Despite their visual splendour, most computer games are characterised by violent, mechanistic pleasures rather than plot and character development. But gaming is still in its infancy. Artificial intelligence and online team-play may be triggering fictional forms that we can only begin to imagineby Julian Stallabrass / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
For many people, computer games represent the apogee of the mindlessness and violence of commercial mass culture. For Henry Jenkins, professor of comparative media studies at MIT, they will become the most significant art form of this century, just as cinema was of the last. Those that condemn games tend to have had little or no experience with them. Their views are received by players with the same weary resignation that the contemporary art world shows towards blanket denunciations of its activities. To appreciate these games, it is necessary to see them from the inside, from the player’s point of view.
I first became aware that computer games could produce powerful artistic effects while playing a game called ‘Starflight’ in 1986. This was a space-exploration game of the kind made popular by David Braben’s Elite, which broke out of the restrictions of maze or platform-jumping games and allowed the player to roam freely around the universe (albeit one composed of transparent wire-frame graphics, white against black). ‘Starflight’, designed by Binary Systems, was barely more graphically advanced than Elite and imposed on the player the same basic activities: battling aliens, exploring, trading in animals and minerals, and using the funds gained to upgrade one’s ship and carry on more effectively. What drove me through the game was that I never knew what the program would throw at me next; playing ‘Starflight’ became the exploration of an elaborate human artefact. Gradually, a plot emerged. The tale was typical science fiction-a mysterious force is causing supernovae to flare in an ever expanding arc of the galaxy; can the player prevent his own solar system being incinerated? The revelation of ‘Starflight’ was that the destructive force is caused by a race of aliens with a lifespan so long and metabolism so slow that they were mistaken for minerals by other races, and used to power their ships. The player would in his travels have mined, exploited and traded in them. This was an existential turn of events. Inanimate resources turned out to be living beings, capable of striking back. The player is thus faced with a choice of suicide or genocide. ‘Starflight’ is an early classic, living on in websites that pay it tribute.
Since those early days of home computer gaming, which itself derived from machines built into the arcade cabinets of the late 1970s, the industry has rapidly grown in size and…