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A throng of mostly white, mostly male game developers, players, and enthusiasts crowded the lobby of New School's Tishman auditorium Saturday. Bookbags circa 1980, Palm Pilots, notebooks, and pocket protectors were immediately visible. You imagine this is what it would look like if the personalities behind Slashdot.org sprung to life. But this is games, not IT (those people in your office who make sure your Net connection and e-mail work); this was the re:play conference, sponsored by Parsons School of Design and Eyebeam Atelier. These are the people who decide exactly how big those explosions in Doom or Quake will look; how Lara Croft's carefully rendered physique plays onscreen; how to construct the physics models behind racing titles like Gran Turismo. And upon closer examination, discernible among the crowd of "geeks" was someone in dreadlocks, people wearing black apparel or baggy jeans, guys sporting goatees, and, uh, some girls. It appeared the fashionable styling of Apple's Steve Jobs was creeping over the gaming masses, replacing the once-preferred unkempt, Coke-stained T-shirt look.
Unlike the traditional gaming conference, which usually consists of the tech stuff-displays of the latest graphics engines and developer tools, and forums on how to get the most polygons per second in a given action sequence-re:play was about acquiring something even more abstract.
The kind of respect this nascent industry seeks is something more than the we're-not-geeks cry of the '80s: video games should be considered a legitimate art form and deserve the same kind of academic criticism and intellectual discourse afforded traditional media-music, visual art, novels, film, television. The conference sought to make clear that there are Andrew Sarrises and Marshall McLuhans of the video game medium-and that they were in the room, or at least around the corner. The roster of panelists included a smart sampling of game makers-like Greg Costikyan (who has designed such commercially successful games as Star Wars: The RPG); Mark LeBlanc, developer of System Shock; Warren Spector, one of the makers of Wing Commander; and Bernie Yee, director of games programming for Sony Online Entertainment-and academics, including Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT; and McKenzie Wark, lecturer in Media Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
Emphasizing the need to bring together "the video game theorists and the video game practitioners," conference director Eric Zimmerman, a game developer and adjunct professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program and at the Digital Design Department at Parsons, warned of the potential threat posed by gaming's increasing acceptance in the mainstream. "Like the film industry, game development is getting more expensive. As projects get more costly, what's going to happen to the culture of games? That's a potential threat."
As PCs and game consoles like the upcoming PlayStation 2 become ever more complex in their technological designs, producing games for these platforms requires more resources. The rising costs have led to the consolidation of game publishers, resulting in a Hollywood-like studio system. Many of the game developers see this lack of diversity leading to a cultural conservatism in the industry.
"I used to be able to go to maybe 20 or 30 publishers with some confidence when I had an idea for a game," Spector said in one forum. "Now, it's much harder because there are fewer publishers."
And where many of the best-selling titles lean toward the violent, like Street Fighter, or the Neanderthal, like the multitude of football titles, developers like Spector and Costikyan find it harder to implement their "art."
Unlike the business of films-which has recently come to include a host of independent houses and garage filmmakers-game makers are less likely to effect a Blair Witch phenomenon. Thus far, Doom, a first-person shooter game, is the closest the industry has come to independent fame, and, appropriately, it is also one of the more controversial titles. The game was partially blamed for inspiring the Columbine tragedy.
"But it's not relevant," said panelist Miltos Manetas, an artist who has done a number of projects based on PlayStation and N64 games. "That violence was in no way something that was inspired by video games."
The key issue, to legitimize video game as art form and therefore as intellectual discipline, surfaced in the idea that a video game has narrative quality. This makes film the inevitable comparison, as game makers are designing the "story" behind a game in cinematic form. Gaming has also influenced Hollywood itself: The Matrix, in the end, is a representation of the ultimate game.
But such a comparison is a failing proposition. Traditional media forms like film are inherently "lean-back" experiences, as opposed to games, which are "lean-forward" and nonlinear. Unlike film directors or novelists, game makers inevitably lose authorship of their games. The player has as much to do with the story's creation as the designer. The arc found in the construction of a novel or film does not occur in a game and does not produce the same sense of narrative. It is hard to imagine, in other words, that a game could have the same emotional impact as TheCatcher in the Rye or Casablanca.
The conference also addressed the long-standing criticism that games are essentially for the select few, what the industry calls the "core gamers" (which accounts for the Rodney Dangerfield effect). Core gamers are young, male, and of an economic standing that can support something that costs $50 a pop. In this context, it is difficult to argue that game reviews in general have the same force that perhaps a Janet Maslin film review may have had; or the same academic weight of J. Hoberman's pieces in the pages of the Voice.
Core gamers buy games more on the advice of a bulletin board discussion group, the Usenet, or their core gaming friends than they do by reading newspaper reviews. And though currently hot-selling football titles and shoot-'em-up twitch games are forging a larger market, that cannot support a continuing academic discussion. The games need to be incredibly dumbed down for the masses, and then there is consequently less art for critics to review.
Manetas, however, expresses the optimism that pervaded the conference. "The future of video games is our future," he says. "It is the future of our humanity."