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Mar 01, 2004



> Yes, game software and hardware now outsell
> Hollywood's box office.

To contextualize this a bit more, domestic box office is actually only a very small part of the film industry's revenue stream. (Rare is the movie that breaks even in North American theaters; rarer still the one that actually makes a profit.) It's the ancillary markets (video and DVD, cable and broadcast rights, soundtracks, international distribution, etc.) that bring in the money-- and more key, it's the aggregate added to the box office which makes it a much larger industry than games. (And I'd hesitate to add the sale of gaming *hardware* to the comparative tally; the film industry doesn't count the sales of, say, DVD players to its total revenue.) So part of the gulf between the cultural impact of film and games *is* an economic one. All told, films are still much, much bigger than games, and have been that way for over 70 years. Games have been a significant medium for only 20 or so years.

Maybe it's better to turn the question around, and wonder why *movies* are the preeminent medium. Partly because they evoke strong emotions, as Ed suggests-- but then, so do books, and plays, and they aren't anywhere near as preeminent. The real key factors, I think, are universal appeal and accessibility across all demographics, (nationally and internationally), a universal installed base (if you have $5 or a TV, you can watch a movie), and above all, stars with universal appeal, personalities you love, or want to be.

Games, by contrast, have none of these things. They appeal almost exclusively to young men, have a smaller installed base (only 70% of the country has a console and/or a PC, I believe, less so internationally), and above all, by its very definition, cannot have stars. (You can digitize a star and put them in the game, but then, their game character *isn't them*.) Over time, the appeal for games should broaden, and the installed based will grow, but I think the medium's essential function of *recreating* characters, as opposed to having them portrayed by real people, is the real sticky wicket.

At least here. In Asia, there already *are* digital personalities who have devoted fan clubs, and games already are as important a medium as film. I wonder if this suggests a fundamental cultural divide, that can never be crossed. Something about Judeo-Christian empiricism, and the primacy of *reality*, versus cultures derived from Buddhism, which considers Western distinctions between reality and illusion to be meaningless and unimportant. Games aren't *real* in the same way movies are, which are shot on location, featuring real people expressing something very much like real emotions. (Similarly, it's interesting that animated filmsare are much more universally enjoyed in Asia, whereas here, it's mostly considered kid stuff. Just like games.)

Maybe that's it. If you want to go to the game equivalent of the Oscars, Ed, maybe it'll have to be in Tokyo.


Dr Castronova> The annual film awards show is wrapping up here in LA

So that’s who it was sitting between Nicole Kidman and Scarlett Johansson blogging away.


Ooo, so many things here, so just a few of the points i wanted to jump in with...

I feel there are two primary things at work in the way that games do not get the same recognition as film:

First there is the comparative youth of the medium combined with its technical nature. There are acres of text written on the acceptance of photography and then film as valid artistic media: I mean all you are doing is pointing a device at a thing – that cant be art.

More specifically with games, there is the whole cultural baggage of them being ‘games’. Everyone is rightly referencing Dimitri Williams’s thesis (Trouble in River City: The Social Life of Video Games) where he has an analysis of the history of marketing and media coverage of computer games where he shows that ‘arcade’ and console games were initial pitched as adult and then family entertainment. Subsequently video games have been perceived as both a trivial form (see Mia Consalvo’s It's no videogame': Global news media commentary and the second Gulf War) where she shows the use of the concept of video games to contrast with the reality of the second Gulf War) and of course a threatening one – see the entire media effects stuff.

However we do need to ask whether video games are just another media that will go through the same phases as say film, or are video games different (yikes almost a ludological argument here).

Over on GAMESNETWORK there has been a long discussion about whether games can fit the dramatic model defined by Aristotle in the Poetics. Sure one can argue at the level of detail as to whether a game can fulfil the necessary criteria for an Aristotelian tragic form. But the argument seems misguided to me. As, with games we are not the audience we are the actors (in both the loose and more technical sense), so its like asking Olivier whether playing Richard III was a tragic experience, which is quite a different question from whether the piece in performance was tragic. That is, its not all together certain that Aristotle’s categories should apply to games; at the point that they do fit, the game is probably more like a movie or a novel – and no one is arguing that you can put a movie or a novel into a game, but this does not mean that it is the game.

Like Dr C the only time I’ve cried with a game is when I can’t get it to work with my sound or video card drivers; though I have found some, such as the Lucas Arts series, genuinely funny.

Having said that, in MMOs I have had all together different types of experience: in VWs I have been touched by bonds of loyalty and feelings of betrayal. I have explored and discovered across amazing hidden spaces, I have felt triumph and loneliness, I have shared special moments with people that feel special to me.

These are just not the kind of emotions I have or have expected to feel watching a film. So maybe we have both (in philosophical terms) a category error in the question, and an issue for the industry. That is, there are a number of issues with understanding how to award a game. I think there is an argument for *stars* I mean Raph Koster is a star – but is he in the same way as Peter Jackson (separated at birth or what!) is? I think perhaps he is (oh I’m sparing the embarrassment of TNs own pantheon of game god’s here: Sir Bartle, Mr’s Ondrejka & Rickey) . Games are highly collaborative, but look at LOTR that was massively collaborative too, and we have no problem giving Jackson an award just because he did not write all the dialog, and paint the scenery, and code the massive engine, and play all the parts (as the other LOTR geeks here know – Jackson is actually in the film for a second or so).

But there is a deeper issue. We all watch LOTR (or any other film if you are that person that has not seen it) and take away a personal experience, but we tend to identify (or at least will credit) the origin of this experience with say the director, the main actors etc. But with an MMO I identify the deepest experiences with the people I happen to be with – when an MMO is at its best it disappears and all I have is human contact.



Here in the UK, our equivalent of the Oscars, the BAFTAs, do indeed have a series of awards for computer games. None of these are ones that readers of this blog need fear winning, however...



Sir Bartle> Here in the UK, our equivalent of the Oscars, the BAFTAs, do indeed have a series of awards for computer games. None of these are ones that readers of this blog need fear winning, however...

Not sure why, Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark was in the running in the Multiplayer category, OK a FPS won and there were two driving games, but MMO represent!



Dr Castronova> The annual film awards show is wrapping up here in LA

Ren> So that’s who it was sitting between Nicole Kidman and Scarlett Johansson blogging away.

No, that was Julian Dibbell. I was outside trying to score tickets to the after-show party with the cast of 2Fast2Furious II. Unsuccessfully.


When I first saw the post title, Ted, I thought you were going to draw the LOTR/MMORPG relation a little more explicitly. While the causalities aren't clear, I think the win for Peter Jackson at the Oscars was in some way a win for gamer culture, in some sense.

Talk about "shedding the stigma" -- here's Jackson being a bit defensive about winning an award for a fantasy movie:

[E]very single movie that has been made is a fantasy film. Because ours had goblins and trolls and wizards and orcs made it hard to look past that, but I appreciate that the Academy and the voters have seen through all that.

"Seen through" or "seen"? Which was it?


Quite aside from the issue of whether or not Peter Jackson and I are related, you should definitely read this blog post by Scott Miller of 3D Realms and the subsequent commentary:



Just a few specific comments on Hamlet’s post, in the I don’t mean to be pedantic but gear:

Hamlet>They appeal almost exclusively to young men
I think all of us (including me) either need to stop generalising at least make the statement fit the generalization. Games, computer games even do not appeal almost exclusively to young men – as we discussed here Survey: Women Over 40 Dominate Online Games this is just not the case, then there are the ‘free’ games that come with windows and those on mobile phones.

>[computer games ] above all, by its very definition, cannot have stars.
Well no, we have creative talent, then there is Lara Croft, Mario, Harry Potter(?).

>You can digitize a star and put them in the game, but then, their game character *isn't them*.
Erm, see this thread kicked off by me: now powered by stars.

>Something about Judeo-Christian empiricism, and the primacy of *reality*, versus cultures derived from Buddhism, which considers Western distinctions between reality and illusion to be meaningless and unimportant.

Now this I agree with - phew.


Raph> you should definitely read this blog post by Scott Miller of 3D Realms and the subsequent commentary:

Fantastic thread!

Here is the article that kicked if off: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/new_media/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=2091378

And here is a related one: http://www.eurogamer.net/article.php?article_id=2368

To quote from the ‘Game Matters’ blog:
Brian Spelman >

    The broader media does not devote time for this [computer games] except on rare occasions, but they do so regularly with book review, film previews, and tv pilots….
    Why is this so? Probably, because after doing surveys, executives found that it does not justify wasting column inches or airtime when such a small subsection of the audience would care about video games that much. Therefore, it becomes a vicious cycle whereby games are hampered becuase they do not receive free media to push their new ideas/product. Instead they have to rely on specialized magazines and web sites to make their voice heard.

Certainly the coverage that a film gets in the UK dominates that which games get – though this makes sense, the reason that media companies own as much of the value chain as possible so that, amongst other things, they can maximise cross media tie-in’s, and with the budget devoted to movies there is a good cost / risk argument for this. Though literary novels also get a lot of publicity, which suggests a cultural rather than economic background.

However, I’ve noticed that in the UK things are changing. In London there are posters for game all over the place. There are adverts on sports pitches and some fairly serious sponsorship deals form the likes of EA and EIDOS. Moreover every now and again games are covered on high brow arts shows at times without any omg we are talking about a video game.

What is coverage like in other places ?


Greg> I think the win for Peter Jackson at the Oscars was in some way a win for gamer culture.

That's a topic I could go on and on about. It's certainly a victory for fantasy role-playing culture. Is it a victory for fans of Halo and The Sims? Not sure about that. MMORPGs? Well, on any given day I have a different opinion about whether RP belongs in the name.

I went to see LOTR again today, and, in this moment of post-hobbit zeal, I've been thinking that there's a reason why this story has burrowed into our culture so deeply. On one level, it seems very odd. Paul Fussell has written that, after World War I, the only acceptable mode of language is irony. Yet here we have Great Halls, Proud Men, Fair Women, Resolute Speeches, and Earnestness to excess. Why are we not laughing out loud at all this hubris? How could Tolkien, writing in the wake of one terrible war and the shadow of another, conclude that the world needed a story where honorable kings send men to honorable but futile battles? Hadn't we learned that there's no such thing?

Well, yes, and that's why the story is set in fantasy. We wish there were honorable kings and honorable but futile battles. I think the story as something of a eulogy for the innocent young men who died horrible, meaningless deaths in the first war. Tolkien, and others of his generation whowere close friends of the fellows who never came back, really and truly wished that there would have been some meaning in their sacrifice. Much of the art and writing devoted to WWI is angry and ironic, true, but not so when attention is focused on the soldiers themselves. Then, the artists seemed to express a deep tenderness of emotion. The image of little hobbits trapped on the sides of a fiery mountain, struggling upward through the mud, facing certain death again and again, set off little Sommes bells in my head. It's almost like the story is a prayer - why can't there have been meaning in it all? Let's dream that there was a point.

Of course that puts things in a specific historic context of the interwar years, but I wonder why the story resonates today. I suppose as long as irony remains a dominant mode of expression, we will often feel like we are struggling along with no purpose, mission, or meaning. LOTR concludes with the exodus of magic from the world. When the story is over, there's no meaning or spirit left in the old place. Well, that's modernity in a nutshell.

Back to games, though. EverQuest succeeds in part because it gives people quests - meaning. And in the conflicts between powergamers and role-players, maybe we can see the playing out of the end of modernism and the Post-WWI era. The powergamers and meta-gamers are up to their ears in the modern ethic - no fantasies for them, no way. Anyone wandering around the virtual world speaking in Fakespeare is a loser, right? All belief has to be debunked and all enthusiasm squashed. No magic here, nothing to see. If you're not here to level up fast and gank newbies, move along.

Meanwhile, role-players doggedly stick to it. Where does it come from, this blind insistence that the fantasy is worth supporting and acting out? Are the SCA people, the Ren Faire types, and MMOG role-players nothing but a marginal factor? Or is there a shifting in the winds?

Many times its occurred to me that the only answer to deconstruction is foundation. Sure, the age of kings is over. You say there's no God. Fine. Well, now what do we do with our time? Nothingness is dull. So let's build something. And if we are going to build something, why not build something that feels like whatever it was we lost in August 1914?

This line of thought makes me wonder whether Tolkien may not eventually be perceived as the most forward-looking writer of the 20th century. Faced with the clear and undeniable loss of meaning, he just created meaning out of thin air. And the craft of world-building that he largely invented seems to be sweeping the globe.


I think the industry is making good progress towards developing a strong foundation for this art and this science.

There is a good thread on IGDA's forum regarding:

Storytelling, dramatic context & your favourite dramatic game moments


More emphasis on the narrative aspect of games may allow people to better relate to the genre. Gameplay, on the otherhand, have a completely different dynamic.




I'm starting to wonder if you and I couldn't make a nice living doing some kind of college-campus road-show/culture-war where you argue the arch-roleplayer's position and I play the meta-gaming powerplayer -- kinda the way E. Howard Hunt and Timothy Leary (or more recently Stanley Fish and Dinesh D'Souza) used to go around having at each other for fun and profit.

The reason I think of this is that my take on Tolkien is exactly the opposite of yours -- at least as much as roleplaying and powergaming can be said to be opposed. All that solemn significance you love in him has always been, for me, a maybe necessary but ultimately secondary companion to the main event: the construction of a world in all its deeply nerdy, obsessively consistent particulars. At bottom, Tolkien's work is not about Proud Men and Great Halls -- it's about Elvish grammars and four-page maps.

This sounds dismissive, but it's not. There's something wildly transporting about being set down in the midst of Tolkien's world and joined to it by way of narrative. But if the power of Tolkien's books depended on the reader's buying into their author's nostalgic, Anglo-Catholic cultural gestalt, they never would have worked for me or, I suspect, a very great many of their fans.

Instead, as you rightly suggest, they seem to be on the verge of conquering global culture on a number of fronts. If this is because of the worldview (and not the world) that they embody, then I can't be too thrilled about that. Because I think you're also right to locate the source of that worldview in the gap between the world wars. And remember that that was a pretty confused and creepy little place in world history.

Tolkien's work, I think, shares somewhat in the creepiness. The man was no fascist, but boy, there are some parts of The Hobbit that make you wonder (if the money-grubbing mayor of Lake-town is not a crypto-Jew, then I'm Mel Gibson [or at least seated between him and Charlize Theron at the Oscars, blogging away]). And as for all the general hero-worship and race talk and yearning for lost days of nobility -- well, it's not Tolkien's fault that those were also the cultural building blocks of the Third Reich, but they don't exactly reek of healthy democratic sentiment.

Anyway, before I head too much further down the path of trolldom, let me say that this all has something to do with the ever-so-slightly creepy vibe I get from role-player culture -- and why, on the other hand, it doth warme mine very heart to see two UO d00dz0rs with their ringmail-clad avatars parked by the blacksmith forge talking about last week's episode of Survivor and the relative uberness of the Hit Chance Increase mods on their vanquishing katanas. There is just something so secular, so open, and so endearingly, unpretentiously fallen about that sort of powergamer scene. And I think its appeal has to do with a deep immersion in the mechanics of the world, rather than in its values.

That would be how I'd come at you in our roadshow, anyway, Ted. What I believe deep down, though, is less partisan: I think Tolkien's real genius lies in the capacity of his work to accommodate both the roleplayer's sensibility and the powergamer's.

Ditto, of course, for MMORPGs.


Julian> ... the ever-so-slightly creepy vibe I get from role-player culture ...

Yes, there's something to that, I think. There are deep, unspoken connections between Tolkien and Wagner. And here's another data point: in the underground music scene in Germany today, there's a branch devoted to Norse mythology, that's also become a gathering point for contemporary Brownists.

Being a fan of Tolkien and Wagner and (to a lesser extent) old European sagas, and also a role-player, but certainly NOT a Brown, I have to start asking myself what the content of this fantasy really is. Look at some of the icky folk it attracts. Stop me before I 'thou' again!

[Disclaimer: I am not painting all role-players as icky fascists here. I am saying that some of the things that I and other role-players find attractive, fascists find attractive. Which reminds me of Dave Rickey's suggestion that player democracies might well go fascist if left to their own devices. In this context, it's a scary thought.]

Julian> And I think its appeal has to do with a deep immersion in the mechanics of the world, rather than in its values.

Yes, in a similar way there are many people who wrestle with their love of Wagnerian music; they thirst for the immersion and the beauty, but deplore the values.

Julian> That would be how I'd come at you in our roadshow, anyway, Ted.

I'm just flattered you even engaged with me in this dialog - I'm a part-time hobbyist when it comes to culture, I haven't a clue, really. Talk about n00b ganking! Yikes! You'd wipe the floor with me.

No, in the end I'm really just left with questions about myself. Why is that world so enticing, out there beyond the mists of time and lore? What am I looking for there?


Edward> No, in the end I'm really just left with questions about myself. Why is that world so enticing, out there beyond the mists of time and lore? What am I looking for there?

My answers to the same questions are:

Escape into an fantasy world where I can really immerse myself and identify with the world and its inhabitants. I am both immersed by the completeness of Middle Earth's mythology and the richness of the culture and struggles.

Many find Myst and even Uru their realm of choosing. Some may want to explore a horror-filled world like Silent Hill. Alice in Wonderland and Naria fits the bill for other.

My friends and I easily switch from full roleplay mode to full powergame mode in live action RPGs, online RPGs, table-top RPGs. It's game and meta-game. Both are now part of the experience. We as a group regulate ourselves and set clear boundaries where each of the gameplay is acceptable.

If we can fully understand the dynamic of the two, we may be able to create wonderous medium that will bring awe to the participants.

However, as personal experience may vary in interactive mediums, it will be hard to gain the consistency of perspective necessary to judge on the perfomance.

So at this current stage, we can only judge on the technical aspect of the medium.



Ack! Can I go on the road show with Ted and Julian and throw tomatoes? To paraphrase Julian, I like the prose, but I disagree with the message.

First, see this. Yes, the books are about WWI and the trenches at Somme because Tolkien saw friends die horribly, and you can never really recover from that kind of experience. But LOTR was written during a time when the world was struggling against the Nazis, and it was uncertain who would win. The book isn't about WWII, but when Tolkein read a newspaper before setting down to write, that was the war he read about.

Second, he wasn't a crypto-facist or a Heideggerian existentialist Catholic. From the source above:

Tolkien, a devout Catholic, and [C.S.] Lewis, an agnostic at the time, frequently debated religion and the role of mythology. Unlike Lewis, who tended to dismiss myths and fairy tales, Tolkien firmly believed that they have moral and spiritual value. Said Tolkien, "The imagined beings have their inside on the outside; they are visible souls. And Man as a whole, Man pitted against the Universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale?"

I admit he wasn't enlightened about all those things we learned in the 1950s-60s-70s-etc... and I agree with you Julian, that the filtration of fantasy culture through 1337sp34k culture is really a splendid thing. But as far as Tolkien believed in struggles between good and evil -- I really don't think we need to get beyond that.


A scattershot of things mentioned in this thread:

Personally, what's most amusing to me is that although I once tried Tolkien (Fellowship of the Rings), it was too thick and indirect for my taste. I generally consider myself to be fairly well-read in Science Fiction and a little lesser so in Fantasy but I for one did not like Tolkien's work. I'll give it another shot at some point but I anticipate similar results.

What I genuinely respect, however, is the mythos behind Tolkien's work. Granted my experience lies primarily in the movies but the overriding grandeur and depth behind the most innocuous details is amazing. I vaguely remember reading that Tolkien created 14 full-blown languages for the LOTR world. How many novels or series have even created one? Or, to lower the bar, how about only a dozen words of proprietary meaning?

To turn to the MMORPG/Movie comparison, I derive *completely* different experiences from the two. With movies, I associate (or not) with the characters and story. I wish I was there in that world (or not) and that I was holding the sword, choosing whether to turn right or left, and wondering where this individual will go and what he will do, see or feel. In contrast, I am the figure in MMORPGs. *I* choose to turn left down the path. *I* choose to fight the evil red dragon or run away. [Insert Monty Python and the Holy Grail reference here.] More importantly, in my travels, when I come across a startingly well-rendered waterfall or a pen of chicken-like monsters, I feel a sense of amazement and wonder because it was me who did the exploring. That extra step of involvement, where I control or impact the character's destiny, life and death, is what keeps me coming back to MMORPGs.

I can watch a movie as many times as I want, knowing the outcome and just being a passive observer. I can play an MMORPG infinitely more times to explore new places, experience new encounters and achieve a sense of accomplishment.

I'll tell you, when my char hit 50 in DAOC, after ~24 days of in-game playtime, it felt like I'd won an award.


Greg> First, see this [link to bio]. Yes, the books are about WWI.

Holy crap! that was a lucky guess. I had no idea he'd actually been there.

Greg> But as far as Tolkien believed in struggles between good and evil -- I really don't think we need to get beyond that.

Point taken. Again, the fact that Tolkien (and Wagner) wrote things that fascists dig does not make them into fascists. Personally, I think we'd all be better served, in the long run, if we reacted to modernity the way Tolkien did, by building.

It's interesting. My main beef with Tolkien has been that he's externalized evil into this grotesque Other. Psychologically, that's quite convenient and reassuring, and (as with Dickens) it's a great way to grab the reader's emotions. But the truth about the struggle between good and evil is that it gets generated, first, from within the protagonist. Tokien is candy, but Shakespeare is bitter, purging medicine.


greglas> But as far as Tolkien believed in struggles between good and evil -- I really don't think we need to get beyond that.

I find digging into that stuggle at least midly interesting. On the one hand, it can be read as "technology is evil." After all, technology was used to terrible effect in two world wars. This position is articulated at the extreme by (eg David Brin and, to a lesser extent, by Tom Shippey's excellent litterary analysis. Shippey also goes into a great deal of historical and cultural perspective around Tolkien's concept of evil and there is no question that Tolkien's religious beliefs were major influences. It is important to remember that the hobbits represent the idealized British in Tolkien's imagination, not the humans or wizards. It is through the hobbits eyes that we are supposed to view evil and the evils of technology.

The Shippey book is especially interesting (and this plays to Ted's comment about Tolkien creating "meaning out of thin air") because it digs deeply into Tolkien's source material, often referencing Tolkien's own comments and writing on the subject. I'd say that it is more accurate to say that he pulled meaning out of a rich, but largely ignored in the early part of the century, vein of literature that he had both studied and taught: pagan mythos, particularly northern european.

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