For baby boomers who spent their youths mastering the physics of such hallowed time-wasters as foosball, bumper pool, and air hockey, it's difficult to think of video games as anything other than a waste of perfectly good electrons. But now that the average “gamer” is 32 years old, and the average “social gamer”(someone who plays online poker or such Facebook games as Farmville, Bejeweled, and Café World)—is 43 years old (and female!), the stereotype of gamers as a bunch of teenage mutant zombie killers is crumbling. And if Video Games Live—a bizarre marriage of high culture, e-culture, rock culture, and laser beams—is any indication, we are at a cultural crossroad that pits traditional forms of entertainment (TV, movies, live performance of all kinds) against the burgeoning power and sophistication of the once-derided, now-ubiquitous video game.
Video Games Live, which made an appearance at Orchestra Hall last Friday night, is a technically impressive, frequently hilarious, ultimately mind-bending event in which the Minnesota Orchestra plays the music of various popular video games while a carnival of gaming nostalgia, inside jokes, video projectors, and a full-blown rock concert swirl around it. The result is an energetic din of old and new technologies that, depending on how much you love your Playstation 3, is either a long-overdue validation of the sophistication and artistry that goes into modern video games, or a sure sign that civilization as we know it is doomed.
The brainchild of video-game composer Tommy Tallarico—who acts as host, cheerleader, and lead electric-guitar player—VGL is a hybrid form of entertainment that perfectly captures the cultural ambivalence of the early 21st century. Audiences for traditional orchestra concerts are dwindling all over the country, so there is a feeling of urgency among classical musicians that young people need to be lured into the concert hall to experience the power and majesty of a live orchestra. Though purists may choke on the idea (actually coughing in classical-music circles is discouraged), VGL is certainly one way of enticing people with full heads of hair into Orchestra Hall.
Meanwhile, the video-gaming industry is trying to legitimize itself as more than just another form of entertainment. Gaming designers and players are sick of being trivialized as a fad for teenagers; they want the arbiters of higher culture (whoever they are) to recognize that video games have become a sophisticated form of narrative storytelling, and that the technical and artistic complexity of the best games is at least as impressive as anything that appears on a movie screen. It's hard to argue that video games are not an indelible part of our culture now (who hasn't played Super Mario Brothers or been humiliated by Guitar Hero?). The next question in the chain of cultural legitimacy is whether any of these "games" rise beyond entertainment to the level of art?
To gamers, of course, it's insulting to suggest that video games are merely games, or that they aren't culturally or artistically relevant. After all, video games are now a $20 billion industry, and are surpassing movies in terms of the number of people who both develop and play them. Top video games now cost upwards of $100 million to produce, and it often takes hundreds of writers, designers, and programmers several years to create one. Video games are also kicking some major butt at the cash register. Consider: the most popular opening day ever for a movie was Twilight Saga: New Moon, which did $73 million at the box office. In comparison, Call of Duty: Black Ops—the latest installment of the popular Call of Duty game franchise, released in November—raked in $360 million on the first day of its release. And we're not even talking about online multi-player games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft, for example, has nearly 12 million subscribers, all of whom pay $15 a month for the privilege of playing it. You do the math.
But just because a movie is popular doesn't mean it has any artistic merit ( Avatar , anyone?). In order for something to qualify as "art," it needs to incorporate ideas and aesthetics that speak to people on more levels than mere amazement, and involve more interesting questions than simply deciding who to shoot next. For example, Grand Theft Auto IV, despite its infamous reputation, isn't just a game—it's an entire three-dimensional world, one that's mind-bogglingly complex and detailed, as are most of the better games (Halo, Legend of Zelda, Gears of War, Tony Hawk Pro Skater, Resident Evil, Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, to name a few). It's hard to tell someone who designs such exquisitely rendered environments for a living that they aren't engaged in a highly sophisticated 21-century art form. After all, Michelangelo didn’t have to paint in 3D, or create realistic physics, or figure out what to do when all the people in his paintings started to move and think for themselves.
A strong, compelling narrative is also becoming more important in the gaming world; the difference being that in a video game there might be ten different "endings" to a story, involving hundreds of narrative pathways. The "story" has characters, a plot, and a narrative arc, but it doesn't necessarily unfold linearly, and allows the player, at various decision/consequence points, to choose how the tale will unfold. It also invites people to play the game more than once. In this sense, the player becomes the collaborative "author" of a game, customizing the experience for themselves. To a large extent, this kind of gaming autonomy solves one of central dilemmas of art: how to connect and engage the viewer in a deeper, more meaningful way. Right now, this power is being used largely to create ever-more-engrossing game experiences, but it doesn't take much imagination to see how it could be used to create other types of experiences, ones with loftier aspirations and a broader palette of moral and intellectual possibilities.
Compared to the design and programming, video-game music (the aspect of gaming glorified by VGL) is often a relative afterthought—but increasingly, video-game music is an area in which the people composing it are getting wider recognition and respect. In the industry, names like Masafumi Takada, Nobuo Uematsu, John Wall, and Gerard Marino are so well known that they are practically franchises unto themselves. Why? Because video games often involve epic quests, and epic quests need epic music. So cue the orchestra and call in the choir; because when medieval assassins are about to slay a fire-breathing dragon in order to save a princess from the clutches of an evil duke, they need a heart-pounding symphony of angels to do it.
As you might expect, much of the orchestral music composed for video games is bombastic, super-charged action music. But on Friday at Orchestra Hall, there were plenty of indications that much more is going on here than meets the ear. In one sequence, guest conductor/composer Wataru Hokoyama presented the first video-game composition he ever wrote, for a game called Afrika, which he joked could not be sold in the U.S. because the people in the game are only shooting the animals with cameras, not guns. As astonishingly lifelike digital animals loped across the African savannah, and the Minnesota Orchestra worked its way through Hokoyama's soaring score, it was easy to imagine how another art form altogether could eventually emerge out of this fusion of old and new technologies—an operatic, majestic, wholly amazing form of art that does not yet exist, one that bridges the generations and . . . well, you get the idea. It could be very cool. At VGL, flutist/singer Laura Intravia (aka "Flute Link"), dressed as a character from the game The Legend of Zelda, even took a good-natured stab at what something performance/game/theater/rock/classical might look like.
To spread both the word and the love, Tallarico and VGL travel from city to city, hooking up with the local orchestra to put on their show, which is different every night. Later this year, VGL will be traveling to South America, Europe, Russia, Sweden, Hong Kong, Ireland, Belgium, and Isreal—because video games aren't just an American phenomenon, they are the one thing virtually every person in world under 40 has in common.
Indeed, one of the great things about VGL is that it doesn't focus on the latest, greatest games—it has a heartwarming respect for the history of gaming, and draws inspiration from all along the gaming continuum, from Pong and Frogger to Gears of War and Bioshock. For kids growing up now, these games are their childhood. And Tallarico certainly knows his audience. To the end the show, Tallarico (on guitar) and Intravia (voice) did not blow the roof off of Orchestra Hall in their encore. Rather, they sang an innocuous and even silly little ditty called "Still Alive," from the game Portal. Everyone in Orchestra Hall automatically sang along, just as an audience of boomers could spontaneously sing the theme song from Gilligan's Island . Their parents may never have heard the tune (you have to play Portal for a long time to hear it as a reward for finishing the game), but virtually everyone at VGL knew it by heart. And my teenage son, for whom louder and bigger and faster is almost always better, declared it "the best possible way to end the show." He even admitted to shedding a tear.
As VGL travels the globe, hastening world peace may be too much to ask from an entertainment medium dominated by people discharging monstrously powerful weapons at one another, but it would be wonderfully ironic. And as for the "is it art?" question, consider how much effort theater artists put into breaking down the so-called "fourth wall"—the invisible barrier between the actor and the audience—to jostle the masses out of their stupor. In video games, the fourth wall is busted down as soon as you log on. The rest is the end product of hundreds of people working thousands of hours and using the latest available technologies to give people an experience they can't get any other way.
Call it what you want—entertainment, art, nerd-play, a big waste of time—but whether you like it or not, it's the future.