Archive for November 22nd, 2008

Videogaming culture

I remember when I bought my first video game system in 1990.  It was a Nintendo Entertainment System, and I played Super Mario Brothers for hours at a time.  I would sit with my friends, each of us tightly gripping the controller as the 8-bit music chattered at us and we excitedly pushed plastic buttons that in turn sent signals to a simple computer which manipulated the pixels on the television screen and moved Mario toward a mushroom or away from a turtle.  I am part of a generation that grew up playing video games.  My parents’ generation, on the other hand, has had a less organic relationship with this interactive electronic medium than I have.  My friends and I would grasp a controller and intuit how to move the character on the screen or manipulate the game.  On the rare occasions when I convinced my parents to play video games with me, they would sit stiffly, awkwardly holding the controller at an odd angle while making Mario walk unsteadily towards a pit.  When Mario fell into the pit, as he inevitably would, my parents would seem shocked, as if they had been blindsided by a surprise attack.  They would usually only last one or two tries before they got tired of playing.  Then they would hand the controller back to me and I would continue to interact with the small Japanese-built computer like it was an extension of myself. 

            In fact it was.  When I played video games, my nervous system and my mind were extended.  My eyes saw obstacles, my reflexes responded, and even my adrenal glands responded to the things that I was making the television display.  Even our language teaches us that a video game is an extension of ourselves.  We speak of making a character do this or that, or we say that I won the game this morning.  In fact we did not.  We pushed buttons on a lump of plastic all morning, but we somehow feel that the former description is more truthful than the latter.  Marshall McLuhan points this concept out in The Medium is the Massage.  He writes that every medium is an extension of the body.  “The wheel…is an extension of the foot.  The book is an extension of the eye…clothing, an extension of the skin.”  Video games are extensions of many different parts of our bodies—our eyes, our legs, our arms, our nervous systems, all wrapped up together in this interactive medium. 

            Video gaming as a medium has come a long way since Pong or Super Mario Brothers.  Now video gaming is generally divided into PC gaming (games played on personal computers, whether PC or Macs) and console gaming.  The three leading consoles on the market today are Nintendo’s Wii, Sony Corporation’s Playstation 3, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360.  These platforms are in direct competition with one another, and some of the companies contract with game developers to offer some game titles for only one platform in order to corner the market on that game.  Microsoft did just that when in June 2000 it purchased Bungie Studios, a game developer that was about to release a title called Halo.  When Microsoft bought Bungie, it guaranteed that this new game would be offered exclusively on the new Xbox console system.  Halo belongs to the class of games called shooters, because the game revolves around the player manipulating a character to shoot guns and, in the case of Halo, use a variety of advanced weaponry to destroy alien armies.  One subgenre of a shooter is a first-person shooter.  These shooters are so named because the point of view that the player takes on is the point of view of the main character in the game, so the player will see what the character in the game sees, as if the player is using the television screen to look through the eyes of the character.  This results in the player being able to control the character in the game in such a way that they can make the character walk or run around the game in any direction, look up, down, or around, and respond in real time to things happening in the game, much like a virtual reality. 

When Halo was first published in November 2001, it immediately took its place as arguably the most significant product in the gaming industry and, since then, the single game that was developed by a small gaming studio called Bungie has become an extremely lucrative franchise, to date netting three games (Halo CE, Halo 2, and Halo 3), five novels, one graphic novel, and several more products in the works.  Halo offers two modes of gameplay: the campaign and multiplayer.  In the campaign, players take on the role of the Master Chief, a futuristic supersoldier whose goal is to fight alien hordes in an attempt to save the human race and all sentient beings in the galaxy.  This mode is played either by oneself or with other players who play as allies, together trying to defeat the aliens.  The multiplayer mode, on the other hand, is played with multiple players, is set in enclosed maps laden with weapons, very like gladiatorial arenas, and the players do not play with each other; they play against each other.  The goal of this mode of play is generally to gain the most kills by killing the other players’ characters.  Awards can be won for certain kinds of difficult kills or other difficult feats.  I developed a greater interest (personal and academic) in the Halo world as more games were produced, and my enjoyment of the game grew to include more things than merely winning a multiplayer match with friends. 

Halo fans are unique.  They are typically very loyal to the game and to the game’s developer, Bungie studios, and Bungie has always cultivated a cooperative relationship with its fans.  This interactive relationship has contributed significantly to the success of Halo, and a circuit of feedback and interactivity has developed between Bungie and Halo fans—between the production and the consumption of this cultural artifact.  This production/consumption circuit is admittedly only a part of what is happening culturally with Halo and with video gaming in general, but this circuit is extremely significant to the future of video gaming in general and how it functions as a medium, because video gaming is naturally an interactive medium, and as the interaction between consumers and producers speeds up, new modes of interaction and game play are created, transforming a video game into an extremely sophisticated universe in which players interact with much more than just a digital character on a screen.

            This interactivity is one of the things that makes video games such a unique medium.  As the medium has grown from its infancy throughout the last decades of the twentieth century it has become more and more sophisticated, and one of the most significant reasons for this development lies at the very heart of the medium itself, in its interactivity.  Interaction occurs in video gaming not merely between the player and the video game unit but also through the increased interaction between the producer of the product and the consumer of the product. The video game is becoming more and more interactive on multiple levels as the production/ consumption circuit integrates production with consumption faster than ever.  As the circuit’s speed progressively increases and approaches the speed of instantaneous feeding of production into consumption and back into production, it transforms the simple interactive video game into a sophisticated interactive universe.  Although this phenomenon does not happen with every video game, it does happen with some of the most innovative and popular games, the games that tend to push the boundaries of the medium and be at the front of the video gaming industry’s growth.  It is these games that are the most influential to the development of video gaming as a continually changing medium, and Halo is one of many culturally significant gaming projects that could be analyzed. 

This production/consumption circuit is driven by capitalism and creativity; the producers make a more sophisticated product in order to sell more copies of the game.  They appropriate the creativity of the consumer and subsume it into their own product, bringing it under their own control.  The consumer allows this and is even an active agent in it because as the producers exert control over representations of their product and reincorporate them into production, if they continue to make the product better, they create customer loyalty, and the customer becomes a willing participant in the process of recreating and reinventing the product.  Thus the producer uses the customer to make a better product, and the consumer relies on the producer to create a product that they will want to buy—over and over again as new versions are sold, as the circuit speeds up, and as gaming itself as a medium develops into something different and much more sophisticated than we could ever have imagined when Pong was first released by Atari in 1972.


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