Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: The Art of Video Games Takes Readers to New yet Stationary Thoughts

Review: The Art of Video Games Takes Readers to New yet Stationary Thoughts

Engaging, enlightening, and surprisingly informative, The Art of Video Games gives readers new thoughts of the video game medium while selectively leaving out crucial thoughts as well.

            I have to admit, I picked up this book after visiting The Art of Video Games Exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum this past summer because I was highly disappointed. The exhibit consisted of video game consoles in clear plastic boxes paired with successful titles, some pretty screenshots blown up on walls, and a few sample games you could play with automatic restarts after 3 minutes of play time. This is because the Smithsonian exhibit was designed with kids in mind. Inside the pages of this book, a reader will find something different.

            The Art of Video Games, co-authored by Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke, captures the development of the video game industry over the past 40 years from an experiment with computers into the art form it is today. Melissinos is the curator for the Smithsonian exhibit, and O’Rourke was a fellow co-worker of Melissinos’ from Sun Microsystems. They have come back together to leave those that read this book “with an understanding that video games are so much more than what they first thought” (p. 9).

To shape the reader’s thoughts, they structured the book in 5 sections: Start!, 8-Bit, Bit Wars!, Transition, and Next Generation. “Start!” is about the beginning of the home video game. “8-Bit” is the game industry’s reinvention of itself after the Crash of 1983. “Bit Wars” is the results of the advancement of technology and creativity in the late 1980s to early 90s. “Transition” is when the industry shifted to exploring 3D worlds and space. “Next Generation” is where the industry had developed to as of March 2012. Within these sections are a total of 80 games divided into the 4 game genres: Target, Adventure, Action, and Tactics. Melissinos calls the 80 games “crowd favorites” but this is inaccurate. The games selected for this book are first by system, then the impact they had on the medium, and then by the genres above. For example, I do not believe ChuChu Rocket made for the SEGA Dreamcast is the best Tactical game ever made in the “Transition” era of the medium. It does fit in well with the other Dreamcast titles for Target, Adventure, and Action—especially without switching to another counsole. Between these genres are interviews with industry professionals that designed the games you just read about, advanced the era by implementing a new creative factor, or were directly affected by the era and went on to have an impact on the industry.

The overall effect of this organization is a catalog of significance that will have readers taking notes on what to add to their “play” lists, or finding out the impact some of their favorite games have had on the medium. The catalog effect is largely due to O’Rourke’s fantastic composite images, but I actually found the extremely concise descriptions more engaging. In about 500 words, each game was summarized and each impact explained. Even more insight comes from the frequent interview sections—the best part of the book. One gets to hear a variety of people including creators like Nolan Bushnell, composers like Tommy Tallarico, and hardware developers like Kevin Bachus. Combining pictures, summaries, and interviews the reader feels as if the video game industry’s leading professionals are showing them behind the scenes of the games that did not make it into the Smithsonian.

That is why I enjoyed the book way more than the exhibit. Plus, I did not have to get kicked off after reader for 3 minutes. As stated earlier, the exhibit seemed to be designed for kids (and to get their parents to read the descriptions in the background). The book is designed for an older audience (12+) and geared towards those who already know a general history of video games. References like “the Fall” are used often without further explanation, so calling this “a companion book” to the exhibit is very appropriate if not necessary. The book also can be tailored to your interest by era of video games—just look at a specific section. The only section that is weaker than the others is “Next Generation” because many of the games featured are relatively new, and the impact on the industry has less hindsight or is not as concise.

Praise given, the “hidden” priority to organize by system is something to critique by using The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons. Designed for the Game Boy Color in 2001, this game uses an advanced version of an 8-Bit processor much like the games 20 years before it. Looking at the “8-Bit” section, Oracle of Seasons’ technology and aesthetic fits this era perfectly. “The public began to better understand how to classify computer technology. The consoles of this era were all based on 8-bit microprocessors, and the overall aesthetic—now referred to as pixel art –had a distinctly block, hand-drawn look” (p.47). This pixel art look can be seen from the screenshot above from the game. If not support enough, the “8-Bit” section even uses Oracle of Seasons’ predecessor, The Legend of Zelda as one of the impactful 8-bit era games (p.58-59). Why does this Oracle of Seasons not appear in this section then? It is because it is not on the Commodore 64, Nintendo Entertainment System, or the Sega Master System—the systems chosen to represent this era.

This is a great oversight since Oracle of Seasons has many of the factors talked about of the games in this section—and does it better. For instance, Dessert Commander is credited for using the top-down view of the world for strategic planning purposes (p.63). Oracle of Seasons does the same thing in its world map, but also adds a “shadow layer” for everywhere you have not been to help players plan where they need to go next. Spy vs. Spy is also credited for interactivity between two separate games (p.74-75). Oracle of Seasons takes this to a new level. After successfully beating the last boss, a cut scene shows the forces of evil still brewing, and then a code. If the player wants to accept this additional boss, they can enter it at the start of Oracle of Ages (Season’s sister game), and upon completion of that final boss a “linked game” will begin. Players can play Seasons or Ages in either order and still complete this linked game ending, but the virtual Easter eggs are different based on which game is played after entering the code. It’s the only game made to have done at linked game seamlessly.

             It may also be argued that The Game Boy Color was just not the console selected for the “8-Bit” section, but no mobile or handheld gaming console appeared in this book. Mobility being a critical and revolutionary step in the video game medium, it is astounding to see no games or consoles representing this feat. The only mention of mobile gaming is tucked away in Jen Maclean’s interview in “Next Generation” as a side note. 

There have been amazing breakthroughs in technology, however, particularly in mobile gaming and portable gaming platforms, such as the iPad and the iPhone. The idea that you can take gaming anywhere with you and it can be in a device that fits in your hand…that’s so powerful. It’s a way to allow people to play games where they want, how they want, when they want. You’re not stuck in front of a television or a computer anymore” (p. 157).

If mobile gaming is empowering gamers and introducing video games to an entirely new group of people, is that not leaving this book with a new understanding of video games?

            The decision (or accident) to not show mobile gaming is not only the biggest critique of this book because it goes against the authors intentions, but an aspect to look at gaming culture as well. There are two justifications that come to mind in regards to this decision. First, the authors are using a schema of “serious gamers” made by society.

The stereotype of the serious gamer is an overweight white male, alone in his house, playing the most up-to-date technologically advanced game out there. He plays very competitive, challenging, and continuous games that are difficult for a new player to break into. The “hardcore gamers” are the elite of all serious game players. This image was created by society, not the reality. Based on this technological element, it is a good bet that this is why mobile gaming was left out of The Art of Video Games and only focused on home video game computers/consoles.

The schema of serious gamers is what leads to the second justification—falling for a binary. If the authors define “serious gamers” with the schema above, then where do games that a player can start or stop and even take with them fall? The natural tendency is to pin mobile gaming as “hardcore gaming’s” opposite. True, a lot of mobile games are casual games, but there are many titles, like Oracle of Seasons, that are not. What results are mobile games automatically getting labeled as low-tech, simple, and requiring less skill.

The problem of mobile gaming getting shoved into a binary reflects problems with gaming culture. If someone plays 21 hours of Pok√©mon on his or her Game Boy during a mass-transit commute to and from work every day does that make them a “serious gamer?” From discussions in SAC 368, it does not. If they are not playing Call of Duty online for multiple nights a week, then they are not the gaming elite. This problem ought to be addressed by redefining “serious gamers” as people who play video games for a large number of hours per week (for example, over 20 hours a week). If that definition could change, then maybe video game culture could recognize “serious gamers” as individuals who acquired skills through time, rather than by game and platform.




The Book

Mellissinos, C. & O’Rourke, P. (2012). The Art of Video Games. New York: Welcome Books.



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