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Over the last forty years, the images in video games have progressed from primitive, pixelated worlds to immersive, three dimensional environments. A new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum explores the overlap and interplay of art, technology and pop culture in video games. Tech Tuesday meets the curator, and examines the evolution of video game art from Pong to Super Mario Brothers to BioShock.
- Mike Mika Head of Development, Other Ocean Interactive
- Chris Melissinos Guest Curator, "The Art of Video Games" Exhibit (Smithsonian American Art Museum, March 16- September 30, 2012); Founder, Past Pixels
A sampling of the Smithsonian Museum of Art’s picks for “The Art of Video Games” exhibit:
“Pac Man,” that classic of classics, was a best-selling video game upon its release, and Atari’s first big hit:
Shigeru Miyamoto is responsible for many of the bestselling early arcade games, including the one below. Originally designed for poor performance players, “Donkey Kong” came to be one the bestselling arcade machine games ever and sent users clambering for a high score record:
An Earthworm’s quest to rescue the Princess is set in “Junk City,” a place populated by garbage, ravens and rabid dogs:
With an unprecedented amount of media attention, the archeologist Lara Croft became the first mainstream female character in video games. Her image appeared in magazines, comics and and later in the movies portrayed by Angelina Jolie:
Humankind has to fight robotic alien invaders and forge alliances with other scary-looking aliens in order to stop them in “Mass Effect 2:”
For the youngest “cyber-fighters,” “King of the Hill: Pong” gives an idea of how everything started. With just two lines and a moving dot in the middle, its appeal lies in its simplicity.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Video games have always been at the cutting edge of art and technology. But when Magnavox shipped out the first home video game system in 1972, that cutting edge looked and felt very different. The early pixelated worlds of "Pong" and "Space Invaders" seem primitive compared to today's immersive digital worlds.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIChris Melissinos likens those early games to cave paintings. But, from the very beginning, video game artists and developers have pushed the boundaries of technology that already exists and helped forge new kinds of innovation. A new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum explores the interplay of storytelling and technology in video games. It's an art exhibit that isn't just about art.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIChris Melissinos joins us in studio. He is guest curator of "The Art of Video Games" exhibit which opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum this Saturday, March 16. He's the founder of Past Pixels, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving old video games. Chris Melissinos, thank you for joining us.
MR. CHRIS MELISSINOSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation that you may want to join whether you are a gamer or not, have been a gamer or not, married to a gamer or not. 800-433-8850 is the number. What do you think about video games as art? You can also send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, #TechTuesday or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Chris, on one level, this is an art exhibit.
NNAMDIAnd it -- within the halls of the Museum of American Arts, people will find some beautiful, some iconic images, but you're really trying to tell a story about art and technology participating in a dialogue. Tell us about this exhibit.
MELISSINOSSo in the exhibit -- or the exhibition, I should say, at the American Art Museum really celebrates video games as an art form and looking at the evolution of that form over time. You know, I think it's interesting when we look back at the beginning of video games in American culture. You know, the most rudimentary games that kind of grasp an entire generation and harness this brand-new thought about computers and technology and what it would mean in society, I mean, in our personal lives really took root in the early 1970s, which is when I was born. I was born in 1970.
MELISSINOSAnd so I'm of an era that I call the bit baby generation, right, the first kids that really appropriated the technology, that appropriated these machines into their lives and willingly gave themselves up to the experience that they wanted to convey and bring to us. This exhibition examines the evolution of not the -- just the art within video games but video games as an artistic medium, as a form of artistic expression since those very early beginnings.
NNAMDIThe art of video games, from "Pac-Man" to "Mass Effect," you've likened the cycle of art and innovation to a kind of warp-speed version of evolution. In the 1970s, designers were, essentially, painting in caves. Today, we're in what would be, I guess, a post-Impressionist era.
MELISSINOSWell, it's interesting to phrase it that way, right, because it -- when you really take a look at the evolution of the form, what was happening -- it's not as if these stories that the earliest designers wanted to tell were any less expressive, dynamic, large or had their own world view imparted in those games. It's that the technology of the time did not allow them to fully express their thought, fully express their vision.
MELISSINOSAnd so what we're left with, in those earliest forms, are very abstract notions of the game play, of the environment, of the story. All technology has really allowed to occur is it has offered artists and designers a much broader expanding canvas, expanding palate, expanding set of tools in which to tell their stories, to paint their pictures, to bring the things they want to say to the world. And so technology is just a function that allows for more expressive storytelling and art to emerge.
NNAMDII want you to go over that again because game makers have always been an ambitious bunch exploring new ways to tell stories and even posing interesting philosophical questions. But, from the very beginning of the game industry, they were constantly running into these technological obstacles. Often, they found they couldn't really tell the stories they wanted to with the existing analog and digital tools. And so they created their own, reprogramming original hardware, pioneering new approaches to software design. That's the actual story that you're telling in this exhibition, is it not?
MELISSINOSThat is one very large piece of it. I mean, to your point, you know, whenever an artist or a designer would run up against a technological barrier, they found a way to get around it. And, in some ways, it didn't even exist within the video game technology itself. What would happen in a lot of the earlier games is these games would be delivered to the public that included supplemental materials, things like a cloth map that represented the world, a comic book that fully fleshed out their thought and the environment.
MELISSINOSSo when you got done reading through this material and you went to play the game, that square block in the middle of the screen with an arrow sticking out of it was the warrior that you had just read about in this material. And so they really relied upon the public, relied upon the player to offer their imagination, to fill in the gaps, fill in the void, the artistic void that the technology could not properly convey. And so we relied heavily upon the player as part of the emergence of the story, the emergence of the experience.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Chris Melissinos. He is guest curator of "The Art of Video Games" exhibition which opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum this Saturday, March 16. He's also the founder of Past Pixels, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving old video games. If you'd like to join this Tech Tuesday conversation on the art of video games, call us at 800-433-8850. How, in your view, have video games influenced the pace and direction of technological innovation?
NNAMDI800-433-8850 or send us a tweet at #TechTuesday. Chris, many of the iconic games of yesteryear had profound ideas, folklore and artistic expression baked into them, even if the eight-bit world seemed to be nothing more than pixels dancing around. In 1980, Atari released a game called "Missile Command," designed by David Theurer. The game play was relatively straightforward, but the game was also referencing the Cold War. Please explain.
MELISSINOSWhen Atari approached David to create this game -- and this is actually from an interview that he had done -- he explained that he was going to go ahead and create this game. But he had a few conditions. The first condition -- for anyone -- I should take a step back. For anyone that has never played this game, it's -- it is a classic from the early '80s. Basically, you have six cities that line the bottom of the playfield, and missiles are coming in from the sky.
MELISSINOSAnd you try to blow the missiles out of the sky before they blow up the cities at the bottom. And if you survive a wave of attack, you're given points for how many cities you've saved, and, hopefully, you can continue on to the next level. And it just keeps going faster and faster until you've lost all of your cities. And this really was an expression of what was going on in one developer's mind with regard to the Cold War.
MELISSINOSSo, again, when Atari approached David and said, we want you to make this game, he said, I have a few conditions. The first is that this will be a game of defense. This is a game about defending one's country because that is a noble good. We are not going to be launching missiles at the USSR, is the way he framed it. And he's using terms and governments and countries in the vernacular of that time.
MELISSINOSThe really -- the discussion was really about the futility of nuclear war because there is no winner. At the end of this game, it would -- the screen would erupt with this massive explosion that would just say The End, right, you know, plastered across this. David also claimed that he suffered from very troubling dreams for several years, that persisted after the creation of this game. He would wake up in a cold sweat. He would wake up terrified of nuclear Armageddon. The six cities were actually meant to represent the six major cities in California.
MELISSINOSNow, when you know all of this and you go back to play "Missile Command," it becomes a wholly different experience because it's now been informed by what was actually going on in the world. But because the technology was so anemic at the time it was released, this story was not able to have been told within the game play. And so we find that, in many of these games, their origin, their genesis, their roots are in everything from what is going on in the world from popular culture and politics, to influence by art, movies, music and story.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, we'll start with Erik on the Eastern Shore in Maryland. Erik, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERIKYes. I'm looking forward to seeing this exhibition, and it's -- my comment relates to what your guest was just talking about because it seems to me that so many of the games that are out there now -- and I'm more of the "Space Invaders" generation myself -- but the -- it's all about destruction and killing. And, I mean, I find it somewhat problematic to speak of this as an art form when what it really seems -- many of these games seem to reinforce the sort of most base and aggressive tendencies in our culture.
ERIKSo I have real issues with this. I'm sure that there's a complexity, and there's a beauty in their design. But what is the overall message of these games? And what are they doing? You know, a lot of our soldiers are trained on these games, I'm told. Is that a good thing, you know...
NNAMDII'm going to ask...
ERIK...and if whether the soldiers...
NNAMDII'm going to ask Chris Melissinos to give you a two-part response, a response specifically the question you asked. Then I'm...
NNAMDI...going to ask him to tell you about one of the games he selected for this exhibition that's called "Flower." But go ahead, please.
MELISSINOSSo, you know, with -- as with any of other form of expressive media, there is the potential for content that is violent in nature to exist. Whether it's movies, like the "Godfather," whether it's music, whether it is literary works that we hold up today to be, you know, classic literature...
MELISSINOS...yeah -- Shakespeare, you know, "Macbeth" and these sorts of things, there is the opportunity for, you know, any form of expression to exist there. But to say that most games out there are violent in nature is factually inaccurate. In fact, one of the things that we sought to examine within the framework of this exhibition is the beauty and the reflection and poetry in motion that exists within so many of the games we play.
MELISSINOSYou know, if you look from a popular culture perspective and look at games like that involve, you know, Mario on Nintendo's platform, you know, one would argue that this is certainly not a game of violence, but one of, you know, wonderment and looking at the world differently than we believe it to be. And so many games follow this. So, yes, while there is the opportunity to pick any selection of content, through any media for violent tendencies, I think it would be a disservice to paint any media with that same broad brush that, you know, has content that would be objectionable.
NNAMDIHaving said that, now, tell Erik about "Flower." It doesn't involve people running around and shooting each other or any other kind of dystopian storyline. It basically explores the natural world, doesn't it?
MELISSINOSAbsolutely. This is a game that actually affected me pretty profoundly. I grew up in Queens, N.Y. And when you're a kid growing up inside of a city environment like that -- and you're always looking for color in the world. You know, cities tend to be very muted colors, grays and browns. When the snow falls in New York, it's only a couple of days you have before it's all, you know, brown, gunky slush again, right?
MELISSINOSSo as a kid, you're always looking for, again, that color, that magic in the world. In playing this game "Flower," there is a level where you, as the player, are controlling the wind, and you control the wind to move around these different play environments to touch flowers and basically breathe life back into a barren world. In this one level of the city scene, I had collected all of the flowers in this area. And this building, that was kind of hunched over in dark, stood upright, and color was brought back into the world.
MELISSINOSAnd the emotional impact of that moment was very real to me, and it forced me to stop playing the game because I was instantly transported back to a point in my life when I was a child in a city like New York looking for color in the world. And this is what games have the opportunity to do. They have the opportunity to present an idea, to present a way of interacting with it, but require the input that you bring to the experience for art to truly emerge from it. And I think that's just inspiring and incredibly moving for so many of us that have grown up with this medium.
NNAMDIYou -- and, Erik, thank you very much for your call.
ERIKThank you, thank you. I just want to say -- can I -- just two things?
ERIKLet me go. Would you -- well, one, the message in "Macbeth" is quite a bit of a stretch. I think there's a little bit of a denial there, but I would just be kind of curious about the -- which are the most popular games and which are the ones that have the most success rather than one or another beautiful example. So I appreciate the chance to express my views. Thank you. And I love your show.
NNAMDIYou're very welcome, Erik. You own, Chris, more than 40 different game systems, which tells me quite a few different things about you. First, you approach this issue as a fan as much as you approach it as a dispassionate expert. Second, you almost certainly have a very tolerant spouse, don't you?
MELISSINOSI have an extraordinary -- extraordinarily tolerant spouse. I've been with my wife for 18 years, married 18 years, I think, 23 all in all. And, well, it's interesting. While she says that she is not a gamer, my wife plays "FarmVille" just about every day, and she's been engaged in this game play for two years. So I think she's finally moved over to the gamer side of this. Of course, she relegates most of my collection to my home office or to areas of the house, so it doesn't completely engulf our lives. But...
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this Tech Tuesday conversation with Chris Melissinos about the art of video games and the exhibition starting at the Smithsonian American Museum this Saturday, March 16. It's called "The Art of Video Games." We're interested in hearing from you at 800-433-8850. Were you a gamer as a kid? Are you still a gamer? What were the most influential and beautiful games, in your view, of the last 40 years? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on the art of video games with Chris Melissinos, guest curator of "The Art of Video Games" exhibit, which opens at the Smithsonian American Museum this Saturday, March 16. Chris is the founder of Past Pixels. That's a nonprofit dedicated to preserving old video games. And joining us now by phone is Mike Mika. He is head of development of Other Ocean Interactive. Mike has developed over 120 game titles in his career across a variety of game platforms, from the Nintendo Game Boy to the iPhone. Mike Mika, thank you joining us.
MR. MIKE MIKAI'm happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIMike, both you and Chris are from the first generation that grew up with video games, so-called bit babies. And like many fans of early video games, you both quickly felt a kind of urge to figure out how to make these games yourself. Mike, you began developing games professionally on the Game Boy. But you had begun tinkering much earlier, right?
MIKAThat's absolutely right. I was probably about 12 years old, and my parents would go shopping. And the store we'd go shopping at had a kiosk with a Commodore 64. And at school, they had just -- this is just when the Apple II arrived in elementary schools. And, for me, when I saw that come through the door, I realized that this is the device used to make the games I would play, like, in arcades or watch my friends play on their Atari. So when my parents would go shopping, they would take forever in the store, and I would wander around and try to find...
NNAMDIExcuse me. Allow me to interrupt. Are you now a parent yourself?
MIKAI am now a parent myself. I...
NNAMDIDo you also take forever when you go shopping?
MIKAYou know, unfortunately, I do, and they let me know that.
NNAMDIOK. Now, proceed with your story, please.
MIKASo while they were taking their time, I would actually spend time on this computer at this kiosk, which I knew I had limited time, and people would always try to butt in. And the first thing I noticed was they would never display a game. They would just have it sitting there with this ready prompt, which was BASIC. It was built in with this language. And I would start typing things and see these errors come up. And one of the times I was there, I found, in the book section, a little book about programming.
MIKAAnd so I brought it over to the kiosk and started typing in these programs, and suddenly things started to come to life on the screen. I started to learn from that. And one time when my dad came to a -- they -- finally, they're ready to leave, I had this rudimentary game running. It was like a version of "Moon Patrol," this game I used to play in the arcade. And it blew my dad away. And, literally, about a week later, we had that same home computer in our house, and I haven't looked back. I just kept going.
NNAMDIChris, how did you get the bug? What systems did you first begin to design on? I'm pretty sure you know Mike.
MELISSINOSYeah. Hey, Mike. It's great to have you join today, thanks.
MELISSINOSSo, let's see, I -- the very first machines that I got started on, we lovingly referred to them as Trash-80s or TRS-80s when we were in school. And, you know, much in the same vein of experience that Mike had, it was first typing in code. And when that code executed and you were able to see the immediate output of what you put into that machine, I mean, that was it. It really struck me, even at a very early age that, there was this universe of things that were occurring behind this glass.
MELISSINOSI could see it, and I could affect it. But I couldn't touch it. I mean, it was -- in a very real sense, it was a parallel universe. It was this expansive playground for the mind for storytelling. When I first got my Commodore VIC-20, I poured myself into this machine to understand all the secrets that it had to tell me. And there was a reason why I believe I spent so much time in doing so. And I think it's one that speaks to the ability that video games give to the people who play them and engage in them.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Michelle in Gaithersburg, who says "I'm looking forward to this exhibit, and I have plans to take my nearly 13-year-old daughter who is an avid gamer during spring break in a couple of weeks. Back in the early '80s, we had an Atari 2600, and their blocky graphics got me into using my counted cross-stitch graphs as guides for programming images on the Apple E or C, can't remember quite which, in BASIC during lunch at my junior high. It's interesting to see just how advanced graphics for video games have gotten."
NNAMDIAnd, Mike, as we noticed, you have designed games on a variety of platforms at the cutting edge, but you were involved in a very interesting project that involved programming on an old system, the just mentioned Atari 2600. Designer Ed Fries took the very popular "Halo" game from the Xbox platform, programmed it onto the Atari. Tell us about "Halo 2600."
MIKAIt's very interesting. We ran into Ed at a trade show, and we were just talking about various things. He was just talking about how he was dabbling with the Atari 2600, and a lot of people have done this. It's kind of like a moment of Zen for engineers or modern game developers to go back and work on Atari because it's -- you're programming to the metal. You're going back to very primitive techniques, and it's kind of a way to refresh yourself and approach making games today with a clear mind.
MIKAAnd so when he was saying he was doing this, we just started to encourage him. We're like, Ed, you've got to finish this. This is great. And he was involved in the original "Halo" for the Xbox. And for him to deconstruct that and bring it to 2600 was really fascinating to me. So he set out to do it, and we kind of joined in. I did some artwork for him. We watched him as he developed his code and what he was doing. And it's amazing to me because back then -- right now, we take for granted what we can do, and there's a lot of tools for us to create graphics and animation.
MIKABut back then, you had none of that, and you still really don't have that. And to go back to it, what you had to do was actually time when the raster beam of the television -- this beam that refreshes every 60 Megahertz. So whenever it's constructing an image, this beam sweeps across the screen, left to right, top to bottom. And you had to actually time when you wanted things to display on screen and describe it very quickly in order to display something. So it's not like you just were describing what you wanted, and it would show up on screen.
MIKAYou had to do some really complicated math and timing to get an image to show up, which is a testament to how good these engineers were back in the '80s. To do that now, for a modern engineer to go back and do that, it seems like it's impossible. But once you complete it, you have way more ideas. Your mind is just full of ideas you can take to modern game development. It was really fascinating.
MELISSINOSYou know, to that, Ed has actually said that programming the 2600 or the VCSs, those of us who grow up with it really know it to be -- said programming to this machine is like writing haiku. And it's because of those limitations, you had to be extremely thoughtful, extremely purposeful in what you described to the machine because space and the capacity of these machines were so unbelievably limited that you were speaking in very abstract forms.
MELISSINOSTo Mike's point, we don't have to rely on that abstract notion anymore because of the power of machines. So what that means is, for artists today, they no longer are limited by technology. They can start limiting themselves. They can start limiting their reach, their scope to create entirely new forms of art that we've not experienced before in the video game space.
NNAMDIA lot of people want to talk to you on this Tech Tuesday topic, the art of video games. Back to the phones with Nicole in Manassas, Va. Nicole, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Nicole.
NICOLEAs I female gamer -- and let me just say that I object a little bit to the characterization of someone with multiple game systems as having a tolerant wife because over half the game systems in our house -- mine.
NNAMDICorrection, the term I used was tolerant spouse.
MELISSINOSThat's right. And my spouse happens to be my wife, so...
NNAMDIBut go ahead, please, Nicole.
NICOLESo I was calling in as a writer, as someone who has been deeply involved in literature and games from a very early age. I think that games these days, especially from indie developers, are starting to become more and more artistic, not only in the visuals, which you can get from, you know, any first-person shooter out there but also with the story, which is coming along much more slowly. A recent example is one of my favorite games -- just that came out -- it's called "Dear Esther." I don't know if you are familiar with it, Chris.
MELISSINOSI am familiar with it, but I have not played to the experience.
NICOLEIt is amazing. Let me just -- I won't spoil anything. But it's along with games like "Missionarium" (sp?) and "Into the Woods" where you're really starting to see a moving towards stories that are meaningful and aren't about sex and guns. It sometimes is very disheartening as a female gamer to see what the main studios think of women. There's a lot of objectification, and a lot of female gamers flee to the indie developers because we're really tired of every woman being lost, wasted, no muscles, wearing tiny clothing, if any clothing at all. And so I'd like to get your thoughts on to...
NNAMDII'll start with...
NICOLE…whether the video games as an industry can move forward while still treating their consumers like 13-year-old boys?
NNAMDII'll start with Mike Mika and remind our listeners that last February we did a show on indie gamers. So you might want to -- we'll post a link to that online, and, in a few minutes, I'll tell you exactly when that show aired, but on to you, Mike Mika.
MIKASo I've been making games for a while, and it's been interesting to me to watch -- 'cause we generally were -- as a game developer, you often get hired by companies like Disney or Nintendo and these guys to produce a game. And as early as, like, 10 years ago, we would often get calls to work on girl games. And their notion of girl games were these -- I mean, I don't even really like to talk about it 'cause they're just -- it's some guy in a room describing what he thinks women want to play. And it was so objectionable.
MIKAIt was so horrible to listen to that and think, like, I don't -- so I'd walk away from projects, but that would often come up like this. But I did work on one project where I learned a lot, and it was a game back in the Game Boy Color days. It was based off "Alice in Wonderland" from Disney. And we were doing this for Nintendo and Disney at the time, and it was my first real attempt to make a game that I didn't want to -- I didn't want it to be a girl game or a woman's game.
MIKALike, I just approached it from the source material and said I want to make the best "Alice in Wonderland" game I can. And we fortunately had a lot of people at the studio who had daughters, as well as some of the people -- we finally were a studio where half of us were probably female at the time, at a time when almost every game studio was male. And so producing this game was really eye-opening to me because there was a -- even internally, we had people who were like, oh, this won't work. Girls don't like this or whatever.
MIKAAnd the reality was girls like the exact same games that boys did. There were different things that they liked about it, like the different elements of the story and there's -- whatever. But, ultimately, you couldn't really differentiate them as we learned because we would do these focus tests that would go on for days. And the responses we would get, we would have these notions of this is too easy. And this is from women and girls who would come in and play the game, and it was blowing our minds because we're like, really, this is too easy?
MIKALike, some of the guys who were working on the game could not even get through some of these levels.
MIKAAnd so it was amazing to get that game done. We had some moments where one of our producers even came to us and described the way that the girl, that Alice in the game, how she would run. He's like, she runs too much like a girl. I'm like, really, like, what does a girl run like? You know, it was -- we had those kinds of conversations. And, today, in this new age of game development, that kind of stuff doesn't come up at all anymore.
MIKAIn fact, games are games. And one of the best things that's happened is iPhone gaming and the kind of games that are coming out there, as you just described. There's games like "Today I Die," which is very poetic and very moving and thoughtful. Those kind of games are more of what we're working on today, and it's just funny to me that the notion of -- or even the conversations we'd have is 10 years ago are so archaic now.
NNAMDIWell, this is the year of the Olympics. We'll have a lot of opportunities to see what girls run like really, really fast.
NNAMDIBut does the exhibit address the issue of gender at all?
MELISSINOSActually, no, we do not address the issue of gender. The goal of the exhibition is to really focus on the evolution of the form as art over time. So we actually steer clear of it, and, in fact, in creating the narrative for this exhibition, that consideration never even entered my mind when selecting the materials. Any of the women that are shown within these games -- I'm going back, trying to think through some of the piece that we've pulled out -- are always portrayed in a very strong -- in a very strong light.
MELISSINOSIf you look at games, modern games and storytelling, like "Uncharted 2," you know, the people characters in this game are very -- I mean, I would not want to go and face off against them. They'd, you know, kick my butt. And they are just -- but they're not these highly sexualized or -- you know, they are presented in a proper, in an equal way with their male counterparts within the game. And so I think, you know, really, what Nicole was identifying is just really a lack of maturity.
MELISSINOSYou know, we -- you know, on part of games and where, you know, where they originally started, we have to understand that this is still a nascent art form. This is an art form that's only existed for just about 40 years.
NNAMDIEven though it's evolving very, very rapidly?
MELISSINOSVery rapidly, and so with that evolution, with democratization of technology, with access to platforms, getting these tools for creation into the hands of individuals that can describe a world and bring more thoughtful, emotional pieces of video game art to the world, I think we're just going to see this rapid expansion of a wide variety of things. I think the problem that Nicole was stating will be mitigated and we see on the decline.
NNAMDINicole, thank you very much for your call. By the way, Nicole and others, on Jan. 10, we talked about indie video games with Deborah Solomon, professor and coordinator of the Computer Gaming and Simulation Program at Montgomery College, James Portnow, an independent game developer and CEO of Rainmaker Games and co-host of "Extra Credits," and Keith Shepherd, co-owner of Imangi Studios, which developed the very addictive, at least certainly in my case, "Temple Run" game on the iPad and iPod.
NNAMDII can't seem to stay away from it. Nicole, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Diane, who says, "Can guests give an example of games driving or propelling tech advances, i.e., are architects or engineers now able to do other stuff based on advances made for gamers?"
MELISSINOSOh, absolutely. I mean, it's very interesting that -- if you take a look at everything, from the medical industry to, well, to architects and art and city planning and things of this nature, they are appropriating the tools that were originally created for game development. I think one of the really interesting examples of technology that was brought to the public's attention was a platform called Kinect that Microsoft released, which is a camera that can see in three dimensions.
MELISSINOSAnd, while it was originally designed for playing games, they opened up the platform of technology to basically anyone that wanted to join this developer community. And what we're seeing come out of this thing is everything from research work to medical tools, where a surgeon never needs to have their hands dirtied by touching a computer or a terminal inside of an operating room. They can actually control displays and information by using their hands, by using gesture and body movement.
MELISSINOSAnd so, you know, it is the application of necessity and innovation that leads to, you know, the fostering the growth of technologies, and so much of it comes out of this innate desire to be entertained, to be spoken to, to lose yourself in story, to lose yourself in an experience. And people appropriate the technologies for other good in the world.
NNAMDIGot to take another short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. If you haven't called yet and you'd like to, the number is 800-433-8850. How do you view how video games have influenced the pace and direction of technological innovation? You can also send us a tweet at #TechTuesday. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Tech Tuesday. We're talking the art of video games, about the exhibit of the same name, which opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum this Saturday, March 16. Our in-studio guest is Chris Melissinos. He is the guest curator. He's also the founder of Past Pixels, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving old video games. Joining us by phone is Mike Mika, head of development of Other Ocean Interactive.
NNAMDIMike has developed over 120 game titles in his career across a variety of game platforms, from the Nintendo Game Boy to the iPhone. I'll start back at the telephone and go to Stefan in Herndon, Va. Stefan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEFANHi, Kojo, it's a pleasure.
STEFANI think it's important to point out that -- well, the -- your other -- one of your other callers said earlier about you see a lot of violence in games. And a lot of the games that are popular right now are first-person shooters, and they're really violent. But I think it's important to point out that -- for me to point out, anyway, somebody who grew up -- grew up as a kid, you know, throughout the '90s, grew up playing a lot of games that had a lot of artistic value, but before, you know, we had any of the graphics that we have that we see today.
STEFANAnd the artistic value and the way the story is written, the way the story was told, the character development, those are the things that go -- seem to go a lot of times unnoticed these days. A lot -- all I hear about is, you know, the violence, the guns, the explosions. I just wanted to make that comment.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to that Chris?
MELISSINOSWell, you know, I think it's very easy to point to them because it is something that, you know, people can look at and say, oh, I'm not sure how I feel about this. It's important that, in any form of media, that it -- the situations that are presented have to be provided within context, right? Just because there may be material that is violent in a game -- and let me just be very clear that, you know, we're not just talking about war.
MELISSINOSIf it is appropriate for the story and if it's done in a way that actually kind of highlights or illuminates the spirit of the narrative, the spirit of the characters within the game, then it can serve a very useful purpose. I'll give you an example of this. An example, one of my favorite games of current or recent generation is "Shadow of the Colossus." And in this game, you start the game by controlling a character named Wander. And he emerges in a temple with a woman who has died. And it turns out it is his lost love, and he has this tremendous sense of loss.
MELISSINOSAnd a deity speaks to him and says, I have the power to restore this love. It may come at a great price to you, and, in order to do so, I need you to basically restore my soul. And the way to restore my soul is that you need to confront these giant colossi that sit on this island. And you need to bring them down by your blade and bring the portions of their soul back to me. And so you set off on this quest, and it's very simple. In the beginning, you understand what the intent is. You, one by one, start to bring down these beautiful, majestic, towering creatures that have done nothing to you.
MELISSINOSThey've done nothing to the environment that they sit in. They are not even coming after you. They are defending themselves. And, one by one, as you bring them down and you see them fall, and you look into the eyes of these creatures, the desire to propel the game forward, based on the objective of the character, and the objection that I had morally in playing the game, was at constant conflict through the entire thing.
MELISSINOSAnd so, again, if it is framed in the appropriate way, you know, it can serve a purpose in terms of driving a narrative forward. I should also mention that while it's easy to point to games that are on the surface violent, the biggest selling games of all time are not. Right? We talked about the "Mario" games. We talked about the "Zelda" games. We talked about the "Sonic" games and these sorts of things. These games are devoid of the things that you're speaking of.
NNAMDIAnd, Stefan, what games did you play in the '80s?
STEFANI'm sorry, Kojo?
NNAMDIWhat games did you play in the '80s or '90s?
STEFANI was -- in the '90s, I actually played a lot of 2-D fight 'em. I'm a huge "Street Fighter" fan. I also liked a good RPG "Final Fantasy VII," "Chrono Trigger" games back then.
MELISSINOS"Chrono Trigger." You hit on it. You hit on it. "Chrono Trigger" was an amazing game, an absolute amazing game.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Stefan. You mentioned it, but I'll have to bring it up again because we like sound effects. In 1985, Nintendo unveiled the Nintendo Entertainment System, also known as the NES. This was an eight-bit system designed and marketed almost as a toy that included a video game that may well be the most influential in the medium's history: "Super Mario Bros."
NNAMDIYeah. It's funny. Even if you didn't play "Super Mario Bros.," those sounds still resonate, don't they?
MELISSINOSAbsolutely, they do. What an unbelievably awesome piece of music.
NNAMDIIn a very real sense, a lot of today's games are built on innovations from 20 or 30 years ago. In this exhibit, you feature artwork from the relatively -- well, you mentioned a relatively new game series "Uncharted." You mentioned it earlier in the broadcast.
NNAMDIYou say that game would not have been possible without a game called "Pitfall!" Tell us about those two games.
MELISSINOS"Pitfall!" actually has a very interesting history. This was a game that was released back on the Atari VCS and was created by a gentleman named David Crane. And when David, by his own account, you know, had set out to create "Pitfall!," he actually didn't set out to create this jungle game. What he was trying to do was to create what was turned at the time to be a high-definition, smoothly animated humanoid character running on screen.
MELISSINOSAnd so he spent some time working on this technique and was able to create this character that was running. The problem was he didn't have a game. And so he said, well, what is this character doing? Why is he running? At the time, a movie was released to the public, known as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and had an impact on David. David said, perhaps he's running in a jungle. What is he doing in this jungle?
MELISSINOSWhat are the dangers in that jungle, the obstacles that this character must overcome that, number one, I can place into the environment -- that makes sense -- but, number two, I can accurately describe using the technology that I have available to me? Jumping over vines, landing on crocodile heads, falling into these pits and avoiding, you know, various creatures to collect treasure.
MELISSINOSWhen you look at "Pitfall!," the original game, and you see Pitfall Harry leaping for that vine, and then you see the protagonist Nathan Drake in "Uncharted 2" in a jungle setting, leaping for that same vine, these are two games that sit within the same genre-category of the action-adventure. And so what winds up happening is you understand that the vocabulary, the mechanical vocabulary that was first laid down in "Pitfall!," still persists to this day.
MELISSINOSIt is the mechanics that then fit within that genre or that type of game, that don't change over time. What does change is the scope in which artists and storytellers are able to define that experience.
NNAMDIYou know, Mike, this may be an area that breaks new technological thresholds. But gamers and developers are also a very nostalgic bunch, as we can tell from listening to the last 40 minutes of this broadcast. You, Mike, recently developed a game called "Dark Void," which was designed to be a throwback to 1988. You deliberately kept to the constraints of eight bits. Please explain.
MIKAThere's a game in development at Capcom called "Dark Void," and we had this notion of making a smaller game to help promote that. And we've come up with is a game called "Dark Void Zero." And we're big nostalgic game fans internally at our office, and I, for one, am crazy about old games. And the notion of being able to go back and recreate a game, like an NES-style game, was very exciting to us.
MIKAAnd so we set out to not only just create this eight-bit game -- it's almost like going back, like "The Artist," that movie that's out now, that silent film. It's the same kind of notion in games. To go back and make a game like an NES game means you have to throw away a lot of the tools and understanding of how a modern game is developed and create it in the same way. On an NES, for instance, the amount of things you could display on the screen was very limited, and we wanted to do the same thing.
MIKABut more than that, more than just the game itself, we wanted to create a story that tapped that nostalgic feel that people had for all these older games. And there's things about games that people remember. For instance, in the NES era, sometimes you put in the cartridge into the NES, and it wouldn't work. And people would, like -- there was almost like a ritual. Hold the cartridge out, blow on it, put it back in, and, more often than not, that would fix it and make the game come up 'cause there would be dust on the pins of the cartridge.
MIKAAnd so we had -- at the very beginning of this game, one of the first things we did when somebody turned it on, on the Nintendo DS, is it would come up, and there would be the same error screen that'd be flashing. And we couldn't believe nine out of 10 people knew just instinctively to blow. And they blew on the microphone, which made the game turn on, and...
MELISSINOSNow, Mike, Mike, Mike, let me stop you there because that is exactly the experience I had. I mean, I've known Mike for years. I knew the game they're working on. I had no idea this bit was in there. So when I opened it up on the disc, I said, oh, I got to go download this game and see what Mike has built. You know, I can't wait to play it. I mean, it instantly transported me back.
MELISSINOSIt was a laugh-out-loud moment. Here I am blowing on this machine, you know, in public and then laughing about what was happening there because what Mike is doing is describing not just the game, the technology of the error, but the social cues, the societal components to it.
MIKAYeah, that single experience with it. Yeah, and so that whole game -- and not only that, we had built this elaborate back story because if we're going to make this game...
MIKA...like a game built in 1988, we actually wanted to convince the public, for fun, that this really was being developed in 1988 and is just now coming out. So we set out -- before we even announced the game, we hit Wikipedia, and we changed all the entries of this game...
NNAMDII saw that.
MIKA...to make it seem like this was something that was out there. And we even enlisted a friend of ours who we'd been working on a project with, Jimmy Fallon, who does Jimmy Fallon -- "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." We just asked him, hey, we need to legitimize this to make it seem real. Would you be willing to go along with us and say that you won a contest in 1988 to be in a video game at Capcom? And he was very excited to do it. He even fooled America on national television and told them he was part of this contest.
MIKAAnd he even had his father send us pictures of him from 1988 that we could Photoshop into marketing materials. And so we had, for a whole month, we had almost everybody convinced this game was actually being developed in 1988 and finally coming out now. And it was really good fun, and it did really well. And we continually get fan mail about the game.
NNAMDIWell, Mike, we briefly mentioned this earlier. Over the last few years, mobile platforms and mobile games have exploded as a portion of this marketplace. On the one hand, these games are often much simpler than your advanced first-person shooter or role playing games, consoles that have literally 20 buttons, but that is sort of the point, isn't it? Isn't it about simplicity?
MIKAAbsolutely. When -- I was very skeptical when the iPhone came out, when I heard people talking about the interface and just the simple touch interface. I've been a PC guy my whole life and developing games on PC and game systems. But when I finally got my hands on the iPhone, I understood immediately the potential. And, to me, it was like going back and creating games like we used to back in the older days. And then, while we're coming out with some game ideas, I had a 360, an Xbox 360 controller on my desk.
MIKAAnd I looked at it, and I started to count the buttons. We had over 12 buttons on that controller. And it dawned on me, at some point, it wasn't that people weren't gamers or (unintelligible) the first gamer generation. Our president's played games. He would recognize that "Mario" tune. It was that we had left out a huge amount of gamers. We had left them behind with complex controls and complex games.
MIKAAnd the fact that when we started putting some of those first iPhone games out, the numbers -- the amount of people that would download these games and the range in demographics, from young to old, just proved to us that these were latent gamers. These were guys who left gaming because they felt like they couldn't continue on the path it was going and have now come back.
NNAMDIYes, you're talking to one of them…
MIKAIt was really amazing.
NNAMDI...talking to one of them right now. But, on the other hand, we got this email, and we only have about a minute left. "Given the rise of casual and mobile games -- 'Farmville,' 'Angry Birds, 'Fruit Ninja' -- is the ability to create art and story going to be lost on the next generation of gamers?" What are the implications of the increasing popularity of these types of games, Chris?
MELISSINOSYou know, it is very interesting. You and I were speaking during the break a bit about playing "Temple Run."
NNAMDI"Temple Run," yeah.
MELISSINOSAnd, you know, what is so great about the game is its simplicity, very easy to understand controls and how you move. But what the framework of the game then allows you to do as an individual player is to create that back story, is to create, you know, why am I in here running? Much like David Crane did for "Pitfall!," much like Mike and I have had this discussion for years.
NNAMDII was thinking "Temple Run" when you were discussing "Pitfall!"
MELISSINOSSee? And so what we do is we are able to inject ourselves, a piece of ourselves into the experience that we...
NNAMDIChris Melissinos is guest curator of "The Art of Video Games" exhibit opening at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Saturday, March 16. Thank you so much for joining us.
MELISSINOSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIMike Mika is head of development at Other Ocean Interactive. Mike, thank you for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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