Waiting for the Game Industry's Birth of a Nation

Racism aside, D.W. Griffith elevated film to an art form. Chris Hecker and The HotSpot also shelve racism, but wonder when the game industry will have a similarly seminal moment.

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Chris Hecker's a pretty bright guy, and he also talks pretty fast. That combination led to an abundance of discussion points during this week's HotSpot. One in particular I want to revisit began around the 41:00 mark and goes a bit like this:

Around the turn of the 20th century, comic books and films were on fairly equal footing. They were both in an unrefined, nascent form; they were both targeted at what today would be considered the 99 percent; and they both packed substantial potential as new, innovative art forms.

However, whereas 99 percent of the 99 percenters now watch movies, the number of comic enthusiasts out there could be fit into a Goldman Sachs boardroom. To quantify that statement, the Motion Picture Association of America estimates global box office sales of $31.8 billion in 2010.

As for comics? Well, it probably says something that there's really no one keeping close tabs on them. (Although, I did find a website purporting that revenues in North America alone stood at $640 million to $680 million in 2010.)

And that's to say nothing of the it-goes-without-saying attitude that movies are an art form, while that conversation with comics goes something like, "Well, we have The Watchmen and Maus."

Somewhere along the way, comics and movies diverged, one to pursue the life of a sophisticate and the other getting lost in the cultural ghetto. And this is an important juncture as it pertains to gaming enthusiasts.

Here's how the film industry managed it. In or about 1905, the film industry's prospects were fairly grim, which is to say, the top silver-screen releases for the year were The Little Train Robbery, a parodic sequel to 1903's acclaimed The Great Train Robbery that swapped out adults with children, and The Misadventure of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach, which pretty much says it all right there in the title.

It may be helpful to think of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 in the same way that you'd think of The Misadventure of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach.

However, 10 years on, and D.W. Griffith released the seminal Birth of a Nation. Through innovation and iteration, the film effectively pieced together what is now known as the feature-length film, and in the process it showed the potential of the medium. Twenty-six years later, that potential was realized in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.

Right now, the industry is having its 1905 moment, Hecker argued. And somewhat paradoxically, the game industry's current financial success may be keeping it from taking the path that leads to its Birth of a Nation moment. Money breeds risk-averse behavior, and risk-averse behavior yields, say, Call of Duty 15. Of course, independent developers like Hecker aren't saddled with that kind of pressure.

"Do you think Birth of a Nation is going to come out of the indie scene?" I asked him, and also, somewhat regrettably, "Who's the racist?" But then, more importantly, "Do we even have all the pieces?"

"I don't think so," he said. "I mean, I don't know; it's hard to know that. But I don't think so. I don't think we have anywhere near all the pieces of grammar yet. A bunch of people think that different things are important about games, and that's great. You want an art form pushed in multiple directions."

"But at the same time this kind of emotionally compelling aspect of games," he continued, "we have to have a wide definition of emotionally compelling. A lot of times right now it's adolescent power fantasies, and frustration. We do those really well, but we don't really try for other things. And it's not clear right now what other emotions and those kinds of things are interactivity-compatible, but we have to find out."

I now present that question to you all. What pieces do we have? What pieces are we missing? Or has this moment actually already come?

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