The annual film awards show is wrapping up here in LA and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King has won in 10 of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, with only Best Picture to go [Edit: It just got best picture too]. Earlier in the night, I was watching the awards for things like Sound Editor and Visual Effects. The recipients there wore tuxedos and glamorous gowns, just like the actors and actresses, but they also had more of a techy look to them, as if the clothes didn't exactly fit. I imagined that is what game developers might look like, were there an Oscars for games. There are game awards, of course; we're looking forward to the next round at GDC next month. Still, the contrast between that ceremony and the star-studded gala on Hollywood Boulevard is striking.
Yes, game software and hardware now outsell Hollywood's box office. Games may even have more overall impact on behavior than movies. But games don't have anywhere near as much cultural whuffie as the movies. Not even close. Why not?
[Disclaimer: every idea in this post has probably already been written down by a ludologist. I haven't done my homework, and know absolutely nothing about games as art. I'm sure that will become obvious in a moment anyway.]
Perhaps it is a personality issue. In the movies, we focus on actors, who are people. In games, we are the actors; the cultural icon that ends up being shared is either an autonomous software agent, or, a la Lara Croft, a costume or shell or vehicle of ourselves. The people we connect to in games aren't people, and they can't add glitz to an award ceremony or grace the covers of tabloid papers with their depressingly ordinary personal crises. No glitz, no whuffie.
Perhaps its a time-and-tradition effect. Movies are over 100 years old. Hollywood can show a reel of the great people who have died in the last year, and it's actually pretty long and has people on it who flourished so very long ago that it seems like they were filming on another planet. At best, the game industry could show a reel of guys who have turned 40, and even that wouldn't be very long. Oscar only came along in 1928 and wasn't a big deal until talkies. Maybe games still have several decades to go.
Or maybe it has something to do with the state of the art itself. I've cried at movies, but I've never cried during a videogame (well, lag death almost drove me to tears once, but that's not the kind of crying I am talking about). I've never laughed out loud at something in a game. Hell, I'm happy if the words make sense and are properly spelled. When do we feel more immersed in Tolkien's thought-world: when Rohan's armies thunder down upon the orcs in Return of the King, or when we camp the Crushbone orcs in EverQuest? It's really rather shocking that games can attract so much of our time when they do a comparatively pitiful job of engaging our emotions. Every game I've ever played reads like a very, very bad movie. Yet somehow it is still more enticing than a film, to me at least. But still - the games don't grab your heart the way the movies do. No heart-grabbing, no whuffie.
But maybe this is itself an unfair assessment. Let's compare Lord of the Rings to early silent films, those ones where everybody's walking around like a penguin and gesturing like a guy on crack. OK, Rohan's armies win that one too, but it makes a lot of sense. It's not about the medium. It's about the accumulated capital being devoted to the medium. ROTK cost $94 million to make. Imagine $94 million put into a four-hour game. Imagine further a mature game production industry, with decades of accumulated human capital - hands-on experience, passed on from generation to generation - to deploy toward making stuff that people laugh and cry about. They have this thing called the 'Hollywood ending,' an ending that gives people the feelings they want to have. How does Hollywood know what this ending is? Tradition.
The emotional impact of games today is wimpy. But just wait. This little garage-and-basement industry is growing up, fast. Wait until its notions of what works and what doesn't become deep, wide, and fairly settled. And wait until they can draw revenues from billions and billions of customers, as the movies do. The day will come when we thunder down upon the orcs ourselves, in person, more or less. Can even Oscar withstand such a charge?