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Move Over, Hollywood

One of the few highlights of 2008’s awful Video Game Awards, as presented by the dreadful Spike TV, was Will Wright’s acceptance speech for his “Gamer God” award. Mr. Wright hit upon something suitably prescient for such a legendary game designer. He stated that when it comes to finding the inspiration to craft a new type of game, as of late, his gaming muse was not to be found in books or movies, but in other video games. Huzzah! At last, someone gave voice to my growing conviction that gaming, and not “old media” such as movies, are paving the path to the future of entertainment.

It may be subjective, but I believe Hollywood has been stuck in neutral for quite some time. I cannot recall the last time I saw a movie that gripped me at both an intellectual and visceral level as any good movie must. Instead, Tinsel Town has been content to shovel “big budget” empty calories for over a decade; movies that are as forgettable as they are derivative. Is it any wonder that according to a recent Media Control GfK International report, DVD and Blu-ray sales have decreased 6%? Television has not proven to be immune to declining interest either as back in 2007, it was reported that 2.5 million television viewers went missing. [2] All one needs to do is contrast all of this with the startling fact that video game sales grew by 20% last year to see a potentially dire situation developing for the world of traditional entertainment.[3]

I believe we are seeing the beginnings of a shift in the entertainment world’s epicenter. Just as radio was dethroned by television, I believe video games are on the verge of supplanting both cinema and television as the dominant form of entertainment (books, like cockroaches, always survive the entertainment apocalypse unscathed). No one should be surprised by this development as game developers are a very talented and creative lot. Given a sufficiently powerful platform - and we have a bunch nowadays - game devs can weave interactive electronic dreams that movie producers will never be able to match because of the passive nature of film. Oh sure, this won’t stop them from trying via such (recycled) gimmicks as “3-D experiences” or pathetic “movie tie-in” games, but ultimately they are doomed to spin their wheels. Gaming is as distinct from movies as television was from radio...and we know who won that battle (something I have always suspected proved the point that graphics are the trump card).

While I haven’t been captivated by a film in a very long time, I have been thoroughly ensnared by more than a few recent games. And when I say “ensnared”, I mean mesmerized for many, many hours. How many movies can claim as much? Even if I really like a movie, I will rarely watch it more than twice or three times in a week. Contrast that to games, such as Left 4 Dead, that call me back again and again, day after day, week after week. No movie has ever proved so addictive. Why watch somebody else’s zombie survival story when I can star in one of my own?

But to limit the pull of gaming to simple interactivity would be a disservice. While the ability to participate in a game’s story is a key part of gaming’s attraction, it is only one part. Modern gaming is much more than that. We have seen games take the art of storytelling to powerful levels that instantly connect with people the world over. For example, can anyone doubt the genuine love between the Fallout franchise and its fans? It is a dedicated one - certainly meeting, if not exceeding, Star Wars mania. This is only possible because the game has succeeded in creating a world as palpable as anything seen on the big screen. Fallout 3, Bethesda’s recent entry into the franchise, certainly has succeeded in garnering its own legion of new fans for its emotional impact. Wired Magazine’s Clive Thompson recently wrote the following:

Fallout 3 depressed the crap out of me, but I'm not sure this is a bad thing. Indeed, it's probably a great thing. The best works of tragedy seek to inspire that punched-in-the-gut feeling. I don't read George Orwell's 1984 or Cormac McCarthy's The Road -- or view Goya's The Disasters of War -- so that I can feel warm and fuzzy. The point is to trigger reflection through pain: At its best, Fallout 3 makes you think about the consequences of war.[4]

In short, gaming isn’t just about gaming, anymore; it is also about emotional storytelling. At this point, what remains the purview of cinema?

Of course, I am not suggesting that one day you’re going to wake up and find that your TV is worthless and all the movie theaters have closed. Movies, television and books all will have their place. My point is that pride of place may soon fall to the youngest member of the mass media - video games - and we might soon see a reversal of current trends whereby game developers look to the cinema for inspiration. Rather, cinema might start looking to gaming for inspiration (I mean genuine inspiration and not Uwe Boll inspiration). Certainly, if the games of 2008 are used as an example, the geniuses at Bethesda, Valve and many other studios have already produced more engaging and memorable entertainment than anything Hollywood has produced in far too long.