Not Just A Game Anymore

In the century to come, the medium producing the most dynamic, vital and exciting new art will be... videogames. Stop laughing. Instead, imagine it's 1899 and I've just said the exact same thing about... cinema.

On the eve of 1900, people were already paying to see movies, but the art form was in its infancy. Films lacked real stories or characters. Sound and dialogue were decades away, color even farther off. "How could such a primitive, technological oddity ever produce art on the level of the novel?" you'd scoff. And you'd be, in hindsight, a moron. Because cinema, with the aid of advancing technology and more and more ambitious filmmakers, eventually achieved an astounding ability to tell stories and conjure emotions. It produced wonderful, entertaining (and profitable) art.

As will videogames. Except that they will be more entertaining than movies, more profitable than movies and, yes, more moving than movies. For where the moving image was cinema's bold new advantage over previous media, videogames boast interactivity--an even better way to engage the emotions of the audience.

Maybe you're not sold on interactivity. After all, it's had some missteps. Taking advantage of new computer technology, hypertext fiction at first seemed like a brilliant new frontier in writing. Stories could be nonlinear, letting the reader click on links to jump around the text and experience the author's work in a whole new way: in isolated, interrelated bits. But hypertext hasn't taken off. Why? Because the audience for fiction hasn't been comfortable with interactivity. Partly, we're scared we'll miss an important passage--imagine reading "Ulysses" in hypertext and failing to click on Molly Bloom's monologue. We like our art completely guided by its creator, radiating the voice of the auteur. The author/director/composer decides exactly what, and in what order, we will read, see or hear. Linearity worked just fine for the novel and then for movies as well. Anything different doesn't seem quite right.

But younger people are better indoctrinated in the cult of interactivity. For one, they don't know a world without remote controls. Used to be you'd pick a channel, lie back and let TV decide what to show you. Now we channel-surf to create our own TV shows--part sitcom, part football game, part news, all at once. Kids grow up with the Internet, too--a medium nearly defined by its interactivity. Even museums stress interactive exhibits now.

And of course, children are raised on videogames. They were born post-Pac-Man. The average kid plays videogames for about 49 minutes each day. Games pitched solely at younger people routinely outgross Hollywood movies marketed to everyone. Last summer's "Wild, Wild West" made $111 million, while a game like Nintendo's new Legend of Zelda pulls in $205 million. The James Bond movie "Goldeneye" grossed $106 million, but Nintendo's Goldeneye game made $230 million. (The games are also far less expensive to produce.) Gaming even has its own stars: Lara Croft, hero of Tomb Raider, is as recognizable as many a popular actor.

True, if the definition of art is a work that somehow ennobles you, videogaming isn't quite there yet. The market for games mostly supports violent shoot-'em-ups or sports simulations. Games directed at older audiences don't even take advantage of the medium: Myst, for example, is a dull puzzle illustrated with still pictures.

But this will change. First, the technology will continue to improve. It's hard to be moved by chunky, unrealistic graphics. But lots of people are moved by, say, "Toy Story 2," and videogames will soon achieve animation on a par with that film. Sony nicknamed its forthcoming console "the emotion engine" because it has enough computing power to deliver visuals capable of engaging the audience's feelings.

Beyond sheer graphics and responsiveness, the new advances in gaming are in networking. Thanks to the Net, you can play with other people across the country or around the world. The combination of 3-D graphics and network play, ushered in by Doom in 1993, defines the modern videogaming era, and it's rapidly becoming the videogame equivalent of celluloid and camera--the building blocks of the medium. Games like Duke Nukem, Half-Life, Unreal and Everquest are all based on this principle. In Everquest, an online sword and sorcery game, many players don't even bother to slay dragons and cast spells anymore; instead, they spend their time baking virtual bread and selling it to other characters. Or wooing other players and getting virtually married. With networked games, other humans become a crucial part of the experience, reshaping our notions of story and plot. These early experiments offer a glimpse of the strange narrative structures we may see in future art.

Perfecting these new forms will take a new kind of director. Until now, game creation has been the domain chiefly of computer geeks. Eventually, we'll have artists who've grown up immersed in interactivity and realize that videogames are technologically advanced enough for real storytelling. They'll see that interactivity and networking let them do things previous media clearly couldn't. And one of them will decide that she has something to say that can best be said in an interactive, graphic format. That's when videogames will become high art.

Once real artists adopt the medium, who knows where they'll take it? It took 40 years of development before cinema produced "Citizen Kane." We don't know what the masterpiece of videogames will look or feel like. But we can bet it's on the way.