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Madras's blog

11:01 PM on 10.10.2009

What will it take for a Citizen Kane of games?

So the topic of the week, well since Tuesday has been what is the Citizen Kane of games. While it is widely agreed by movie critics, most of whom are academics, that Citizen Kane was the movie that brought legitimacy to the medium and finally cemented the concept of film as art. There is seemingly an overwhelming need for this same type of watershed moment to happen with gaming to move forward the games as art argument. While it is true that there will in all likelihood be some game that is looked upon as the the singular example of games as art, much as Citizen Kane is looked upon as the pinnacle of motion pictures. There exist several hurdles that need to be overcome before this discussion can even happen.

First a history lesson concerning film, the first “movie” was shot in 1880, and was a crude moving picture using a single reel, featured no sound and most would not even consider this a movie by today's standards. This evolution of film from the novelty medium it was considered for nearly 40 years, to the respected artistic platform it is considered today took 60 years of refining and perfecting of techniques and methods for not only film making, but as well as an academic understanding film. I would also posit that if we look far enough back in the foundation of any artistic medium we find the same pattern, from crude representation to accepted medium and the growth of that medium.

This transition is not just one that is a matter of improved technology or hardware in gaming's case, there is that matter of academics, and the study of the medium. Video gaming is still a toddler by all considerations, barely able to recognize itself as unique amongst the other forms of expression, but seeing that that potential is there, and its capabilities barely understood. One major stumbling block for games as art and for an even finer point a discussion on what is video gaming's magnum opus is, is locked up in that there is no consistent language to talk about games, as there is with movies. While the critical opinion of film may vary widely from critic to critic they will discuss the same things and have a similar structure to their reviews and have been trained to discuss each aspect in a specific way. Critics are able to discuss a single scene in ways that other reviewers can critique and can refute and discuss in an academic forum. The discussion of decisions about camera work, sound and costume design can be understood by any other reviewer due to this consistent understanding. This academic language does no exist yet for gaming, as is evident from the fact that many people don't even bother to look at critical reviews any more and default to those of their peers. There is no group that is seen as an authority on the matter. This lack of clear academic understanding inhibits the discussion and while it makes the discussion more democratic, it makes the discussion schizophrenic and unintelligible.

The problem of a lack of a unified means to discuss games and gaming exists for many reasons. Firstly is that each experience is different, each play through will vary in some way from the ones before it and those after. So the altered experience will tint the a critics view of the game and color their discussion of it. Secondly as mentioned before is that there is no terminology for certain choices and no established forms within the medium for metaphor. Once again reverting to film, we can discuss the meaning of a scene by discussing its lighting, and what this color means in relation to that color, or what this transition means. This uniform use of metaphor and technique is important for the creation of the artistic use of the medium, much like the development of things like the 180 degree rule was important for film. Lastly game journalists tend to co-opt a lot of the terminology they use for talking about games from those that are used in discussing film and attempt to force them to work within the context of games. Not just the terms but they attempt to shoe horn the structure of a film on to an experience that is entirely different from that of film. These practices need to be reexamined and a new set of tools needs to be developed. This process is starting but is in its infancy. Places like Game Trailers do a good job of keeping a consistent set of criteria from game to game and looking at each objectively and giving an opinion on each of those categories. This is a first step but other than a discussion of game play mechanics much of these criteria are those that are laid out for film, but the criteria are consistent unlike many other places. It falls on gaming journalism to fix this problem and for those that work in the field now to come up with this language.

Finally this brings the question of, has there been a game that we as gamers, not as academics are ready to hold up as that example of the gold standard to which a game aspiring to be art should be held? Personally I would say no, we would need a definition of how to define it as a gold standard and there are many aspects of a game that must be considered for this. Story, visuals, mechanics, interactivity the list goes on. While I would say that we are unable to accurately define each of these at this point given our understanding of the mediums limitations. But there are examples in each of these that surely gamers as a whole could pick out as prime examples, even given our current understanding of the limitations of the medium, for one or more of the categories listed but will ultimately fail be that prime example on all aspects. So this brings us back to the reason Citizen Kane is so widely hailed as the greatest movie of all time. This is because it not only pioneered in many ways but perfected many other techniques and gave a prime example of what a film should be that all others after could be compared to and ushered film to a new level of maturity. While now many of these techniques may seem quaint now it was the beginning of understanding how to see film as art for those that were studying film at that time, and the debut of a new breed of academic out of the schools of photography.

Clearly what is needed to a Citizen Kane is not just better games, while this is important, but also in many ways but time for the medium to mature and a new breed of academic to enter the field and be ready take games seriously as an art form. So really the question right now at this point in the maturity I do not think it is what is our Citizen Kane, but rather what is our Metropolis or what is our Birth of a Nation. What are the prototypical examples of each aspect of gaming that need to be considered to create that one game that will excel in all aspect and advance the acceptance of games as an art form all their own.

So in this post I would ask a pair of questions. What are those discreet aspects that are not necessarily unique to gaming, and those that are, that are needed to begin to discuss gaming on an academic level so that a lexicon of understanding can begin to be developed. Secondly what game do you think exemplifies each of these aspects?   read

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