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.

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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Discussion

46 comments
lindallison
lindallison

You also have to consider the permanence of the medium, a piece of game software may have timeless appeal, but the hardware required to play it disappears over time. Film, if not left to rot or used for kindling, is readily transferable to different types of media, same with music and books. Video games are dependent on very specific hardware which makes it difficult for a casual player to go back and experience the classics. You can pop in a DVD of The Battleship Potemkin using the same procedure you used to see Badlands and Maid in Manhattan. But try and play Wasteland and you've gotta spend some time learning how to configure dosbox....If going back in time is too obscure and difficult the genre'll have no living history. Compare this to some books which have been translated and reprinted for thousands of years. They can be picked up and experienced by any literate person to this very day... User friendly emulation and hardware backwards compatibility are critical to games being taken seriously as some kind of art form....

lindallison
lindallison

@cireking213 I was thinking along the same lines. The volume of gaming media is too crowded and fractured for some seminal watershed title to redefine the entire genre. It'll just take a few generations of folks who accept video games as a natural part of the media order. These things have only been around since the 70's. There are still many people about who've never touched one. A few generations down the line and that will no longer be the case...

cireking213
cireking213

All we need is for the Generation of adults who still see games as entertainment for pre-teens to retire or...uh, die off. I'd rather play a game than watch television. I still like books though, but I wouldn't mind playing an interactive Les Misérables if it was given the Heavy Rain treatment and additional exploration of plot alternatives.

SauhlGood
SauhlGood

turning strategy games into fps, rpg into fps....and general homogenization of video gaming so the corporations that own them just make formulaic games guaranteed to make money, its NOT progress, in fact its a "one step forward, two steps back" kinda deal... the only thing that has been making progress is GFX, gameplay mechanics and innovation have taken a backseat for a long time. I dont want to hear about accessability, im tired of companies dumbing down beloved franchises just in the name of the lowest common denominator... SIMPLE is not always better, and then pretending that a game is "simple to learn, and hard to master" is more bs... im soo tired of talking about whats wrong with the industry, who's SOLE motivation is to make money...its corporate, its bloody formulaic, and damn boring nowadays, the first golden age happened already long ago imo... before video games blew up in the corporate world, before EA/activision made boat-loads of money, they used to make great games, and money as a by product, now the model is the other way around.... now my hope resides in the Indies, and people willing to take risks to make great games, even at the cost of mass publicity.

keech
keech

As strange as it sounds. We are missing the mundane in video games so to speak. We are missing the things that relate to real life, that generate in depth and intelligent discussion. Some games have started to do this. Such as Bioshock, Alan Wake, and Catherine. Very few people will argue that movies like Citizen Kane and The Godfather aren't fantastic movies, even if said movies aren't their personal taste. Yet with every great video game their are huge divides of people who love it and hate it. I think therein lies the crux. It's not so much the industry that needs to have a seminal moment, It's the audience.

jetjetjaguar
jetjetjaguar

There will be a moment when some games are so well done and so interactive that it will cause a sensation. Everyone will talk about them and enjoying them will be on the same social level as 'chatting about Cinema'. So? How close are we to that ideal? When I tell co-workers that "Red Dead Redemption" is a more enjoyable experience for me than watching a film covering the same story and period, they nod their heads, don't call me names (to my face!) but they don't show interest enough to try it out. And if they did, the "joy-sticking" would be a problem for most.

fadersdream
fadersdream

"racism aside" is the equivalent of starting with "no offense but...".

hleflore
hleflore

I think it is possible that great videogame will be created but it will happen when genre is not a factor. Many games employ great play mechanics and graphics but there is something that is missing in the way of accessibility. It may be the simpler game is the great videogame masterpiece like Angry Birds.

Apathetic_Prick
Apathetic_Prick

@aaronmlong: I'm not sure if the article is asinine so much as biased toward a single ideal. I don't read comic books and graphic novels anymore, but when I left off (around 1996-97), they were much further ahead artistically and conceptually than film is today. And IMO, film was, too. I think the approach is completely wrong and the argument unfair as emotion goes; we've seen many games that go beyond the caveman desire of omnipotence; many Japanese games have been doing this by way of RPGs since around the time that I stopped reading comic books. To compare the entire industry to Call of Duty is also akin to comparing the whole of literature to The Mr. Men book series. **Edit** Okay, you're right, it's asinine. Very asinine.

pidow
pidow

I feel gaming should "its thing", when a game is considered to be produced, it should not be like the game I just finished playing. It should it own creation, without duplication, replication and the likes. That's what gaming should be about original ideas, making something no one else has made and can make. As individual as we are.......how I see it!.

aaronmlong
aaronmlong

Asinine article, like all try to confuse 'art' with anything but 'work', or 'craft', or 'project'. Yes, art can vary in sophistication, between a child's doodle and Citizen Kane, but, simply put, there's no 'bar'. There's no point at which a craft 'makes it' and suddenly becomes a treasured relic to be placed in museums. Game developers and critics alike need to forget about whether their products are Art with a capital 'A', and focus on making them better games.

neomaticman
neomaticman

Before we go off trying to redefine gaming when we've finally reached a point where there is something out there for everyone, can we at least get rid of polygon drop out, a 1080p resolution standard, higher refresh rates than 60Hz, GB speed internet connections, high anti-aliasing as a standard, and all image files made with vector instead of bitmap? These changes would revolutionize gaming for at least the next 5-10 years.

oldschoolvandal
oldschoolvandal

@Unfalle_Satan - I guess the idea is that at some point a game will come up and will be recognized by gamers, critics and most important by society as an "art piece" worth checking. Where you would have members from the most diverse demographic groups interested and thinking that it has hit and added something to our "culture" in that particular point in time. Wandering a bit...not sure what would do such thing in the forseable future as games are still not considered a "mature" form of entertaining. Maybe in the next one or two generations we get to that point.

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

My last post didn't really answer the question directly. I think the moment has come and gone for gaming, around the time of Doom and early Interplay RPGs, lost in the mists of creation. Plenty of pieces are missing as gaming has not nearly reached its full potential. Kinect 2, as some have brought up, is merely one more step. Comics did not lose out because it didn't get its "moment," nor has it lost its validity as an art medium. Like it not, the vast majority of people prefer moving pictures to still ones, and there is more money to be made catering to the masses. It would have happened regardless of any movie or comic that did or did not come out. Once games can truly virtualize life, and I am talking about feeling the blood dripping down your hands when you kill someone, forgetting that you are not actually wandering in an impossible nightmare landscape, and kissing (and heaven forbid what else) Princess Zelda or Liarra or so many GTA prostitutes, then game will supersede movies like movies superseded books. However, film will not die out as a medium just as comics has not died out as a medium. There are a lot of comics to buy and read even on PSN. Give it another a hundred years, I am sure this same same conversation can be repeated for movies, games, and a yet-undiscovered art form.

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

Most people would agree that much of that $31.8B in movies cannot be considered as art in the narrow layman's definition. On the other hand, all movies are technically art; it is arrogant and presumptuous to say that no skill or creative imagination went into the making of Battlefield Earth. It simply did not appeal to its audience whereas Citizen Kane did. Just try Limbo or El Shaddai or Flower and it is evident that video game is an artistic medium, even in the narrow sense of the word. On the other hand, I am not sure what would constitute a The Birth of a Nation moment in gaming. Should someone make a game that's longer than current ones? Should it be a great financial success? Should it portray Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden in a heroic light? Should it be a combination of these features? If anything, The Birth of a Nation did not set a great example. It effectively started a trend that eventually locked the movie medium to its current cookie cutter format of approximately 2 hours, a sex scene somewhere between 1:00 to 1:30 (though this is more of a 90's thing), and centered around one of several predicable themes for the most part. Thank goodness for independent films. Games exhibit so much greater diversity, do they not? There was no reason to bash MW3. Film is no less artistic a medium because of Transformers 3. Just as well, gaming is no worse off for MW3. Instead of bemoaning the perceived lack of a Birth moment, how about just making one on your own?

Granpire
Granpire

This discussion was also one of the best Hotspots yet. Unfortunately, it was all very vague and theoretical, and it didn't really give us a solution to revolutionize gaming. Not to say that it wasn't intelligent or insightful, it was.

vgsak2005
vgsak2005

The whole premise that games should somehow follow a similar evolutionary track as film is ridiculous to me. People who pigeon-hole games into another known mold are going to be dissapointed when their "Birth of a Nation" moment never arrives. The genius in games is the gameplay, not the narrative or storytelling. Without gameplay a game ceases to be a game, at that point you might as well work in film if that's what you want.

ProMethUse
ProMethUse

"I" don't think that motion sensor technology will take the industry higher, although it is still a huge breakthrough. i still think online multiplayer will be the main reason for the industry's "Birth of a Nation" to happen. want to see emotions running high? try playing DOTA/2, MW3, and BF3 online or on LAN :D. you don't need to solely rely on ground-breaking technology or realistic graphics to engage people

masterchief80
masterchief80

I think this moment will come at a later time and will involve the higher level of interactivity that motion sensor technology, like Kinect, offers. I know that's something the "hardcore" gamer crowd doesn't want to hear right now, but interactivity is what gives this industry it's edge, and the motion sensing technology will bring that interactivity to a higher level. It just needs to be developed more and needs the right amount of investment from a talented designer/artist. I'm not saying the technology needs to be at the point of "virtual reality" in order to create this seminal moment, but rather to be at a level where a highly interactive experience that allows for real emotions to be felt and expressed and also be functional and believable can be created. There are other technologies that can help bring this experience to a higher sensory level. 3D displays for instance. I think that it will take an embracing and melding of such technologies in order to foster this experience and help create this pivotal moment in gaming history.

oldschoolvandal
oldschoolvandal

and....OH BOY!!!! This Chris guy speaks fast...someone please let him know!! :)

oldschoolvandal
oldschoolvandal

I agree and disagree with what was said, mainly because art is very subjective and personal. Another important aspect is that movies starts as a mass media (movies theathers) and than it becomes a smaller thing when you watch something at home. Comicbooks and games only have the second. To me comic books are an art form. Have you ever read anything from Will Eisner? That's pure art filled with feelings and social critics (not to mention his unique trace and storytelling). Maybe I will push a little too far now...but try reading Daytripper. It's a comic book by two brazilian guys Fabio Moon & Gabriel Bá. It's outstanding given the media it is presented in. It has all a good movie, game or book could ask for....great characters and compelling story. Back to games We have games that have an artistc idea in its core (Okami). Others have art as a background to tell a history (El Shaday or Mirrors Edge) or great art in the way it is presented (Ico or Shadow of the Colossus). Making short of it, I believe that games as a young media is just getting started and making good progress. So the masterpiece that will really stablish it as an art form to the masses and get the respect (I think) it deserves is still to come.

ShadowofSonic
ShadowofSonic

Gaming has changed. And not really for the better.

stabby_mcgee
stabby_mcgee

Obligatory Planescape: Torment mention. Although, there's also: Deus Ex Witcher Fallout Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines Games engage you differently than movies. Rather than simply have you react to what's happening, you can make choices that determine the outcome. Games can be more emotionally engaging because you have a closer connection with the protagonist, you are the one making the choice, and you have to accept responsibility for the outcome.

fastheinz
fastheinz

"we have to have a wide definition of emotionally compelling. A lot of times right now it's adolescent power fantasies..." Says it all right there. Edit: Although that is being unfair and belligerent. It doesn't really address the idea being explored here. I'll just say that looking for a "Citizen Kane" moment in video games is misguided and not relevant to the nature of the medium. As for what I quoted, it's a significant criticism of the industry as it stands today, in that despite the ageing demographics of the market the plots remain somewhat juvenile. That's a complain that resonated with me and I remarked on it over-hastily.

vinardo
vinardo

I cant think of any games that changed the game industry as much as some movies did to the movie industry. Take star wars. Like or hate it everyone knows what it is and watched it. Gaming, even if its becoming bigger and bigger still doesn't have as much reach as the movies do. Also both industries sufer from a big lack of creativity. Games and movies almost always repeat a formula that already worked before. I can't think of a current gen game that is as creative as "Freedom Force" (one of the most different games ever) for example. The same for movies. Every one that i watched in the last couple years, good and bad always makes the impression "i've seen it before".

moonlightwolf01
moonlightwolf01

The thing is games, films and comics are all very different. Playing a game is more like performing a piece of music but your performance is only as good as the music itself (the game in this analogy). Of course films have almost had their day now, there's a bunch of dull block-busters, followed closely by some overly pretentious Oscar chasers, the best places for meaningful films is still that niche independent film market but even that's losing its scope because most just produce a stream of documentary films that might be effective often but lack any originality. I Europe the most literary experts have moved away from film many looking to Japanese Manga & Anime many of which tackle concepts in much more inventive ways than western film or comics. A really intelligent game should focus on a concept and make everything from story to movement controls reflect that concept. That might sacrifice some things but it would produce a game that made players really think not just during but after the game in a way that most games currently do not.

gamecubepad
gamecubepad

It's all about gameplay, my friends. I can name hundreds of games that are masterful demonstrations of gameplay and controls. Even from back in the day. It's real-time, it's interactive. It's tons of fun, yet deeply moving.

Diluted_NZ
Diluted_NZ

We've seen an evolution from Wolfenstein 3D, to near photorealistic stereoscopic 3D. But how far has AI come during the same period? The 3 AI enemies that really stand out for me are the soldiers in Half Life, the replicant soldiers in F.E.A.R. and the Covenant Elite in Halo. For the most part, enemies in most FPS games are basically like targets in a shooting range. We're playing whack-a-mole in stereoscopic 3D. The enemies are still two dimensional. What would I do differently? I'd try to learn from a very different game in which AI has demonstrated it can perform as good as, or better than, a human mind. Chess. Algorithms have been written which let computers calculate what the best move in a given situation will be, based on both the current position and what will happen in response to each move. Rules and calculations - things computers can understand. What I'd like to know is, would it possible to write an AI program that followed the principles of chess, but operated on a real time rather than a turn-based basis? Perhaps this would allow enemies to be created that change their behaviour based on what a player does, thought strategically, and behaved in a more convincing way. For this purpose, I think machine learning would be great. Maybe when you played an FPS online, the servers could be monitoring what you did, and learning the most effective strategy in any given situation.

DespVand
DespVand

Give us good games and we'll buy, give us bad games and we won't buy... give us excellent games and we'll do more than buying!

holtrocks
holtrocks

the spy party dude is like on crack.

theJBlounge
theJBlounge

@liam72 Good point. I do find that interesting; the origination of modern cinema. I'm hardly a movie buff and I know next to nothing about comic books, so I'm sure most of Magrino's discussion went over my head lol I do appreciate Gamespot trying to post more editorial based articles. I'm even happier they dumped the pun filled headlines. Still, gotta be careful throwing "Birth of a Nation" to a non movie website.

drjwhiteside
drjwhiteside

The time period mentioned, 1905, signifies a change from nickelodeon shorts to long, complex cinema. Movies transformed at this time from a medium designed to entertain the poor (Hecker mentions it as part of "ghetto culture") to a form people would pay $2 for (The Birth of a Nation tickets were sold at an equivalent of $43 today). This shift seems more akin to the shift in video games from 70s-80s arcade games to the more expensive and more popular home consoles of the Atari, NES, etc. Films did not know all the pieces of grammar when The Birth of a Nation aired as video games did not know all the grammar possible in the early 90s. However, in both shifts, there was a giant leap in terms of what was possible and accessibility to a larger audience. Video games currently are beyond a "ghetto culture" and have appeal to both the rich and poor. The price for the PS3 at launch was definitely not for the ghetto. For every Call of Duty game/Halloween or James Bond movie (long-running, less innovative but popular franchises), there is a Super Mario Galaxy/Pixar movie (critically acclaimed franchise titles from big publishers/studios) and a Bastion/Reservoir Dogs (critically acclaimed indie titles). When was that Birth of a Nation moment? I don't know. Super Mario Bros.? But I don't think film is done exploring all possible grammar and neither are video games.

Matriluzviva
Matriluzviva

The game media englobes the cinema expression as one of its dimensions, and because the game media is more multidimensional than cinema, maybe it behaves in different ways, like Hecker said that a game can put emphasis on many different elements and so have different approachings, maybe 'out of this world' was a 'birth of nation' on the cinematographic approach (which Resident evil 2 was the 'citizen kane'), 'thief' maybe was a 'birth of nation' on the immersion approach (which Amnesia was the 'citizen kane'), and so on' what is interesting on this point of view, is that 1d has just one line, two dimensions has many lines, three has many planes.

grasshopper6
grasshopper6

Racism is part of life and always will be as long as human race exists

kfjl
kfjl

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Sgthombre
Sgthombre

I have never done such a hard double take at the title of an article. Well played, Gamespot. I otherwise would have had no interest in reading this article.

liam72
liam72

@theJBlounge The movie is not groundbreaking for its extremely imbecile and racist content, it's groundbreaking because of its use of form.

liam72
liam72

Saying that Citizen Kane is the full realisation of the movie medium is kind of simplistic, although I think the point of the article is very interesting. I would argue that the Birth of a Nation of video games is already there, although time only will tell us which game it is. The next step is not to develop the form of video game. Groundbreaking games have to bond form (especially interactivity) and content. Video Games like To the Moon are amazing art pieces but they are not groundbreaking because they do what a movie could do. Minecraft, on the other hand, uses interactivity as a basis for storytelling and discourse. The game can be understood as a commentary on the human behaviour regarding environment because the natural response of the gamer is to harvest the most natural ressources possible to create amazing but useless things. @ErrolJames Birth of a Nation didn't popularize the medium. Griffith proposed an editing technique - continuity editing - that still is the convention in mainstream cinema.

inaka_rob
inaka_rob

I think COLE from Gears of War is a TERRIBLE racist black stereotype.

heroesfan261
heroesfan261

@ErrolJames lolwut? Gaming has been mainstream long before the wii. Also this article has nothing to do with making something mainstream, it's about something that cements gaming as an art form.

theJBlounge
theJBlounge

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

ErrolJames
ErrolJames

I think the Wii was the "Birth of a Nation" of video games. It made playing video games a mainstream thing. People, of all ages, who either never played or looked down on videogames found themselves holding Wiimotes and playing videogames. Ultimately I think it's up to the journalists and people who represent videogames to take the industry to the next level. The industry needs more human personalities that have creative ways of expressing how good or bad a videogame is. Once that happens there is no limit as to where the gaming industry can go.

Phogo
Phogo

wtf is this garbage?

aa22aa44
aa22aa44

What a terrible article. It seems this was made just for sake of writing something. There is no correlation between the evolution of the movie industry and the current gaming industry. If I were to guess, video games are evolving all the time at a much greater pace. Look at the growth from simplistic pong, to celebrated Mario, to interactive games like Skyrim. Also, comparing comic books to movies is even more ridiculous. I have been going to Gamespot for years, but between this and constant rumors with no merit I am thinking about going to Giantbomb instead, where the original Gamespot crew have gone.

theJBlounge
theJBlounge

Ehhh I'm still not sure if calling a movie that champions the lynching of blacks to be a positive move in cinema. I'm generally the opposite of politically correct and I don't think there's any racism at Gamespot, but yeaaaa you might want to take this down before it makes Yahoo/Huffington Post headlines lol.