Tagged in: history

Review: Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood by Jamie Russell

Title: Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood
Author: Jamie Russell
Year: 2012

Summary: A very detailed history, with tons of direct anecdotes, on the choppy relationship between Hollywood and the game industry.


genxbox-e1451659335214Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood
has a really unfortunate title that would normally make me dismiss it as sensational out-of-touch clickbait (…readingbait?). The truth is that while the author often makes enthusiastic and grandiose statements about the people and developments outlined in the book, it’s also a really excellent book that does justice to the topic at hand. If the intersection of film and games interests you, this book will serve you well.

This is not a design book: it’s a pop-culture history book that largely focuses on the business deals and technology issues – and more rarely on the artistic intent – behind many well-known games based on films, films adaptations of games, and games that bridge “gameplay” and “cinema” to create various interactive experiences.

It’s an easy read, obviously written to appeal to a popular audience of gamers, film buffs, and anyone in between. I think having some familiarity with the history of games is ideal, though not necessary. (I recommend reading The Ultimate History of Video Games first if you feel you need more background first). The book clocks in at around 330 pages, and each chapter is quite long (with some obvious breaks) and covers a really important topic related to film and games roughly in chronological order.

Generation Xbox begins by discussing the situation leading up to Atari’s infamous E.T. game. Subsequent topics go into great detail on Dragon’s Lair, the FMV craze of the 90’s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s involvement in games, the often disastrous film adaptations like Super Mario Bros and Mortal Kombat, the aborted Halo film, Heavy Rain and the advancements of motion capture that helped make the Avatar film possible. The author goes into a great deal of detail on many of these topics to make sure the reader has proper context (what the state of games or film were at the time) as well as including a wealth of insider information. I don’t think you can find this level of detail on many of the events outside of this book – for example, if you ever wanted to know exactly how the Super Mario Bros film got approved by Nintendo and how it ended up as a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk flick filmed in a warehouse, this book has you covered.

Throughout the book there’s a sense that you’re just reading a series of train wrecks. Example after example shows potential wasted, squandered, or sabotaged by the competing interests of the film and game industries. The author proposes this miscommunication and failed attempts were often due to speaking different languages. Often film industry people who had the opportunity to collaborate with games just did not understand the nature of branching storylines and collaborate authorship with players, while games people didn’t understand the way film has a large hierarchy of people with competing demands (actors, producers, directors, etc.). The film industry tends to work off of celebrity, networking, and negotiation, while the game industry tends to be much more tech and engineer-focused, where results are king.

I am not sure I entirely buy this argument, but there were enough anecdotes on the miscommunication between the industries from people involved in these deals that I can’t deny there was a cultural mismatch and a lot of people speaking past one another. Most of the problems highlighted in the book places blame largely on the film industry, and most of the interviews and stories come from the perspective of people in games rather than in film. I think that’s an important caveat to bring with you as you read it.

Eventually Generation Xbox does end on a high note. After so many disasters and the rare success, it covers the technology behind motion capture that developed as games moved from 2D to 3D. This technology had immediate relevance in the film industry, and while it still took many years before mainstream actors were comfortable wearing spandex suits you can see how important those visual effects are in both film and games today.

Personally I appreciated the FMV chapter best, since I remember playing many of the latter games from this era but didn’t know much about how they came about. This era showed a lot of experimentation that I feel we’ve largely forgotten, mainly because FMV acting was so, so terrible. I enjoyed seeing risky examples of the industries bringing game-like mechanics into movie theaters (Mr. Payback) and films onto consoles, even though all these attempts ultimately failed.

I think it’s important to know about the history of our industry so I’ve seeded my game design book list with several popular nonfiction to help cover the gaps in my knowledge. Despite living in LA, the film industry is cloaked in the same mystique for me that the game industry had for those outside of it. Generation Xbox did a lot to demystify the evolving and often precarious business relationship between these two industries.

Review: Videogames: In the Beginning by Ralph Baer

Book: Videogames: In the Beginning
Author: Ralph Baer, the father of video games from the Magnavox Odyssey era
Year: 2005

Summary: A autobiographical recounting of Ralph Baer’s career, focusing on the Magnavox Odyssey and supported with a wealth of primary sources. Focused on engineering and business development rather than design.

videogamesinthebeginning

Ralph Baer passed away in December at the age of 92 and I bought his book almost immediately afterwards. I feel like I’ve always known his name, but never what he was known for – turns out, his greatest work was done before I was born. The forward to the book makes it clear that this is a common problem, that many people aren’t aware of Baer’s immense contribution to our field.

Videogames: In the Beginning opens up in a somewhat defensive posture that gives you an idea of why Baer wrote it in the first place. He wants to set the record straight, clear up the myths, and tell the facts as he knows them. Baer is also intent on explaining why he – not Bushnell, nor anyone else – was the inventor and father of videogames, a role and title largely unrecognized for most of his life. (He makes this argument that he invented videogames from an engineering and business standpoint: (1) he created the first games to use television technology to display them, and (2) he invented and launched the first home console, which created an industry.)

The book covers Baer’s time in the game industry, heavily focusing on his role inventing videogames (with working prototypes as early as 1966!) and ending with his own consulting work on electronic toys such as the ubiquitous four-colored “Simon”. He covers his long career at Sanders, a technology company that largely worked on defense contracts who saw his original tv game prototypes as leading, correctly, to military training simulations. He talks in great detail what it was like to invent new technology and pitch it to TV and cable companies in the hopes they would put it into production – starting with his “Brown Box” that became the Magnavox Odyssey but definitely not ending there.

Baer provides a huge collection of primary sources displayed in their original state right in the pages of this book, and that alone is worth checking it out. Many of these design documents, schematics, contracts, focus testing feedback, photos, and original electronics exist thanks to meticulous record keeping and years of enforcing video game technology patents that Baer owned. He even includes all his video game patents in an appendix in the book if you would like to read them yourself. I was born after all these patents expired, so I wasn’t aware that Baer essentially owned the patent on “moving dots on a screen with player input” and similar mechanics that we just take for granted these days. This also explains a bit why Baer was a controversial figure in games, since patents aren’t looked too kindly upon by most game developers. In contrast, Baer encouraged and helped enforce his patents, since this is part of the ecosystem that gave him funding for his video games technology R&D department at Sander’s. (I think his habit of going to arcade conventions and writing down games that infringed on his patents to pass on to Magnavox lawyers would not endear him to many people today).

Videogames: In the Beginning is hard to review because it’s both an amazing, excellent source of early video game history while also being steeped in engineering terminology and a personality that might turn some people off. This book has a casual tone at times, as though Baer sat down with you, started “telling it like it is”, and not didn’t care if he talked poorly but candidly of other people in the industry. I felt this kind of direct, uncensored line to the author was rather refreshing.

On the other hand, Baer was first and foremost a technologist and engineer. His writing is steeped in details about inventing not just concepts but also building the schematics and hardware. If the phrases “integrated circuit” or “vacuum tube” bother you then you might consider passing on this book, or just skim large parts of it. The first half of the book interested me enough to wade through all that engineering terminology since it covered the lead up and launch of Magnavox Odyssey. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite hold my fascination through the second half which involved a lot of miscellaneous video game inventions pitched – often unsuccessfully – to companies like Coleco, Atari, Mattel, and so on.

As an introduction to early video game history, this book is narrowly focused on Baer’s own life and experiences and does not purport to give an overview of the subject. I would recommend reading more general history book like The Ultimate History of Video Games first before you do a deep dive into a single thread in that story in this text. I enjoyed Videogames: In the Beginning and I learned a lot from it, but only pick it up if the narrow subject matter is one you are particularly interested in.

Review: Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga

Book: Homo Ludens: the Study of the Play Element in Culture
Author: Johan Huizinga, anthropologist
Year: 1938

Summary: One of the foundational texts on games, it is an academic look at culture and play. A must read for game designers, and highly recommended for everyone else for serious consideration, but this is a dense text not written for a general audience.

HomoLudens

I struggle to write a review of a book that is probably one of the most cited books in game design texts. I can’t remember the last time I read something deeply about design that did not reference Huizinga. All the previous books I’ve reviewed have quoted him, and for good reason: this is the best book I’ve ever read about the field of play. That’s not faint praise. I read a ton, and Homo Ludens completely enthralled me. I recommend it to anyone searching for a deeper understanding of play in human culture. I wish I had not waited so long to finally sit down and read it.

Written in 1938, you would expect it to be outdated but I felt the opposite: it’s incredibly relevant. It is not your standard game design textbook: it’s short, at only 214 pages, with no lessons or rules on how to make games or even what makes a good game. It is an anthropology book, not a game design book. Despite its academic roots I actually found it fairly easy to follow without much background (he references other texts, but his arguments are pretty clearly laid out in his own words) but keep in mind that I tend to prefer more academic styles of writing so others may find it a difficult, dense read. Huizinga was a Dutch anthropologist, so I read an English translation of the book – I felt it was fine, but you get a bit of that stilted effect any time its not the native language. He also explores, defines, and uses some foreign words like agon, the Greek term for “play element”, and several terms related to competition and contest. These factors combine to create a very dense, theoretical, and difficult text to read. If that doesn’t bother you (it certainly doesn’t bother me) then please pick it up.

The phrase “Homo Ludens” is the author’s proposed replacement for “Homo Sapiens”, instead of man that thinks he offers man that plays as a better description of our species. To support that, he takes a philosophical, historical, anthropological, and linguistic approach to “what is play?” and “what role does play have in human culture?” His main argument is that play is intrinsic to mankind, that it serves a valuable place because play is valuable in itself rather than as practice for some kind of survival instinct (as others claim). He claims that culture is derived from play, and that without play there is no culture.

To back up his argument, he outlines the anthropological beginnings of many aspects of modern civilization that we associate with culture: war, law, religion, the arts, poetry, philosophy, and so on. In each of these chapters (titled clearly as “Play and War” and “Play and Law” and so on) he builds out the origins of that element by looking at “primitive” people (an unfortunate term, but don’t let that distract you) that exist outside of modern civilization (which he does not quite define) both from the past and his modern day.  He claims each of these – from religion to law – are rooted in play, and as our civilization(s) progressed the play-element became less important and more obscured but, nonetheless, still exists. By looking at those cultures that haven’t progressed into modern (mostly Western) civilization, he can point out more obvious influence of play in things like law and religious practices. He draws from a wealth of human culture that spans the globe: from Inuits, to early Chinese societies, to the origin of Greek contests, to Norse mythology, to tribal African religions, and so on.

It’s hard to really sum up his findings because it’s so dense with ideas. For example, he points out that philosophy originates from riddle-contests, where knowledge was not only sacred but also a tool to beat others (outsmart them) in a contest. He points to the anthropological underpinings of law as not a quest for truth but rather a method to settle disputes while entertaining an audience. Early justice in many societies took the form of rhetorical battles, insults, poems and dancing performances – all contests, and often entertainment, with very little focus on moral judgment (this comes later). I think Huizinga makes a very good case for religion and ritual as rooted in play, but this is the hardest to summarize from the book while doing it justice.

Huizinga is the person who coined the term “magic circle” as the special place where the rules of the real world give way to the rules of the game or play. While as modern game designers we think of the magic circle as, say, the poker table, the chess board, the tennis court, or the game world in a video game, Huizinga applies that term more broadly. For him, the magic circle is a ritualistic space: it is the playground, the courthouse, the temple, and the battlefield. To give you an idea of the exhaustiveness of his argument, Huizinga places the following under the domain of play: contest, competition, wagers and gambling, performance, warplay, wordplay and rhetoric, riddles, divination, art, holiday feasts, gift-giving, harvest celebrations, ritual and religion, honor and chivalry. One of my favorite pieces in the book was his description of potlach, a form of one-upmanship in gift-giving and conspicuous consumption (and destruction) of wealth.

I learned a lot from this book that, I think, will continue to inform me as a designer. I found myself thinking a lot about how I could integrate ritual and performance into games, but also drawing connections to many things we do in life that could be considered forms of play – poetry slams, celebrity worship, Passover seders, and the talking heads arguing on Fox News.

Like I said, this is not a practical book nor is it an easy read, but if you make games for a living it is worth your time to read this and reflect on how your games fit within this space of play as Huizinga describes it. All professional designers should give this book a try, especially those interested in art games and experimental forms of play. Students just getting into games may not see its relevance immediately, and might be better served by a different text (like Art of Game Design). But regardless of where you are in relation to game design, if the above article piques your interest then I sincerely encourage you to pick up Homo Ludens.