I stumbled upon this excellent video by Matthias Stork, a Cinema and Media Studies student from UCLA that reminded me of this Kind of a Book Report I wrote about Alexander Galloway’s Reading Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture and the experiences that made me recognize the connection between video games and cinema. I’ve written a lot of posts expressing this idea here on Danger Brain. However, I must admit, Stork does a better job in eighteen minutes than what I’ve been trying to do over the last two years. His secret? He used a visual medium to talk about another visual medium.
While discussing French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Alexander Galloway states “Derrida uses the concept of play to explain the nature of something else, namely, the structure of language.” I’m familiar with this idea. Although it has always been expressed in a different ways the idea that video games are somehow a language is something that has always resonated with me.
I remember exactly how– and when — it started. I was at home in the living room. My family and I were living in the “brick homes.” Other people called them the projects but since the bricks were townhouses lodged between “The Swamp” (real projects buildings) and the Geneva Towers we called them the brick homes to indicate that they were brick walls separating us from the real hood. Truth is, they were all hood but that is where I was when it happen. I was watching a movie in the living room on Argonaut St. in the brick homes of the Sunnydale district.
I loved watching movies as most high school kids do. It’s the only place you can legally go to hang out with your friends besides the mall, which is where all of the movie theaters are at now. Going to the movies was an attempt to go and play. I went to the movies with friends to laugh at a good comedy, to be thrilled by a good action movie or freaked out by a horror flick. The movie experience was an extension of the playground experience, which we had grown out of. However, one day I watched a movie that didn’t feel like play.
Glory was the first movie that left me awestruck. The 1989 film about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry depicted the trials of the US Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company. This was a history that I absolutely did not understand at that age. I remember reading a line or two in a history book that black people fought in the Civil War but there was never any real detail, never any explanation. Glory was a 118-minute story of the freed slaves that volunteered to fight in the Civil War amongst white men who didn’t too much care for them but were fighting for them anyway. That was awesome.
Traits like courage, honor, duty and sacrifice were very difficult to identify in my neighborhood. For a young black man to see this type of history while living in one of San Francisco’s most marginalized communities was a powerful experience.
By the end of the movie I was crying my eyes out. I wasn’t being entertained. On that day, I was aware that the movie was teaching me and to be taught meant to be spoken to. Therefore, the moving images of a motion picture must be a form of communication. I learned that movies were a language somehow and they always have something to say. According to Derrida, “as soon as it comes into being and into language, play erases itself as such.” Watching Glory was the last day that I looked at movies as an act of play.
I went to the university to study that language. My first few years were fantastic! I went to class all day listening to Edward Branigan’s crazy film lectures. I studied David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson during the early evenings where I learned that the invention of film began as a playful wager when Leland Stanford hired Eadweard Muybridge to film a horse galloping. At night I hung out with my smelly roommates playing a silly little video game called Street Fighter.
Then one day video games started to look different. I remember exactly when it happened. I was staying in Santa Barbara for the holidays by myself when my brother called to tell me about a game called Resident Evil for a new console named The PlayStation. By the way he described it over the phone Resident Evil sounded like a movie. That couldn’t be right, I thought, he was talking about a silly little video game.
I was bored and curious so I went to Blockbuster and rented an entire PlayStation system and three games: Resident Evil, Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid. I didn’t know at the time that I was playing three games that would long be considered the best games every made. However, by the time I returned those games to Blockbuster I was convinced that video games were saying something and that they would become the next great artistic medium.
Although this was an infantilized idea it grew as I got older, the systems got more sophisticated and the games started taking more risks. Today, I absolutely believe that video games are a form of literacy that requires the use of a controller, being able to navigate three dimensional space, understanding heads up displays (HUDs) or interfaces as explained in Galloway’s discussion of Final Fantasy X.
Although they borrow in many ways from film (or to quote Marshall McLuhan they have absorbed the previous medium), to play a video game is to involve your entire body. The experience isn’t like passively watching a movie. A person has to be involved in a synergistic relationship with the computer. They have to dance with the algorithms.
Take for example, the difference between watching the classic Night of the Living Dead and playing (the classic) Resident Evil. Watching Ben defend that doomed home is thrilling. However, playing Resident Evil takes this experience to another level. A player is a participant of the thrill. In one segment of the game, they have to figure out how to get from one end of a zombie filled corridor to the other with limited ammo. It is an experience in visual entertainment, inventory management and hand eye coordination all at once. Experiencing the suspense of a horror film triggers places in our brain that we find enjoyable. However, using my example from Resident Evil, the players brain is being stimulated in three separate ways simultaneously. That, my friend, is the reason why my friends and I label a good video game… “crack.”
It is a remarkable example of McLuhan’s belief that the way we communicate would closely resemble tribal forms of communication. Playing a video game requires the use of your ears, eyes, hands and different places in your brain.
Reading Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture was a real treat because, as mentioned by Lev Manovich’s in his praise of the book, Galloway is a media scholar. Through my own personal experiences as a moviegoer, a gamer and a film student it gave me a better language to describe my own instinctual beliefs and it made it clear to me that this play we are experiencing in a game of Assassins Creed or Journey has two significant effects on us. It can not only teach in the same way that a movie taught me history, but it is also an inevitable transition to something far more significant, that is, once it ceases to be viewed as an act of play.