Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Wasting time in strange new worlds

I have been remiss in posting about gaming because I have been gaming. Seriously gaming. The kind of Serious Gaming where I keep staying up until 5 a.m., several nights in a row.

As I've been playing Mass Effect, I've been inhabiting new worlds, exploring them, meeting characters and getting to know them, seeing through the eyes of a character myself ...

And as I've played, it's struck me that it's like I'm reading a novel. When I read "The Lord of the Rings," I was doing the same things: Exploring a new world, meeting characters, and seeing through their eyes.

How many of us who enjoy video games have heard other people dismiss our hobby as a waste of time?

But how is engaging your mind with a game you enjoy different from spending the same amount of time passively watching a football game or baseball game? Is it wasted time? Is any time you spend doing something just because you enjoy it the same as wasting the time?

What about the time spent watching TV or movies? Why do so many people who think nothing of spending passive hours enjoying television dismiss video games? I enjoy TV, too, but TV is passive. I can't go to sleep playing a video game, because it wakes up my brain.

Mass Effect elevates the whole "wasted time" debate to a new level of challenge. Many of the people who sniff at video games would never dismiss reading a great book as a waste of time. What they fail to understand is that Mass Effect is like reading a good book.

What Mass Effect makes ever clearer is that video games are an emerging art form. Like movies, they are a multimedia form of storytelling. You aren't just witnessing the story. You are in the story. You live it. Instead of witnessing a character make choices and have experiences that teach him lessons and shape his life, you enact those experiences yourself. You live through those life-altering events, and maybe you learn something, if the game makers have spent much thought on the story.

Was "Beowulf," written sometime around the 900s, considered a waste of time by many during its day? Or was it considered a new art form? What about novels, as a dawning form of literature? What did people think about them? Movies made the transition from technological curiosity to art form in only a few decades in the early 20th century.

Rather than being a pinnacle in gamemaking, Mass Effect suggests the great promise of video games. It makes clear the potential of video games as a medium for storytelling. In future years, in literature classes, will there be a mention of Mass Effect in the evolution of video games as they ascended to respectability? When will the J.R.R. Tolkien of video games emerge with a masterpiece?

In the lifetime of my great grandparents, airplanes went from the Wright brother's dune-hopping powered kite to the technological marvels that fly at Mach 5, and to the rockets that carried men to the moon. Video games consisted of Pong when I was kid, and look at them now. And yet we're still in the barnstorming biplane days of video games.

I look forward to when video games transcend the stigma of "time-wasters" and children's toys and come to be regarded like movies. Sure, there are popcorn movies that just blow up good. Most video games do that, and that has its place. But there are also movies that compel you to think, that move you emotionally or that paint a picture of some truth in life. Games need to become respected as a place for grown-up storytelling. Like movies, games must have a venue for children's fare and a place for mature drama, with cursing and violence and nudity and love and sex and God and compassion and death all being parts of the story, because those are the things that life is about.

But right now, Mass Effect is like a sail on the horizon for what games will become.

Tonight, as I step again onto the Normandy's deck, I'm hoping to make the beautiful blue asari Liara fall in love with me. I had to make a choice between Ashley and Liara, and I chose Liara. I'm eager to find out if I made the right choice.

My reviews of Ace Combat, COD4 and Conan

My official reviews of Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat and Conan are all posted on the Techcetera blog on now. Take a look at the links and let me know what you think.

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