sep 27

Game Culture: A Glimpse into the Present

Today, I want to touch on a few topics related to game culture -- and how it intersects with movies, music, and digital communication. I know, that intro sentence sounds about as fun as an a capella Bjork album (oh wait!). So instead of getting pedantic, let's look at the gaming landscape by pointing out new phenomena in digital entertainment, with a focus on how gaming is influencing all media. This isn't necessarily a cohesive essay with a single objective, but I hope it's more than another "Synergy of The Matrix" piece. Let's just call this a Scrappy Collection of Thoughts About Various Gaming Trends that have been of recent fascination to me:


I won't try to convince you that the mashup of a teen-goth BloodRayne 2 video game and a teen-goth Evanescence music video belongs in the canon of required cultural material for our time. In other words, don't sigh if your TiVo missed Video Mods, a new series on MTV2 in which video game characters and landscapes are used to create music videos. I guess the worst thing that one could say about Video Mods is that Viacom is blatantly ripping off Machinima to attract video game advertising to television.

Even if that's true, it's also much more.

But first: a part of me wants to tell you that the convergence of these mediums is the perfect metaphor for the current state of the music industry. This cynical critique would go something like this: little pac men (consumers) run around a contested maze (Virgin Records) gobbling up indistinguishable dots (songs/albums) and ghosts (musicians). It's a sociological Flatland out there, in which demographics are empty ciphers with unlimited purchasing power -- the same goddamn person buys (or downloads) Outkast, Evanescence, and Creed. À la carte pop culture icons are sculpted with the same care that goes into creating Sims characters -- complete with readymade identities that become obsolete faster than you can blurt "Friendster." Identity is the currency of the music industry, and it's a free market economy of Pokemon cards: I'll trade you a "Britney Reinvented #24" for a "Cleaned Up Christina #9." Virtual video game characters taking over the role of musician is nothing more than the next step in the MilliVanilling of the music industry.

But, like I said, I don't really buy that mojo. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in cynically looking at pop culture icons, but I think it ultimately misses a key point in understanding the attraction of Video Mods. For evidence, take a look at The Sims 2 video mod of the Fountains of Wayne song "Stacy's Mom."

The Sims is the top dog of this medium so far. Not only is it the highest-selling series of all time, but it has come to represent a watershed creative moment in the industry. So why, one might ask, would "Stacy's Mom" score the grand prize of The Sims mod?

I honestly have no idea. But I think you'll see a clue by looking at the storyline behind "Stacy's Mom." You might say the Fountains of Wayne song is just a MILF romp imagined by a horny adolescent. But in reality, it's not even that -- it's actually sung by thirty-somethings who are themselves projecting a tweener dream. Basically, it's a wish fulfillment nostalgia fantasy from guys old enough to be Stacy's Dad.

So now, what is The Sims? That's more complex, but one could say it is an interactive world where players bring to life characters outside their normal demographic makeup. In other words, it's a giant role-playing fantasy.

Starting to see a trend here? Let's move on....


In the age of Suicide Girls, it's amazing that Playboy is still around. And it's amazing that I bother to mention the publication in a video game rant. But even as I say this, I realize that for the first time in my life, I bought an issue of Playboy last month, simply because the magazine has done a remarkable job of staying relevant in a digital age. For instance, the Google guys interview and the Washingtonienne spread reminded me that the magazine could still be relevant.

Or maybe these are just the last gasps of breath of a dying Boomer ideology. I'd entertain that argument too.

Anyway, when Playboy announced they would be doing a photo spread of characters from video games, you could instantly picture a digital historian somewhere writing this event into a timeline of important virtual character events (chronologically right after reality TV and right before the holodeck). Hackers modding Lara Croft into a pinup is one thing, but the mainstream culture industry getting sly with virtual sexuality says a lot more about where we are. This single layout might actually become the best indicator of the mainstreaming of a number of (previously) fringe activities and concepts: virtual sexuality, video game culture, user-modified content, reality blurring. And a new video game, Playboy: The Mansion, a Sims-like romp through Hef's mansion, will take this even further.


Forget sex, war is where it's at.

A lot has been said recently about the relationship between the industrial war complex and video games (such as in articles in The New York Times and Wired). When the Army created the game America's Army to recruit soldiers, it seemed that Ender's Game truly was going to happen. I'm working on an article for publication about this theme, so let's breeze past this topic for the moment.


Every night over the last week, I've sat in a room with a computer and TV, playing the recently-released The Sims 2 and watching late night talk shows. Something important changed last night: I turned off the TV and started watching the show that my Sim character was watching on his television.

I don't think I can even articulate how hyper-real this is.


The spurt of ironic glee about Flash Mobs last summer was more than a hipster punchline. It illustrated how gaming was leaking from the pores of society. The products of this spillage have included Big Urban Game (Minneapolis) and PacManhattan (NYC). And the glut of competition-based reality shows (Survivor, The Apprentice, Fear Factor, etc.) are all just extreme versions of reality gaming. (One could also argue that these Reality Games are a sort of tame suburban version of more serious planned events like the Seattle WTO Protests. That's for a different essay though.)


Anyone who has played even five minutes of Zelda will find PBS's new two-hour special The Video Game Revolution a bit tedious. I suppose it serves a valid purpose -- to provide a historical framework of popular video games. Too bad it's as engaging as a two-hour Pong match.

But what interests me is what this documentary represents in this moment in time. It seems we have reached a period in gaming where we can reflect on the past equipped with the gear found in the toolbelt of historical analysis: summary, bricolage, and nostalgia. The Video Game Revolution implicitly declares video games as a real object of pop culture study. Of course, this should not be surprising given the rise of academic programs designed to study gaming. Something about this evolution reminds me of 1990s-era Camille Paglia promoting the notion that universities should start rock music programs. I have mixed feelings about whether turning an academic eye to rock really does anything for musicians or fans or society, but I do worry an accidental effect of academizing a discipline in the past couple decades: studying it is synonymous with taming it. (I know many people in academia who are studying game and play, and they all get sour-faced when I suggest this possibility.)


Many companies have planned events on Fridays that provides employees a break from work. But what our workplace does is truly unique. The idea started innocently: let's use our in-house online video streaming technology to deliver a movie to employees on Friday.

Thus was born The Friday Matinee.

Here's how it works: every Wednesday, an email goes out to a dist list of programmers, designers, engineers, and editors. It contains a list of movies, and the community votes on which one it will watch. On Friday at 2:00, the intranet streaming servers are fired up and the 'play' button is pushed on the DVD player. This is where it gets interesting.

If you walk around through the darkened cubicles at this time, you will see dozens of programmers donning headphones and staring at their computer monitors. They are simultaneously performing a number of tasks: writing code, watching The Friday Matinee, and IM-ing their colleagues about both. In other words, people are working, being entertained, and communicating all at the same time. There's something about this collapse of mediums and lifestyles that suggests a complicated future of media and entertainment.


This last example has nothing explicitly to do with gaming, but it illustrates something that's happening in our times: people are hacking mediums together for their own purposes. The provocative questions are just starting to come out: what happens if you mix film with instant messenger? what would a music/game hybrid look like? how could role-playing influence traditional one-way entertainment?

In an average day, I perform numerous activities which have nothing to do with gaming explicitly, but which feel somehow game-like. These include blogging, creating a playlist for my iPod, programming my TiVo, Googling girls on my cellphone at bars, and learning the hacks behind Yahoo Internet Messenger. If there's one point from all these examples, it's that "gaming" might become so pervasive as to become invisible.

Game on.

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