Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Round And Round The Table

Medium Difficulty

ONCE upon a time there was a technology that came into its own around the tail end of a century. This technology spawned an exciting, strange, wonderful, terrible new medium.

It had the humblest of beginnings, barely growing from static roots to vibrant flower. It found an early spokesman in a person who very probably stole the idea outright from another. Right from the get-go there were highly-contested court cases, most often concerning how strictly one could control both the technology and the building blocks of the new medium as well as its uses and influence. (1)

Its earliest proponents were mostly tinkerers, assembling their own hardware, connecting bits and pieces, hacking away in their homes and garages to put together something compelling. When they needed talent they often enlisted volunteers, friends, family, those with raw passion rather than experience.

As the technology advanced it grew in portability, eventually supporting a stable hobbyist movement.

There was constant argument over the importance of style and substance. There were those who argued for clarity, special tricks, effects, higher resolutions, more elaborate presentation; There were those who argued for story, drama, talent, soul.

And those who dared to dream of the combination of the two.

The critics of already-established media could be explosively vitriolic in their appraisal of this -- newcomer. They often, and unfairly, compared it to older media without making appropriate attempts to understand its general relevance. They downplayed its impact, making emotional appeals that the new medium would degrade intelligence and stifle thought.

Many of the early results of this new medium were modest simulacrums of common activities or short, abstract sequences. They relied on novelty to dazzle people, flashing lights, exciting sound effects (which were often synthesized) and salacious subjects. (2)

There was also a glut of works based upon other media - stories that had been in the popular culture in other forms and were deemed fitting for a transformation. Many cried out that this was shoddy commercialism - or cheapened the story - or showed lack of imagination. Sequels and spin-offs were trotted out, earning the same estimation. It was even said, sometimes, that there was nothing new at all for the medium to offer. So why bother?

The technology first gained mainstream appeal by distributing in self-contained units, where patrons could insert coins in order to partake in brief doses of the experience. These parlors often served as gathering places for youth, and it wasn't long before the technology was being seen as a moral corrupter -- or at the very least an arrestor of intelligence, contributor to truancy and catalyst for sexual deviance.

For obvious reasons (to anyone familiar with basic human/animal psychology), the medium was filled with sexual imagery and violence. But mostly violence. The violence caused an uproar often enough, but it was the sex that really set the opportunists afire. Both would grow in intensity as boundaries were pushed -- any arresting influences averaged out to negligible over time.

The new medium spawned a nexus in the Western United States, a place toward which the industry, talent and capital gravitated. (3)

Women and minorities were marginalized by this new medium, stuck in stereotypical roles. Women were almost always portrayed in distress, while minorities were often completely absent. Likewise, the industry itself seemed to reflect this disparity, with few women or minorities involved in the production process, and even fewer in the top levels of a company. The reasons for this disparity were argued back and forth -- social factors, historical factors, prejudice -- and almost all the reasons were at least partially correct; It's just that the reasons were rarely paired with any effective suggestions to correct the problems.

At one point, a process was developed whereby the medium could be copied and distributed throughout a wide network. The industry was in an uproar. Profits would be lost. The art form would suffer. Which is not what happened at all. In fact, the industry expanded, growing larger and larger. (4)

Production costs, too, expanded, pushing toward greater and greater budgets with astronomical assets required. This shed light on working conditions, on consumer issues, on a whole lot of messy, confusing ideas that caused a lot of uneasiness -- even among fans of the medium. Each time the budgets were pushed forward, hordes came out of the woodwork decrying the rising costs, claiming that they would drive away innovation and stifle independent development.

Which is also not what happened -- at all. Independent development had always, all throughout history, been trickier, more prone to risk, harder to fund -- but plucky and daring individuals had still managed to envision their dreams and get them made. Over time independent development tools grew ever easier to use as they matured and more viable channels for distribution emerged. The technical barriers were no match for the creativity of individuals and their constant push to make the act of creation more accessible.

Eventually the new medium began to have mass appeal. As the technology progressed, so did the way of delivering the content to the consumers. Soon it was possible for thousands, then hundreds of thousands and eventually millions to enjoy the same general experience.

The medium entered into its own, fully absorbed into the cultural framework. Constantly changing, flowing, altering, updating, innovating, reimagining, fueling controversy, relieving pressure, causing discussions, creating and adapting its own critical language, contributing to a shared dialogue and otherwise exerting massive influence over humanity's continuing development.

Which seems to be pretty much the way of any new medium.


Exposition

While movies and video games are not on a track of 1-to-1 correspondence, nor do they seem to advance at similar time rates, the parallels one can draw from film history are undeniable.

The social ramifications of any medium are hotly-debated, contested, denied and heralded constantly and continually.

The same kind of arguments are trotted out again and again -- and they serve an important function, as much as they sound like been there, discussed that.

As we flirt with the uncanny valley, there will be more and more conversations about realism and lifelike -- what those mean, how we perceive humans, how we perceive the world around us, the worried looks that hint at something sinister in pushing CGI too far (as if there were a tangible danger to it, not just a chance at more eerie digital animation).

Likewise, there will continue to be what some see as an unfortunate marriage between Hollywood and the games industry. I would caution that simply because, in general, such mergings haven't established a track record of competence, it isn't necessary to write them off -- completely. Simply because something has had more failures than successes should not stop people from trying to be one of those successes.

Much of early cinema was deliberately created to appeal to "simpler" folks. The intelligentsia looked down upon movies as entertainment for the slow and easily-amused. It wasn't until large movie houses were erected that had the trappings of elegance that films were embraced by the middle and upper classes.

Videogames have had a similar stigma - seen largely as fit for little kids or non-social geeks. It has only been relatively recently that games have been breaking free of these stereotypes, though it has been a difficult path. Much of this might be attributable to the Playstation -- Sony created a brand that was decidedly aimed toward a larger market, they cast their net wider and found it filled.

The very technology that spawned videogames and altered filmmaking (digital editing gaining wide acceptance and even favor among directors) has also caused tremendous ramifications for all media. We are seeing a confluence of content on a scale that is often overwhelming -- Future Shock happening constantly and consistently.

The ways of old media are falling rapidly behind. Even Apple tends to be at least two or three years behind the curve. Copyright and IP issues affect movies as well as games -- and books and music and everything else that can be digitized.

With art, pop or not (whatever that might mean), there is always more crap than cream (judged solely on the basis of individual tastes). Crap, however, can have value -- fertilizer, perhaps. That, and it makes the cream taste sweeter.

While it can be easy to assume a bad movie or videogame is the result of an unholy marketing scheme and nothing more, we would do well to remember that true artists also miss -- the good ones just tend to miss so well they either shake the foundations or disappear quietly.

We like to believe that our tastes aren't tainted in any way, that they are the result of true appreciation -- and all else is corporate-claptrap, ripe with the stench of money. Gamers seem to be especially incensed when it seems like someone is, oh, trying to turn a profit for god's sakes.

Not in this business!


1. British inventor William Friese-Greene claims he sent details of an early motion picture camera to Thomas Edison. Edison's penchant for hucksterism and his Bill-Gates-ish business methods - buying out, stealing or otherwise acquiring promising technology, refining it, then muscling out the competition - means it's very likely that Edison ripped off the idea (and maybe not solely from Friese-Greene).

There has also been controversy over who first created Pong, Nolan Bushnell or Ralph Baer. Lawsuits ensued.

2. Early film milestones -- marvel at the wonder! And remember that even way back most movies were bullshit sequels -- only they called them serials.

Early videogame milestone -- marvel at the amazing gameplay of sending a single pixel across a screen!

3. For the slow, here's a hint: Hollywood -- movies, Silicon Valley -- games. Note that these places are more symbols than centers of development. They may be where the deals are made, but not so much (anymore) where the content is made.

4. See: The printing press, cassette tapes, VHS tapes, Xerox machines, pretty much any kind of reproducing mechanism. Silly Putty, Parrots.

Also:
Indebted to The People's Almanac Presents the 20th Century by David Wallechinsky

1 comment:

Corvus said...

Nice overview of the social impact on any new media!

While I think the current flap over the "danger" of the new medium will eventually go away, I don't think it'll do so without a bit of a fight. Hollywood has had its defenders over the years in the form of powerfully rich, high profile, people who make certain they have a voice in the political machine. It seems that the game industries war won't be fought from the ivory towers, though, but in the virtual alleys of the internet.