Seldes wrote at a moment when cinema was maturing as an expressive medium and filmmakers were striving to enhance the emotional experience of going to the movies-making a move from mere spectacle towards character and consequence. It remains to be seen whether games can make a similar transition. Contemporary games can pump us full of adrenaline, they can make us laugh, but they have not yet provoked us to tears. And many have argued that, since games don’t have characters of human complexity or stories that stress the consequences of our actions, they cannot achieve the status of true art. Here, we must be careful not to confuse the current transitional state of an emerging medium with its full potential. As I visit game companies, I see some of the industry’s best minds struggling with this question and see strong evidence that the games released over the next few years will bring us closer and closer to the quality of characterization we have come to expect from other forms of popular narrative.
In the March 6 issue of Newsweek, senior editor Jack Kroll argued that audiences will probably never be able to care as deeply about pixels on the computer screen as they care about characters in films: “Moviemakers don’t have to simulate human beings; they are right there, to be recorded and orchestrated…. The top-heavy titillation of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft falls flat next to the face of Sharon Stone…. Any player who’s moved to tumescence by digibimbo Lara is in big trouble.” Yet countless viewers cry when Bambi’s mother dies, and World War II veterans can tell you they felt real lust for Esquire’s Vargas girls. We have learned to care as much about creatures of pigment as we care about images of real people. Why should pixels be different?
In the end, games may not take the same path as cinema. Game designers will almost certainly develop their own aesthetic principles as they confront the challenge of balancing our competing desires for storytelling and interactivity. It remains to be seen whether games can provide players the freedom they want and still provide an emotionally satisfying and thematically meaningful shape to the experience. Some of the best games-Tetris comes to mind-have nothing to do with storytelling. For all we know, the future art of games may look more like architecture or dance than cinema.
Such questions warrant close and passionate engagement not only within the game industry or academia, but also by the press and around the dinner table. Even Kroll’s grumpy dismissal of games has sparked heated discussion and forced designers to refine their own grasp of the medium’s distinctive features. Imagine what a more robust form of criticism could contribute. We need critics who know games the way Pauline Kael knew movies and who write about them with an equal degree of wit and wisdom.