Games & New Media influencing Old Media

At first glance, it is easy to see games, comics, and other so-called new media influencing the so-called old media of film, television, and books. Spiderman, after all, is a series of top-selling films and films inspired by game and comic intellectual property and popping up all over the place. The Watchmen, Max Payne, Resident Evil, Dead Space, the list is extensive. So much so that it can be difficult to tell sometimes which is the original medium for a particular piece of art. LOTRO is clearly the adaptation of a series of novels into a video game. Max Payne is clearly a film adaptation of a game series. The Mass Effect novel is clearly a marketing tie-in for the video game, even though it was released first. What about Dead Space? I’ve little interest in seeing the movie or playing the game, but I’m not at all certain which is the chicken and which is the egg. Certainly the game seems more of an A-list release than the movie, if that counts for anything. What I’m getting at is that I think the system is evolving past adaptation and towards a mutual or at least concurrent development of intellectual properties (for lack of a better term) across various media old and new.

This is interesting, but what is more intriguing still is that certain design characteristics from video games appear to be influencing the creation of content at a deep and creative level. Uwe Boll movies and Halo serial novels are one thing. They may be a significant step in the confluence of media styles, but I have little to no interest in viewing or reading them. Big budget movie action sequences shot to resemble game levels are another step. I started noticing this years ago, but the best example I can think of is the department store scene in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. This appeared to be filmed to appear just like a third-person shooter level. I like shoot-em-ups (and the Clive Owen movie with that title is another excellent example of game-influenced cinematography) but the connection between games and this kind of movie seems to be mostly technical in nature. I’m not well versed enough in cinematography and visual design for these kind of cross-media pollenation to resonate with me other than on a visceral level.

Today, however, I ran across an old blog posting that opened my eyes to another kind of cross-media pollination that is fascinating and full of promise. Jason Mittell wrote a thoughful essay that will soon be published in the Third Person: Authoring and exploring vast narratives anthology. Mittell’s essay is really worth reading in its entirety, so I’m only going to summarize it briefly. Mittell looks at the acclaimed TV series The Wire and the claims that it is a televisiual novel. He finds that the narrative structure more closely resembles a video game than a novel and his supporting arguments for this analysis show a deep and informed understanding of games-as-media that established gamers will find encouraging and welcome. Picking and choosing some key quotes, here is a sample of Mittell’s analysis. (Don’t take my word for it, read it it’s awesome.)

Games certainly play a more crucial role within The Wire’s storyworld than literature, as nearly every episode has at least one reference to “the game.” Within the show’s portrait of Baltimore, games are played in all venues—the corners, City Hall, the police station, the union hall—and by a range of players—street-level junkies looking to score, corrupt politicians filling campaign coffers, cops bucking for promotion, stevedores trying to maintain the docks. “The game” is the overarching metaphor for urban struggle, as everyone must play or get played—as Marla Daniels tries to warn her husband Cedric, “the game is rigged – you can’t lose if you don’t play” (episode 1.2).

Many videogames are predicated on the logic of simulating complex systems, modeling an interrelated set of practices and protocols to explore how one choice ripples through an immersive world. We might imagine The Wire’s Baltimore as the televisual adaptation of the landmark game SimCity.

Ultimately the characters in The Wire, while quite human and multi-dimensional, are as narrowly defined in their possibilities as typical videogame avatars. They each do what they do because that is the way the game is played—Bubbles can’t get clean, McNulty can’t follow orders, Avon can’t stop fighting for his corners, Sobotka can’t let go of the glory days of the shipyard. The characters with agency to change, like Stringer Bell, D’Angelo Barksdale, or Bunny Colvin, find the systems too resistant, the “boss levels” too difficult, to overcome the status quo.

If my account is correct that the videogame medium offers more insight into what makes The Wire an innovative and successful program than the novel, why wouldn’t Simon or other critics highlight this cross-media parallel as well? One answer is obvious—it helps legitimize the show by comparing it to the highbrow respectable literary form rather than the more derided and marginalized medium.

In the final quoted section, Mittell suggests that The Wire’s creators chose the televised novel metaphor over the televisual game metaphor because the general public do not accord games with the same level of respect they give novels. My thoughts are that if games & their design elements can inspire such a damn fine piece of television, that respect cannot be long in coming. Mittell is certainly doing more than most to help the general public come to see video games as a medium capable of rich narrative and as containing gameplay that does more than passively entertain.

ONLINE Northwest Conference & a step back from gaming

I just got back from the 2009 OLNW conference. I love this event. The people and content are always strong and the focus on technology in libraries makes it a very focused single-day event. This time, I did not present on games and learning in libraries and it was a nice change of pace. My colleague Lorena and I gave a little talk on teaching Zotero (a citation manager plugin for FireFox). I enjoyed our talk and working with Lorena (of course!). I recommend OLNW for any librarian who has a bit of the geek in their personality.

Anne-Marie & Rachel gave an interesting and personal talk about how Twitter & other social tech are influencing civic engagement. The conversation was interesting and engaging, plus I think the metaphors really worked. Next, I attended Anna Johnson’s  2, 4, 6, GREAT: Handouts they’ll appreciate. If it hadn’t been Anna, I don’t think the presentation title would have lured me in the door. That would have been a HUGE mistake. This was the high point of the conference content-wise. Anna combined Edward Tufte’s printed handout design methodologies with a ready-made workflow for a library’s instruction program. Chapeau, Anna, Chapeau. Next I attended a nice little bit on a collaboration at Clark College. Clark is our friendly neighbor and parter in educating Clark County students. I was a bit pre-occupied with my upcoming session, so what I really took away from this one is that I’m jealous of librarians who have faculty hungry for partnerships. The last event of the one-day conference was my presentation on Zotero w/ Lorena O’English. I’m pleased with how it went. I did forget to use my favorite metaphor and neglected to say “jiggery-pokery” but it did go fairly smoothly.

This is an insanely stessful and busy time for me at work. I’ve got my third-year review (part of the tenure process) pending and I’m presening three times in six weeks. This means that my gaming has been strickly limited to playing LOTRO w/ N. and mostly with mundane MMORPG tasks such as collecting resources and grinding my crafting skills higher. There is hope for some new blog content coming up, however. First, I have an idea to write about Alasdair MacIntyre’s virtue theory of ethics in relation to games. He uses chess to explain how virtue theory works, and I think most gamers would recognize what he’s talking about, even though he uses a different vocabulary. We often hear of politicians or business leaders “gaming the system” or following the letter of the rules to achieve ends that are outside the spirit of the rules. Gamers have a word for that, we call it an “exploit”, and in a good game it quickly leads to the exploit in question being “nerfed” or weakened to balance game-play. That is a conversation I’d like to explore further.

Also, Henry Jenkins mentioned a fork in game studies academics. He classifies us as either ludologists or finding a game’s central meaning in game-play mechanics or narratologists who find meaning in the story being unfolded/invented by the player(s). You’ll find this kind conversation every day on gaming blogs, but I find the application of labels to the taxonomy of gamers to be interesting.

Finally, I started playing Tomb Raider: Underworld this weekend. I bought the game a while ago on Steam, mainly because I’d never played a Lara Croft game and J.P. Gee has interesting things to say about some of the series. I’m really enjoying it, but I’m not sure how far I’ll go. I’m using an Xbox 360 controller and finding the control scheme and third-person viewpoint to be very different from the keyboard and mouse WASD control I’m used to. Still, it seems new and fresh to me and I’m sure I’ll have things I want to say about it after I play a bit further into the story.