became particularly important in moments of generational transformation. That is, when one generation of film makers were moving aside making room for the younger generation coming up, it was particularly important to consolidate what they had learned, to pull together the basic principles they had mastered through their years of experimentation in that media, and to pass it down to the next generation, Obviously, that's an ongoing process, but it's an important one as the game industry reaches its current state. You are dealing with new generations of designers coming in who will have different ideas, different perspectives, but who also need to learn what the older designers know. That transfer of knowledge is an important function of theoretical and critical discussion.
It fostered an audience that was prepared to support and appreciate more innovative work. The film audience expanded what it thought cinema was and responded to some of the public discussions about the cinema as an art form. They appreciated things they might not have seen. They may even became consumers of new products that, in fact, would have seemed too risky, too experimental, too innovative, in response to having a consistent public debate about cinema as an art form. I think that's a function the game industry might desperately need if it's going to avoid become too locked in formulas and standardization. It also shifted the focus away from controversy and helped to provide some degree of buffer from censorship. Maybe speaking to an industry crowd, that seems a little too bold and opportunistic, but there was a way in which, if the public could understand cinema as an art form, it had some way of surviving the various rise and fall of controversy about sex or about violence or about political content or about racism. It had a way of responding to that - other than a purely defensive mode. I think these are things right now that one might want to think about in terms of the game industry.
There are certain dangers of the early critical moment as well. One was that some people would argue that it led artists to too much self-consciousness, which crippled the intuitive base of their production. Particularly, this hit slapstick comedy. There are certain stories about some of the slapstick comedians that they lost the ability to do pratfalls and pies in the face as they became preoccupied with themselves as poets and artists, and they became stifled by critical engagements. I don't want to say that criticism is the answer. I am simply suggesting that it is an important part of the picture that one wants to begin to engage with. It also led, I think, to an over-preoccupation in cinema with medium specificity. There is a sense that cinema has to be purely cinematic, that it can't borrow from the other art.
Will games become like cinema, a broad-based social and cultural institution widely perceived as a core medium for storytelling and aesthetic expression? Or will they follow the path of another one of the arts that Gilbert Seldes discussed, the comics? Where we might say that the comic strip today has certainly a base of appreciation - we mourn the loss of Peanuts, you know, from the daily the comic book is far more marginal. It has had enormous artistic achievements in the last 20 years or so, but most of the Americans don't know about it because it is perceived as a geek fan boy sort of phenomenon that exists in shops that are off the beaten path. The danger is that video games could take that same beat, face that same degree of marginalization, that it could simply be oh, we all know what goes on, but we don't want to talk about it in the New Yorker or Harper's or the critical journals that reach the main segment of the population. We don't know yet which direction it is going to go in, but it seems vitally important to have conferences like this one that lay those questions on the table. It opens up dialogue among critics, academics, journalists, game industry, game designers. We have a conversation that begins to create some critical space for thinking about the importance of this medium.
I want to lay out just a couple of challenges that I think face us as we open up that space. One is the game industry in general still needs to face the need to expand its audience base. If cinema had been made only for a male audience of 16 to 25 year olds, it would not be the same kind of medium it is today. The more we diversify the audience, the more pressure it puts on us to think of games in new ways, to think of new demands, to think of new pleasures, to have more complex kinds of stories, for more complex kinds of characters. The introduction of women into the game market is vitally important, I would suggest, and I look all over and see the impact - whether they acknowledge it or not - of mainstream game designers learning from Barbie Interactive and Purple Moon and Chop Suey and so forth. My son likes wrestling games and if you look at the new WWF games, its interface is exactly the same one that Barbie Interactive introduced, you know, three or four years ago. Now, Barbie Interactive has you design Barbie's clothes, you know, fashion her, walk her down the runway. Now, what do I do in the WWF game? Well, I design my wrestler, I model his body, I choose his theme music, I dress him, I style his hair and I have him walk into the ring. [LAUGHTER] I suggest that some of that innovation was partially learning from what was tried in the girlsí game movement and responding to this new phase.
Secondly, I think the game industry needs to develop a vocabulary, which creates an emotional impact from its visual spectacle. When I look at games, I am impressed beyond belief at the complexity of the spaces, of the visual splendor that is staring at me, but I rarely play a game that makes me cry. I rarely play a game that moves me emotionally to that same degree. If I look at the building blocks that, in 1924, Gilbert Seldes was looking at, what does D. W. Griffiths' art form depend on? The last minute race to the rescue. What does Charlie Chaplinís? Slapstick pratfalls and pies in the face. Harold Lloydís was stunts hanging off the side of a building. Eisensteinís big movements through space, the German expressionists' fantastic visual spaces. These are building blocks the game industry has at their disposal, but what impressed Seldes was not simply the kinetic quality of Chaplin, although that did impress him tremendously, but Chaplin's ability to move from that kinetic building block of spectacle of stunts and pratfalls into something that had emotional consequences. Character was the key. Psychologically nuanced characters that emotionally moved audiences were the key in transforming the building block, the generic vocabulary of the early cinema, into something that had emotional consequences.
The third thing I would say is that the industry and game consumers need to respect the formulas of the building blocks of games and yet recognize the need for broader play between formulas. Games depend on formulas for the same reason films did - easy spectator identification, quick engagement. You want to get in and understand what you are doing right away, and the film audience had the same problem, certainly in the silent cinema. Cinema gradually developed a sense of the richness of its own formula. We can think of the western, a highly formulate form that gave rise to John Ford and other important artists precisely because they respected that generic vocabulary and knew what to do within it to create diversity and to create new cinemas of interest. Cinema also went forward by mixing and matching genres. I know Next Generation and other game magazines are having really important discussions of how to mix and match various genres to create new sites of creativity. Those are important conversations that I want to lend my support to.
The fourth thing I suggest as a challenge. We have to think about the relationship between games and other arts. It is dangerous to judge games simply by the standards of cinema, and I know I run that risk in making these film analogies here today. I am not saying the art of cinema and the art of games are the same thing at all. I the standard of judging the game is simply, "Is it cinematic?", we are doomed, because it's a new form of expression. It's doing new things. It has new potentials. By the same token, if one becomes too preoccupied with medium specificity, one loses track of the fact that we are in a moment where all of the media are converging on each other in cultural and social ways, whether they are converging technologically or not. One has to actually understand the interplay between games and other media, not being preoccupied by standards set either by science fiction fantasies about VR or cinematic representations, but at the same time, not distancing ourselves so much from it that we can't embrace what's important in those other arts and carry them over into the game world. There has to be a respectful relationship between games and other forms of entertainment and art.
Fifth, there has to be a space for innovation on the margins of the dominant industry. There has to be a space where the game equivalent of the Blair Witch Project gets made, and we have to worry collectively about how that space is going to emerge and what it is going to look like. It's not going to be a serious art form unless there is experimentation, innovation, some space with lower barrier entries. Maybe the web is going to represent that, but it's a question we really have to ask.
Finally, I have to say it. There has to be discourse about social and ethical responsibility. Not a defensive one that responds to every media effects study and worries about media violence, but one that simply lays out what is the place of games in American culture? What is the social and cultural role that it plays in relation to other forms of entertainment? That involves, I have been arguing for the last six or nine months, a serious look at the question of violence. It tries to understand what the appeal of violent entertainment is. I don't think it is purely bloodthirstiness on the part of American teens. I don't think we are raising a generation of psycho killers, but we need to understand why those things appear in games, why they appear in people's lives and what their appeal is, to see if we can ensure a diversity of game product that would respond to that.
So, those are the challenges I offer. What I ask in inviting people here to MIT is for the academics to shed some of our jargon for the game industry people to shed a little of the perspective talk and the sales talk. Just roll up our sleeves and talk together about the future of this form, the genres, the industry, the technology in a serious thoughtful way, in a citizenly discourse about this enterprise that we are all involved in from one perspective or another. That said, let me simply say let's rumble. [LAUGHTER & APPLAUSE]
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