Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

I Still Don't Quite Get It: Video Games and New Realities

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

I Still Don't Quite Get It: Video Games and New Realities

Article excerpt

I still don't quite get it, even though I have lived with and taught aspiring video-game developers since migrating from the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama eight years ago to serve as co-founder of the then-new Entertainment Technology Center. "It" is the whole social dynamic of interactive video games as a pinnacle expression of individual personality and social intercourse in young people of the twenty-first century.

When I gave up my position as Associate Head of Carnegie Mellon Drama, the nation's oldest degree-granting drama program and an eminently famous one, I did so with the intention of helping the nascent art and entertainment form called "video games" to become more than the equivalent of a digital comic book. My aim was to help it aspire towards nothing less than artistic achievement. Falling through the looking glass and entering this wonderland, I found that everything about this form of entertainment seemed mired in contradiction and irony. Eventually, it dawned on me that contradiction and irony are among the highest qualities of great works of art and literature, something I know quite a bit about.


An ongoing source of professorial glee for me is to observe how today's students are enamored of all digital technology. Like the three-eyed aliens in Toy Story who are transfixed by an arcade crane, the youth of today ogle at and are in awe of every new technological advance. They engage in conversations about graphics-engine capabilities in the same way that adolescents of my generation discussed V-8 versus V-6 engines. The fast cars of our adolescent fantasies have been replaced by fast processors; the tie-dye T-shirt has given way to a color palette on a computer monitor that can render six million shades of color. That reality, however, is secondary to the fact that the computer is flat-out capable of rendering colors we cannot even detect. I mean, how much cooler can you get than that? This generation might be the first modern one capable of embracing the unknown and the unseen on a par with prehistoric tribes.

Observing gamers for the past six years has opened my mind to the possibility of, well, anything. Among the technological marvels of interactive game play that I really enjoy are "physics engines." These are computers capable of sustaining and implementing whatever the internal physics of an imaginary world might happen to be. For example, let's drag race on Venus. With the right physics engine, everything we do in our race will embody and reflect the physical, chemical, and gravitational laws of Venus. I used to get excited when I saw a chart telling me how much I would weigh on Jupiter, Mars, or the moon. Forget that now, unless you are content with a Paleolithic level of wonder and satisfaction.

Then, there's the phenomenon of MMORPGs. Oh--sorry about the acronym. Nowadays, everything is an acronym. MMORPG stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. After saying that aloud once or twice, you can see why we are all willing to speak in acronyms. You just need to get your acronyms straight. For instance, when I say that a HUD is part of an RPG, I do not mean that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is using Rocket-Propelled Grenades! I mean that a "heads-up display" is part of a "role-playing game."

Massively multiplayer games give us the seemingly oxymoronic reality that one's nerdy child, huddled away slaying dragons on the Internet, may actually be a real, live, fully functioning social human being with more friends across the globe than we could ever have imagined or that we have ever had. You see, in worlds such as Everquest or Star Wars Galaxies, your child is playing not against the computer, but rather against other players logged on simultaneously across the globe. These other players, like your child, have created characters with psychological and physical artistry, oftentimes on a par with an accomplished playwright or portrait artist. …

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