The new golden age of video games

They've become sophisticated, beautiful -- and as smart as literature. An expert explains what the future holds

By Jacob Sugarman

Published April 26, 2011 3:19PM (EDT)

After watching the latest television spot for "L.A. Noire," the new police procedural from Rockstar Games set in 1940s Hollywood, you might be asking yourself: "Was that a movie trailer?" As the remarkable production value of its advertising campaigns suggests, the U.S. gaming industry has emerged as the biggest economic force in entertainment today, earning upward of $20 billion a year (for those of you keeping score, that’s more than movie, music and DVD sales combined). Nearly 70 percent of U.S. households own some kind of gaming console, and the average age of today’s gamer (35) continues to rise. Whether you manage a franchise in the latest iteration of "Madden NFL" or merely slingshot angry birds in your downtime at the office, chances are that video games have become a vital component of your tech-crazed, socially networked life.

Yet despite its exponential growth in popularity, many in the artistic community continue to walk over the gaming industry like the Mario Brothers over so many mushrooms. While comic books and children’s toy lines have been immortalized on the silver screen, video game adaptations continue to fall flat (for examples, see: "Evil, Resident 1-4"). Will games ever be able to completely shed their macho-nerd stigma? And as their narratives grow increasingly complex, what kind of claim will they stake on our popular culture?

To answer these questions, we turned to the author of "All Your Base Are Belong to Us," a game lover’s history of the industry’s most colorful players and companies. Harold Goldberg has written about video gaming for Wired and Entertainment Weekly; his book titles include "My Life Among the Serial Killers," which he co-wrote with Dr. Helen Morrison, and "Sidney Lumet: Interviews."

Salon spoke with him over the phone about secrets of Nintendo’s success, the neurological wonders of "Tetris" and the gentler side of "Grand Theft Auto."

What does the title of your book actually mean?

"All Your Base Are Belong to Us" is a piece of poorly translated text from the opening scene of a Japanese game called "Zero Wing." Around the year 2000, it became a kind of Internet meme amongst gamers who liked to talk trash with their fellow players. I also think the phrase neatly captures the current video-gaming zeitgeist. Financially and artistically, the industry has really come into its own over the past few decades and it has begun absorbing the audiences of some more established forms of media.

You argue that video games have conquered popular culture, and yet they’re still treated by much of the mainstream media as a kind of ghetto art form. Why do you think that so few people, for example, have even heard of Shigeru Miyamoto, the creative genius behind Nintendo?

While they’ve been around for 50 years, video games are still relatively new compared to a lot of other popular art forms. I think everyone needs to open their minds a little to the medium’s potential. When a game is done right, it can be as engaging as any movie or novel. I’m not suggesting that the authors of video games can be compared to David Foster Wallace, but I think the emotional resonance is the same if the writing isn’t as good. If you spend 100 hours playing "Red Dead Redemption," the great western from Rockstar Games, you’ll almost feel as though you’ve read a great work of prose. As gamers age and some of them become heavy hitters in the entertainment industry, I think people will begin to realize that this is an art form that needs to be reviewed alongside movies, books and music.

Given how rich their storytelling can be, why do so many video games make such horrendous movie adaptations?

Both industries are suspicious of one another — this is something I’ve been hearing from gaming developers since the mid-'90s. One of the problems is that Hollywood is so focused on brand building that it rarely takes the time to understand what these intellectual properties are all about. Games tend to feature multiple storylines unfolding simultaneously, while the majority of the big summer blockbusters out there are a lot more linear. Television has always seemed to me like a much more natural fit, and I think a network like HBO or Showtime or even AMC could do terrific job of capturing a game’s narrative complexity. With that said, I do think there’s probably a "Social Network"-type movie to be made about some of the more revolutionary gaming designers, many of whom were ahead of their time and experienced great personal tragedy pursuing their vision.

Reading your book, I was reminded how long Nintendo has been kicking around. How has it managed to outlast competitors like Atari and Sega? Is it because products like the Wii provide counterprogramming to some of the more violent games available on PlayStation and other devices?

Agility is the key to survival in this industry, and Nintendo has always found a way to reinvent itself. PlayStation ruled the roost for almost a decade before the Wii came out and changed the face of gaming as we know it. With the various iterations of Wii sports, not only did you have kids and video game junkies like me playing, but entire families. For years after its release, Wii bowling remained enormously successful with older generations of people who had never played before. And while the PC remains the most popular device for female gamers, the Wii is also one of the more gender-friendly consoles on the market.

As a loyal "Super Mario Brothers" player, one question that has always puzzled me is how a Japanese video game manufacturer settled on an Italian-American plumber as its mascot. Any thoughts?

There are lots of different theories floating around, but the popular belief is that Mario was named after the company warehouse’s first landlord in Seattle. I realize that doesn’t offer much explanation as to why he’s a plumber. Popeye had a huge influence on Miyamoto, so it’s possible that the Mario Brothers may have been a riff on a few characters from the cartoon or the original comic strip.

Your book details how some of the first video games were constructed on military contracts. Today, titles like "Medal of Honor" and "Call of Duty" remain some of the industry’s top sellers. Why do you think gaming and war seem to go hand in hand?

I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t say whether or not there’s something ingrained in the human mind that makes us want to shoot or kill. I do know that video games can be extremely empowering. Whether you’re fighting in a fantasy dreamscape or on the beaches of Normandy, you’re always trying to save the world in one form or another. I think guns tend to give gamers a greater feeling of agency than hand-to-hand combat. Early video games like "Spacewar!" also took a lot of their cues from "Flash Gordon" and other works of science fiction where elaborate weaponry is a common trope.

What kind of neurological effects do you think video games have had on the generations that have grown up playing them?

In one of my chapters, I talk a little about how "Tetris" has been shown to improve its players’ brain functions by sharpening their reflexes and decision-making abilities. I think gaming has also radically altered the way that we dream, for better or for worse. When we play a video game for several consecutive hours, its characters and landscapes tend to return to us in our sleep.

How do you think social networking has affected gaming and vice versa?

Even though a company like Zynga is valued at $10 billion, we’re still very early in the evolution of social gaming. I don’t think the games that are available on Facebook are nearly as satisfying as the ones you might find on a console or even a hand-held device. Many of them revolve around micro transactions, so you can play a few hours for free, but eventually you’ll have to pay some kind of fee if you want to progress. To give you an example, I recently started playing a role-playing game that left me trapped in a dungeon with a huge monster I simply couldn’t beat. I finally decided to pay a $5 charge for an energy upgrade and I still couldn’t kill the bastard. What this tells me is that the basic designs of these games may not be strong enough to support the business model they have in place. Facebook also often asks its users to shoehorn their friends into the games they’re playing and this can make a lot of people uncomfortable. Developers need to think more carefully about the gamer experience than they are right now.

You devote an entire chapter of your book to the birth of the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise. The games’ excessive violence has already been well-documented, but what made them so revolutionary?

"Grand Theft Auto" wasn’t the first to do this, but it definitely popularized the idea that you don’t have to complete an ordered sequence of tasks or challenges to play. The game’s universe is so immaculately detailed that you can do just about anything you want. This can mean stealing a fleet of cars or taking your girlfriend on a date to the virtual equivalent of Coney Island. There are even simple, Wii-like sports games embedded inside if you feel like you’re getting bored. "Grand Theft Auto III" was especially groundbreaking because it offered hours upon hours of game play. People really felt like they were getting their money’s worth.

How do you see the video game industry evolving? Is it a foregone conclusion that we’ll be playing in 3-D?

Not only will we be playing in 3-D without special glasses, video game designers have already started branching out into hologram technology. I look forward to the day when I’ll be able to wrap my arms around a projected image of Lara Croft. With all of that said, I still think the grail for designers is to write a video game that’s on par with some of our classic works of fiction. I’d like to think we’re inching closer every day.

Jacob Sugarman

You can follow Jacob Sugarman on twitter @jakesugarman.

MORE FROM Jacob SugarmanFOLLOW jakesugarmanLIKE Jacob Sugarman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Video Games