Thursday, June 30, 2011

Read a Good Book: This Gaming Life - Chapter 2: The Big Smoke

It hasn’t been too long since video games turned into the cool thing to do. Those of us who remember when any mention of interest in video games was an automatic mark against one’s coolness (and the resultant effort to suppress those disclosures) know that it wasn’t always cool to love anything that smacked of “video games.” Chessmaster 3000. King’s Quest. Doom. These are the badges of honor we wear proudly now, willingly stomping about our circles in the dust, dropping these names to lay claim to our place in gaming history. But the truth is that few of us ever had the courage or peer group to do so when these games actually came out. But that’s changed.

Now, games are cool. They are beyond cool. Well, certain games, that is. But it still means a lot. What it means exactly is up for debate. Is it that games are cool because people are making bucketloads of money off them? Or is it that games are cool because they let you do things you can’t do in real life? Or is it that games are cool because they’re made by cool people? Or what? Games are cool. We can all agree on that. Why games are cool – that seems to be a relatively personal matter.  But the important thing is that the majority paradigm has shifted. And that means a lot for those of us who have been at the expanding edge of this phenomenon, anticipating this kind of moment.

Rossignol pulls out a lot of the stops in this chapter, not only dropping big names – Paul Wedgwood, CEO of Splash Damage (Quake Wars: Enemy Territory, BRINK), Jonathan Smith, Creative Director/Founder of Traveller’s Tales (the LEGO games) – but also big ideas: the reason for the change is the result of an accumulation of people who have been living silently in these virtual worlds, among video games, in video games, and who are finally finding their voice. I first read it as something of a coming of age, but as I reread it now, it’s more like the release of a long-repressed desire; like watching a child eat his hard earned second marshmallow.

I think it’s very true that the maturity of games has been a long time coming. In a short interview I did with Jim over email, I asked him where he thinks the stigma is coming from and he said, “games…[are a] new form, which is something which is always initially misunderstood. People always hate what they do not understand.” I'm sure it’s true even if we go back to the beginning of every medium of art. I’m sure the first cave artists didn’t simply draw in the deepest caves because it’s where they lived, but did so because it was probably a weird, uncommon thing to do. They were probably constantly hounded by non-cave drawing hunter types who said “why you scratch-scritch-scratch with spear. You ruin spear. You like scritch-scratch? Make fire, stay home. Don’t waste good rock. Don’t waste good spear. Stupid scritch-scratch.” And now we pulverize the bones of the hunters for data, but treasure the art of the cave painters.

Those of us who love games, and have been living in them, are now coming into our time. What we have treasured for so long is finally being embraced, not only by a few or by the “ones who matter”, but by humanity and culture. What are we afraid of? Maybe we are a bit afraid of games losing their credibility, or perhaps us as gamers losing our cherished purple hearts. We’ve become so accustomed to bearing our wounds with a begrudging pride; but in the world to come, it won’t be necessary anymore. And that's a good thing.

I’ll end this with an anecdote from one of Rossignol’s interviewees in the book:

“We opened for Guns ‘N’ Roses,” he boasts. “Technically speaking, we opened for everyone. Gibson gave us their stage, so we plugged in and went for it. We were really scared. We had no idea what the crowd would do when they saw our plastic guitars. We thought the worst that can happen would be bottles of piss thrown at us or maybe the crowd rushing the stage and smashing our faces in, so when we opened, my hands were shaking and I missed easy notes. Our tents quickly filled, as we were the only music anywhere, and they loved it. I think most of the crowd knew the game. They were cheering for songs during the options screen, and we had kids up on stage playing. Most of them were nailing the final tier songs on Expert; some played behind their head. It was incredible. It was the exact opposite of our worst fears. And playing Guitar Hero on stage is a completely different experience to playing at home. At home, you might feel like a guitar god; but on stage, people are screaming, and when you come off, they swamp to the sides to try to talk to you. It’s exhilarating in a way that I’ll never experience elsewhere. And it was a game. And everyone knew it was a game.

And everyone thought it was cool.