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The Playing Is the Thing

When it comes to understanding games, is participation the point of perforation between generations?

Okay, I have kids.  I "get it" when we, as parents, are hesitant about some of the new-fangled things our kids get into, and why shouldn't we be?  The old-fangle is closer to our heart and eminently more familiar, and that hesitancy may even drive us to investigate and become involved in our progeny's pursuits; to parent.  Unfortunately, it's much easier to just not think about any of that and translate the hesitancy into hostility.  It has happened with music, it has happened with movies, and it continues to happen with video games.

Eventually, like our kids, the generation gap grows older and leaves the home, and might manifest its maturity in statements like this from people who directed the recent Prince of Persia movie (without naming names):

God damn the gamers! Get them out of my head! The Prince of Persia movie is a great big, general entertainment with a romance, a boy and a girl, comedy, action, and a very good melodramatic story. It should be enormous, free reign entertainment.  That's what a Bruckheimer movie is, and that's what this tries to do.  But when the discussion turns to the minutiae of games, it begins now to bore the arse off me, frankly.

Okay it's Mike Newell. Luckily, he's just getting warmed up.  When asked "at which point games become a threat to Hollywood," he continues:

Well, here we are, talking about the God damn games again.  The answer is yes, of course they can become a threat to Hollywood.  But [they cannot] do so with drama in any real sense.

You can't do it without the human drama.  And the video game cannot do that. The video game can do all sorts of face-pulling, all sorts of: 'I am a bad man, I have a mean jagged sword', but it can't do any more than that.

Don't get me wrong - I watched the game and took many things from it. But I haven't had the experience of feeling in a game.  The one thing I do not do when I watch my son mow down Brazilians by the regiment - nor when I watched my assistants playing Prince of Persia - I don't feel anything, which is why I hate my son doing it.

And later:

But as a filmmaker, we have to make our audience feel something. Because if they don't feel, they haven't been through anything.  And I know, when I look at my 14-year-old's glazed eyes, that killing 3000 Brazilians doesn't mean anything, really.

Newell isn't alone, of course.  In fact, I arrived at this interview via the Twitter rabid Roger Ebert, who simultaneously opined that Newell "really gets it, about video games." It's more likely that Roger Ebert just "really gets" Mike Newell.

And he should, they have a lot in common. Besides being born less than 3 months apart, they also share a self-professed inability to play video games. I'm not faulting them for that, of course, but in the process I think they're glossing over the generational divide, and the relatively recent watershed that virtual interactivity has become therein.

The playing is the thing.

Not the only thing, obviously, but the distinction is enough to apparently prevent bright men like Newell and Ebert from experiencing emotion through the medium, and I can fault then if they think this somehow denotes the entire form lacks feeling and/or the means to convey it. Newell's example is immediate but irrelevant, as would be any gamemaker's decision to dismiss a film - let alone the entire cinematic medium - based in part upon the dispassionate display of a 14-year-old (a measuring stick that filmmakers frequent far too much as it is).

Sometimes a game isn't any more of a game than a movie is a moving image, and even when it strives to be something more it's still susceptible to all the missteps that any movie might be; but when a game succeeds at surpassing the sum of its parts, it can absolutely be evocative. This idea probably isn't anything Newell or Ebert haven't had hurled at them a million times by now, but it's coming almost exclusively from whippersnappers like me that have spent the majority of their existence maturing with the medium. "Kids" with half-a-lifetime's worth of gamepad practice, and minds that are accustomed to switching seamlessly between gameplay and narrative while still allowing both to build upon and enhance the other.

My grandpa still has trouble with his email.

He might figure it out, he might not - he'll probably just settle on a bearable balance between confidence and confusion that affords him the utility he's looking for, and call it a day. Learning about any additional features or functions might greatly enrich his experience, but it would take a sizable investment on his part - perhaps even prohibitively so. He's still a great man with more wisdom to impart than I could ever hope to absorb, and maybe that's why (or rather how) he also taught me to learn from the experience of others - something I hope I'll remember 30 years from now when my kids are being as insufferably annoying as I am.

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