I’ve been having the thoughts again, Nurse.

Video games in the frame

But is it art?

He (the abuser of Kirby) has been kind enough to let me play with his toys, so please bear with me. And on we go…

“I’m going to the pictures.”

Where are you going? To an art gallery? To a shop selling prints? No, you’re going to a cinema, to the movies, the film house, even, at a stretch, the kinematograph (who can forget Margaret Rutherford’s glorious greeting when answering the telephone in 1957’s ‘The Smallest Show on Earth’; “Bijou Kinoma.”? If, of course, this particular post-war gem has escaped your notice the DVD is available at the usual outlets.)

Even there, in that last parenthetical sentence, I used a shorthand for a videographic recording of the film and you knew what I meant.

The comic book has become the graphic novel (but not in all cases.) A book is always a book, unless it’s a novel. Music comes by so many channels as to defy description, and to destroy the business model of at least one of my former employers. But what is a video game?

I’ve come to the conclusion that that term, that pairing of game and video, however innocent it may be, has become a kind of intellectual straight jacket.

I was at the Golden Joysticks earlier this year, the usual “glittering” affair (the dance floor at 5pm was a study in small, domestic horror) part glitzy(ish) showcase part communal backslapping, and I had to do two turns for the radiogram. One for a local station, the other for a national news outlet. Both live.

It was interesting for several reasons. One of the hosts, the local station guy, has a teenaged son. He gets it. His unscripted question about the cost of games lead me to an explanation of the relative value of games expressed per hour of entertainment time over a visit to the cinema. It was, I think, probably interesting and useful for his audience.

His national network colleague fell at the first hurdle. As he uttered the dread phrase ‘video games’ you could tell his heart wasn’t really in it. This was, for him, both terra incognita and a shore unlooked for. Arguably it’s a generational thing. That host’s mindscape is one of paper books and films at the cinema. That’s not to say that he’s shut away from the world; he can’t be. To be a fine radio news programme host (and he is one) you have to be a very skilled broadcaster and journalist. You also have to be engaged and aware. But not of the games industry. You can get away with thinking it starts and stops with Space Invaders and Galaxians.

This is partly why I’ve come to the conclusion that the epithet ‘video games’ is a large part of the problem. It is, in many minds, forever associated with Donkey Kong cabinets and Defender on an Atari. Games stopped being those things many years ago. Like the novel, a class of book which threatened to end intellectual endeavour because it wasn’t about anything real and so demanded a new word all its own, we need to find a new signpost. One that’s clean of the old associations that force these new entertainments into a silo where they can be safely ignored.

I’m taking my lead from Neal Stephenson. His book ‘Snowcrash’, helped to shape the way some people thought about the play spaces they were creating for us. In his fourth solo novel, ‘The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer’ he proposed a class of interactive entertainments called “ractives”. While we’re not at the stage of immersion he imagined in that book, I do think it’s time to co-opt his coinage.

So, farewell video games and hello ractives.

I shall try to reshape my intellectual landscape accordingly.

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One Response to I’ve been having the thoughts again, Nurse.

  1. Hari says:

    I think it’s the “games” part of “video games.” But interactive entertainment always sounds so… ugh. Ractives has potential…

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