BY Keith Stuart in Profiles | 06 JUN 02
Featured in
Issue 68

Console Yourself

30 years of gaming culture

BY Keith Stuart in Profiles | 06 JUN 02

It is both interesting and necessary that the word culture is in the sub-title of 'Game On' at the Barbican Gallery, London, an ambitious look at 'the history, culture and future of videogames'. Gaming is still a maligned, illegitimate culture - unselfconscious, amorphous, directionless - and the exhibition attempts a broad sweep at defining its history.

The curators have all the landmarks covered, from the ancient DEC PDP-1 mainframe computer that ran Space War (written in 1962 and widely considered to be the first ever videogame) to Microsoft's current Xbox console. The show opens with the likes of Pong (1972) and Asteroids (1979), the games that built the industry and defined the concept of game play. This section reminds you that there was a time when interacting with objects on a screen was totally alien (are you still confused by interactive TV?). Visitors then pass into the console room where ten historically important formats from the Commodore 64 to PS2 are represented. Upstairs the cultural heritage of games is explored through photographic installations on subjects such as gamers themselves, the marketing of interactive entertainment and the game development environment. In all 150 exhibits are interactive - there's even a companion event at the Barbican cinema showing videogame flicks such as Tron (1982) and Final Fantasy (2001).

In the early days gaming was about arcades: groups gathered round Defender (1981), Gorf (1982) or Q Bert (1983), going for high-scores and registering success with a three-letter pseudonym on the screen. The console and computer brought the experience home and crucially introduced the whole family to videogames. In one room of the show are gathered autobiographical stories of gamers. There's one about a father and his disabled son who are able to play football together, at last, through videogames. Amidst all the press hype about violence (which is covered here in detail - it is an inextricable part of gaming, at least for now), there is an untold story about empowerment. 'Game On' has a whole section dedicated to multiplayer gaming; one of the major services videogames have performed over the last 30 years has been to create a vibrant community for the sort of kids who don't fit into the rigid cliques and hierarchies of school.

The exhibition is a little light on the way games have been appropriated by other media over the last two decades: from early exploitative movies like The Last Starfighter (1984) and War Games (1983), to PlayStations in clubs, game sounds sampled by hip hop artists and gaming as a shorthand for young male slackerdom in films such as Swingers (1996) and Mallrats (1995). It is through these interactions that game culture has become a definable, though complex and still somewhat blurry, concept. If an advert, club flyer or TV show employs a videogame theme, it will most often be Space Invaders (1978) or Pac Man (1980) - both games over 20 years old. But this is understandable. Early videogame characters are like brand logos - simple, iconic, and instantly decoded by a mainstream audience. Their use may be more about retro-chic than videogames, but at least it means that games are pushing the right nostalgia buttons.

Regarding other media impacting on videogames, Eric Zimmerman claims in his catalogue essay 'Do Independent Games Exist' that although wider culture borrows elements of gaming, the reverse isn't true - games only appropriate from each other. This is not really fair. The biggest influences on game design in the West are probably J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (1954), Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) and Star Wars (1977) - admittedly a rather male teen catalogue of favourites. The cinema has been particularly influential: Capcom's 'Resident Evil' series of survival horror games employs the dramatic, expressionistic camera angles of directors such as George Romero and Dario Argento, while the forthcoming Deus Ex 2 uses shadow and sound as gameplay devices, influenced by Alfred Hitchcock. In Japan, home of many 'softer' games, manga and anime have fed into the visual, aural and thematic language of games since the early 1980s. Perhaps most surprisingly, the visually stunning music-based shoot 'em up Rez (2002) by Sega's Tetsuya Mizuguchi was inspired by the paintings of Vassily Kandinsky; watching people play it is a highlight of 'Game On'.

So we know that games have cultural significance and that, in turn, they borrow from culture, but does that make them art - or at least academically relevant? This is a debate currently simmering in the game development community. Joao Sanches, editor of videogame magazine Edge, which recently ran an article on the subject, believes: '... certain elements of the educational establishment appear to be finally looking at videogaming as a medium worthy of genuine analysis. Admittedly, there's a long way to go - indeed, the games themselves need to continue their evolution ...'. American game designer Warren Spector - responsible for dark futuristic adventures such as Deus Ex (2000) and System Shock (1994), thinks that as game designers get older, their games will become more mature, willing to look beyond Dungeons & Dragons and toward real-world issues for inspiration (Spector's own games tackle subjects such as bio-terrorism, genetic modification and cloning).

Yet, as videogames have become more visually sophisticated they have tended to become less culturally stimulating. Rapid improvements in graphics chips have meant that most developers simply strive to reproduce visual reality as closely as possible - there is no sense of interpretation of self-consciousness. This has much to do with the fact that the people who make videogames want first and foremost to entertain - they rarely have a thematic agenda. In addition, videogames are now created by large teams where ideas are filtered through several layers of management and marketing, which tends to iron out any eccentricities. 'Game On' reveals that the most interesting games are those where a lone game designer has managed to imprint a singular vision onto the product. Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto turned a fat plumber into a global superstar through his game design genius, while Rez has created a whole new genre in which the sheer pleasure of making music is a secondary, but vital, gameplay element. Finally, The Sims (2000), created by Will Wright of Sim City (1994) fame, has been quite rightly identified by the curators as one of the most culturally significant videogames produced in the last decade. Here players control the lives of a group of young people sharing a house. There are no scores, no missions; it's a do it yourself soap opera. It's also a million-selling phenomenon attracting whole new social groups: older people and - the Holy Grail of gaming - women. This is where videogames become socially important on a large scale.

Yet videogames are still sneered at by the mainstream media. In a brief report about the opening of 'Game On' - the first show of its kind in Europe - the BBC Breakfast programme spent almost a minute filming two people playing Street Fighter 2 (1991) very badly ('I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just hitting the buttons!'). Back in the studio, the presenters shrugged their shoulders and laughingly confessed their ignorance of the whole subject - what if they did that while reporting on football? To most people, videogames are still scary and mystifying, like drugs, and the preserve of teenage boys. But, the teenage boys who write the games are growing up. They are watching the news. They understand music, and politics, and sex. And they are coming for your daughters.