I took a trip downtown today to pick up some books for my thesis - a surely rollicking affair about newsgames and their uses in journalism - only to find that all the books the website had promised me did not seem to exist in the store itself.
I did find the gaming section eventually: seven or so books wedged in the back of a bookcase full of how-to iPhone app guides and thick C++ for Dummies tomes. Apparently, Art merits ten or more stuffed cases and a display, television gets its own bookcase, and gaming isn't really worth mentioning. I picked the only one vaguely relevant to my research (an analysis of the Wii in both technological and narrative terms) and went on my way.
I sound bitter, but I'm not: god knows, game studies are only into their second decade. TV studies books are only just starting to pop up in the bookstore, and they've been going for quite a while longer. Media take a long time to become respectable enough to warrant analysis in not just the niche but the public eye, and gaming hasn't even wrestled out from under its reputation of being 'for kids' or 'for boys' yet.
Still, it makes me sad. Because gaming is an incredibly interesting phenomenon from a narrative point of view. New media (or I suppose in the case of gaming, sub-media, as it's part of computing at large) spend time struggling to find their own approaches to narrative. I've always been a huge fan of television - even before qualitative series became more 'mainstream', so to speak - because of what it does for storytelling. Television allows for stories to be told across longer spans of time without boring the audience - a good show pulls you into the story not just for the duration that you're watching an episode, but for the rest of the weeks that it's running, driving you to talk, think, and feel about it well after the credits show while invoking anticipation and creative supposition for the next episode.
For me, that makes a story come to life much more than film, which provides a more compact structure, a story that goes from point A to point Z within its running time. (I'm not saying that film is inferior to television - but that I enjoy what television does to a story more than what film does) But in order to get there, television had to go through a process of remediation where it tried out different clothes. Theater pieces were filmed and put on screen, real life was drawn into the medium through live television, the news was read to the audience. All of these things remain in some form or another, but eventually, television found a format that it did best-- better than everyone else: serials. You can't keep making people spend money and go out to see a new part of a movie every week (never mind the old expenses of film) but if you can broadcast something to their living room every week, you've suddenly got a dedicated viewership. And knowing that, you can start experimenting, creating your own narrative grammar of serialized entertainment.
Gaming has found its defining feature rather quickly: interactivity. It's a feature inherited from its big overarching medium, the computer, the one thing it does better than everything else. Bringing narrative into that feature is another matter entirely, though, and one the medium has been working hard to master for years now, starting with the rather stolidly defined lines between adventure/text game and action game back in the 80s and 90s, where one was all-text with interaction that didn't go far past the flipping of a page-- an attempted remediation of the book-- and one built the most simple narrative it could to justify what its characters were doing.
And by 'characters', I mostly mean you: the player. Because while interactivity might be a defining feature of computing, and gaming as an extension thereof, it's first-person that's becoming gaming's real contribution to narrative as a language. Spec Ops: The Line, which I talked about earlier, is a prime example of that; the game forces you to think about whether you can divorce yourself from your character. The solution I proposed to one of the game's more maligned sequences is really the difference between asking the question 'Is this avatar you or someone else?' and 'Do you realize what games ask you to do?'. Both are valid-- I might happen to find the second more interesting, but they're both valid pieces of criticism about gaming and its first-person point of view (yes, even if it's a third-person shooter).
Game studies might not be big enough yet to populate my big-city bookstore in any significant way, but it has a lot of interesting things to say about stories, and the way we can tell them, and the different forms that viewer participation can take. Films are in many ways done when they are shown, television draws in its participants with tension and anticipation in the breaks between airings, and games put you at the wheel and ask you to decide what form the experience will take and how long it will last. Each approach has a significant impact on its story.
But this is just my starting point. I'll say more on that in later posts.