Video Games: The Interactive Art of the 21st Century (на английском языке)

Эта статья-эссе написана для университетской ежегодной конференции по английскому языку и предназначена для "непросвещённой" аудитории. Выступление тесно завязано на видеопрезентации, поэтому много деталей за ненадобностью их воспроизведения в тексте опущено. Как бы ни хотелось написать на эту тему книгу, но к сожалению ввиду ограниченности во времени выступления пришлось выбрать только самое, на мой взгляд, важное ;)
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Video Games: The Interactive Art of the 21st Century


Playing games is about human. For thousands of years games served people for giving fun, for distraction, for training. Somebody wanted to imagine himself on a sunny tropical island, or in a romantic book-taken fantasy world, somebody wanted to become a general, or a captain of a spaceship. Human games had a lot of forms, that were based on diverse branches of human culture: on reality and mythology, on wars and on dreams of better life, on sports and competitions. But now I am going to tell you about games evolution – video games, because not are they only games, but for now they are considered to become the most interactive art of the 21st century.
Computers and games. For everybody today there is a connection between these two words. By primitive, but amusing two-dimensional arcade games computer systems opened the new era of people’s entertainment. The very first video game was built back in 1958 using oscilloscope as a display and some special hardware parts. The game machine was called Tennis for Two, and it was created by William Higinbotham, one of the people who worked on the first atomic bomb. The first game as an application for a computer system was created in 1961 by Steve Russell, programmer of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For massive and expensive mainframe PDP-1 there was created the Spacewar!, a simple game introducing two spaceships shooting each other – by the way, the first destruction scene on screen of a computer. But creation of the first video games was only a computer hack, a harmless amusement for programmers.
That’s why the year 1971 is notable for foundation of Atari, the first video game company, which was set up by Nolan Bushnell. Starting with coin-operated arcade machines, Atari gave birth to a bunch of epochal games. The first company’s video game was Computer Space, which was based on Russell’s Spacewar. A year later Atari created the Pong, the world-famous arcade tennis simulator. Originally being an arcade machine, Pong was soon built as a game device for a TV-set, that signed the new page in games history – the beginning of video games console era.
Shortly, video games began to evolve from simple arcades. In the middle of seventies a group of developers with Will Crowther created the first known adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure. The game had a form of interactive fiction text quest, where players used text commands to control characters and influence in-game environment. Despite the fact that the Colossal Cave Adventure was built for a college mainframe, the game became a celebrated innovation and quickly had set up a trend for many subsequent games until the middle of eighties. One of them was Zork, the first commercially successful game. Zork was released for a wide range of computer systems and due to this became the first mass-popular video game.
In 1977 Atari introduced the Atari 2600, the first video game console for a TV-set, that was credited with popularizing the use of various cartridges containing game code. Atari 2600 was quite successful and in fact did a huge contribution into games popularization in general. The launch of 2600 conducted appearance of a diversity of other cartridge-based videogame consoles. Third-party game developers were welcome to make games for the console, the most notable of them was Namco with its world-famous arcade Pac-Man, one of the most widely-spread games ever, which is still represented nowadays on many gaming platforms, including arcade machines and handheld game systems. Another Atari 2600’s bestseller – arcade Space Invaders, which was one of the most industry-influential amusements in video games history.
Late seventies and the beginning of eighties brought people relatively inexpensive personal computers such as Apple II, Commodore 64 and IBM PC. While not only being wide purpose office machines, they also offered new capabilities for game developers – that was the first time when many video game companies specialized on computer-only development appear. Video game console market on the opposite was experiencing oversaturation of cheap consoles and games and soon this all led to the Video Game Crash of 1983, when a lot of video game companies became bankrupts and many analyst even predicted the soon apocalypse of video games industry.
But in the same 1983 the world saw the new, and the epochal cartridge-based game console - Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, which appearance determined the new revival of once thought-dead industry. During several years NES achieved tremendous popularity and commercial success all over the world, unlike its market predecessor – Atari’s 2600 with its variety of clones. The reason of console’s success was its game line, which was full of cult video games, such as world-famous platformers Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers, role playing Final Fantasy, stealth action Metal Gear, adventure The Legend of Zelda and many others. NES had a long life and became a part of mass culture of the end of the 20th century. Last shipments of the system’s nearest follower – Super NES – were made in 2003, 20 years after the first appearance of original NES. In former USSR area NES had been known since 1990 as Dendy, an illegal hardware clone, that actuality was same popular there. NES put computer game market of late eighties in its shade, but in the beginning of nineties more technically powerful IBM PCs and other popular consoles took their deserved place. And even much more powerful 1989’s console Sega Mega Drive, very popular in Europe in the beginning of nineties, had never achieved the same popularity in America and Japan, the two most sizeable and influential video game markets.
Year 1985 was a special year for Russian video game industry and in fact for the world’s video game industry – that was the year contemporary casual videogames first appeared. Alexey Pajitnov created one of the most famous and widespread electronic amusements – Tetris.
The beginning of nineties is also notable for appearance of Nintendo Game Boy series, a series of battery-powered handheld cartridge-based game consoles sold by Nintendo, what apparently brought mobility in gaming in its modern way.
Year 1993 was signal for PC gaming – one of the best considered games ever, X-COM: UFO Defense from Microprose came out, a game narrating about conflict with humanity and aggressive alien invaders. X-COM introduced an outstanding turn-based combat system that is not supposed to become outdated even for today and is still used in many tactical games.
In 1994 one of today’s most cult arcade racing simulators showed up, at first for a PC – the legendary Need For Speed, which greatly passed the spirit of racing, and offered many exotic cars to go on a ride, each of them had a special presentation video, recorded specially for the game.
Soon the nineties brought the visual revolution for games – 3-dimensional graphics. But being much more technically powerful than their predecessors not the computer systems of the time did give only new visual capabilities for games, but also they gave birth to brand new genres – such as first person shooters, that gave the first impulse for putting reality on screen: fantastic Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, then Quake and finally science fiction Half-Life and tactical online team playing Counter Strike – the line of most significant first person shooters. But shooters were not the only new wave of game industry. Real time strategies and role playing games had their best show time at the end of nineties. Legendary Diablo and Fallout, Command & Conquer and two epochal games from one company – Blizzard’s StarCraft and WarCraft – these all are well known by everyone who has ever been interested in computer games. In the year 2000 computer videogame industry experienced one of the most conspicuous turns of its history – The Sims came out, a strategic daily activities life-simulation, the best selling computer game series ever, and the most favorable videogame of women, by the way. Another well-known series began the same year – Hitman: Codename 47, the dramatic story narrating about a professional assassin named 47, which is sent around the globe on a series of missions to eliminate the most harmful criminal masterminds.
In nineties personal computers shared game market with video game consoles, the most notable of them was Sony PlayStation, that came out in 1995. PlayStation not only had many games that were already introduced on PC, like world-famous cross-platform adventure Tomb Raider, but it also had its exclusive game line, like Final Fantasy continuations, platformer Crash Bandicoot, thrilling horrors Resident Evil and Silent Hill, racing simulator Gran Turismo, stealth-action Metal Gear Solid and Role-playing Persona – this games made name PlayStation a synonym for a video game console for about ten years. In 2000 world saw a PlayStation successor – PlayStation 2, that brought new bestsellers like third person action Grand Theft Auto 3 and its successors – Gran Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, action God of War and others, while prosperously continuing at the same time previous PlayStation game series.
In the beginning of the 21st century personal computers got quite enough computing power to give the desired capability for many developers and game artists to depict their very intimate artistic thoughts, that could not be made before because of simplicity of past computer systems, that allowed to show only relatively primitive and abstract scenes. Going by, two thousands successfully proceeded famous game lines with breathtaking Half-Life 2, terrifying and technological Doom 3, stealth-action Splinter Cell, blockbuster Quake 4, absorbing and profound fantasies Morrowind and Oblivion. But that the same times also brought the gaming revolution – online, which actually existed before, but clearly outlined only a few years ago. Starting from multiplayer rather as an add-on in single playing games, soon multiplayer-only oriented games emerge. The old multiplayer hits like Star Craft and Counter Strike were followed by real time strategy Warcraft 3, first person shooters Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament, team battle simulator Battlefield – lots of local and worldwide championships are held now in this disciplines, what determined appearance of the new kind of sports – electronic sports. For instance, World Cyber Games, the biggest worldwide videogame tourney with total prize of about a half million dollars, gathers about a thousand of best-of-the-best players, chosen from many thousands of professional players from all over the world, winners of national elimination rounds.
But online gaming didn’t stop over at competitive-only activities. Massive multiplayer online games signed the new age of online gaming. MMORPG-games offer huge artificial worlds, life simulating, fantasy or futuristic, worlds with their inner history, laws, traditions, governments and societies, where players can control their game character’s life, becoming a hero or a leader, a warrior or a space traveler. MMORPGs like fantasy World of Warcraft and Lineage II, cosmic Eve Online, and everyday life simulator Second Life attract millions of people today. For example World of Warcraft has about 8 million subscribers for today, when Eve Online has about 30 thousand players at the same time on the average. Second Life even allows its players to earn real money doing their virtual businesses in the game’s universe. Massive multiplayer games connect people from all over the world, moving social, national and political boundaries between them deep to the background.
The new generation of game consoles, that is represented by Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft X-Box 360 and Nintendo Wii with its innovative gyroscopic stick-like gamepad – this is the generation that is in fact built on the idea of online interaction. The new lineage of home game systems was given eye-shocking computing powers, but improving graphics was actually slow evolution, when its online capabilities set was the qualitative leap. PS3, X-Box 360 and Wii have their own internet-based networks, where people not only can play online, but also can buy and download games without leaving home, can publish and compare their game achievements and finally read mail and have a text or a voice chat with their game buddies – all this without a personal computer. Today’s pocket gaming, represented by Sony PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS, was also given online capabilities, and Sony’s electronic product even has an internet connection and a build-in Skype, the most well-known internet phone service.
Videogames are often considered as the new art of the 21st century. But to be truthful, the majority of video games, the same as the majority of movies and music are amusement-only popular art, and sometimes truly tawdry and vulgarized. But let’s imagine what videogames can potentially show: they can introduce a fusion of literature-adopted plot, of painting- and sculpture-borrowed images, a fusion of cinematography-taken scripts and motion, touching accompanying sound with psychologically thought-out atmosphere – everything that all human arts can give, but with its individual and the most valuable feature – interaction. To say in a different way, games can turn into virtual reality, combining everyday life simulation with its common perception and artistic artificial environments with the help of arts historical experience. This virtual reality has a potential that somehow or other will be realized as the interconnection of all arts, becoming the art of technological future.
Video games of today have a long way to develop, but still video games’ history has many impressive things to show us. Despite these are far from da Vinci’s and Michelangelo’s masterpieces and may be far from higher arts in its common sense, but they are definitely what contemporary arts are about. Film-noir style of a black comedy Grim Fandango, absorbing and desperate wastelands of post-nuclear Fallout, romantic comparison of spiritual past and spoilt technological future of The Longest Journey – these are only some of the most vivid masterworks of interactive arts, and, as any real art, they had never achieved tremendous popularity. As any media, video games can pass deep moral sense, show high artistic design and can make people think about what they see and do. Some time ago a single programmer could handle almost all the tasks of developing a game. However the development of a modern game product involves a wide variety of skill-sets and support staff. As a result, entire teams are often required to work on a single project, teams having special divisions of talented designers, artists and composers. All this leads to significant enhancement of quality and, definitely, cultural value of future products.
We can see, contemporary computer game systems have become much more advanced technically and the range of their possibilities has vastly extruded from what we could see even 15 years ago. But not only techniques have changed since that time, people have changed their minds about gaming. Billions of dollars are rotated in this industry today, industry which is supported by more than 70% of population in such countries as the USA and South Korea, supported by kids, teenagers, adults and even aged people – everybody today is ready to play whatever is released, whether it’s a piece of modern art or a primitive jobbing. Games are mentioned everywhere in the Internet, on TV, in the cinema and in popular music. But gaming is a relatively new type of popular activities and many psychologists are interested today on how actually video games influence people and society altogether. Well, it is scientifically proved that people who play games, develop their dimensional imagination, event reaction time and simply become smarter due to significant experience of interaction. Game technologies are widely used for military training like battle tactics and vehicle control, pilots of planes and helicopters are prepared on simulating training stations, that are built with the help of hardware designed for gaming purposes. But since the time video games, as well as any other media, have been able to depict anything what it is possible to depict, gaming culture also has had its pale sides. Many video games today contain a lot of violence, cruelty and sexual content. For instance, the worst disrepute nominees are popular and controversial Grand Theft Auto series, where being a gangster, game character practices all methods for his goal achievements, and, of course, the most maniac and cruel game – Manhunt. And a lot of cases were mentioned, when even teenagers committed crimes being inspired by fierce interactive media. Psychologists claim that only inclined criminals and mentally unstable persons are capable of doing this, but despite the fact that not only video games can show how to kill and despoil, criminally disposed people now have more occasions to present the most spoilt sides of their nature. To protect society and especially kids from possible sinister influences, governments of many countries have set up a wide range of age limitations, different for each game product. Limitations become stricter with every year, and some countries such as Germany and Australia even have total trade embargo on some video games as a common practice – or at least cruel video games’ content is strictly censored there. Another ill side of games influence – video games addiction, that is especially widespread among MMORPG players, when virtual life replaces real for a person, and he loses the ability to return into the normal way of living. Some countries as China, where MMORPG games are extremely popular, have introduced an everyday gameplay time limit of 3 hours, which is problem-free controlled by game providers.
An interesting fact, that many activists, some of them don’t even have a clue about what video gaming really is, try to hypocritically use the situation around in-game violence and addiction for their personal interests: lawyers for contrived blames on game developers as “the real driving force” for crimes, and as the result – abridgements of criminal sentences and sometimes impressive money compensations; politicians – for attracting attention with the help of their anti-videogame low projects, where they are generous with tries of presenting video games as the only source of pure concentrated evil.
But nothing can stop the train now, as games, despite all their cons, have become an inseparable part of human’s modern life. Once being a simple amusement for mostly kids, now video games are played by all the age groups of human society. Video games budget today has exceeded Hollywood’s heights, as well as artistic projects number is constantly increasing. We can hope that kitsch sometimes will avoid gaming, that cruelty on screen will not affect people’s behavior, and addiction will be forgotten. We have a long way to cope with this problems, and have a long way to make gaming better. Because what we want now, is to spend a couple of hours for a deep journey to some new and interesting, but virtual places, and we want to came back with our most vivid impressions, impressions of the most interactive art of the 21st century.
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