Deeper, please: We want and expect more from video game documentaries
There seems to be a point in every video game documentary in which someone bellyaches about video games not being taken seriously, that they’re seen as the sort of thing kids play in a basement.
We do need to get over that image. Video games are a $93-billion-a-year global industry, pulling in sales that would make the average Hollywood film producer blush. They have been the subject of movies and been featured in museum exhibitions.
They are also played by just about everybody on every sort of device, be it some hyper-violent, first-person shooter on PlayStation or the addictive, ridiculous “Fruit Ninja” for smartphones, in which the player does nothing more than slice fruit with a forefinger. A good pal’s 81-year-old father is so addicted to the various versions of “Ricochet Infinity” that he even participates in online chat rooms devoted to making modifications to the game. (Much to the chagrin of his wife.)
So every time I see an article or TV segment or documentary in which some gamer or programmer or developer is going on about the lack of respect video games get, my eyes reflexively start to roll to the upper recesses of my head.
There are moments like this in the new documentary “Video Games: The Movie” and in “Art in Video Games,” an ongoing online documentary series produced by MOCAtv, the video production arm of the Museum of Contemporary Art. (Though, to be fair, there’s only one instance of it in the MOCAtv series, which is the smarter of the two.)
We live in a time when video games are seemingly everywhere. Heck, even the U.S. Army has a video game. So it’s no surprise to see the form regularly getting the documentary treatment (such as the celebrated “Indie Game: The Movie,” from 2012.) Now there is a new rack of options to choose from.
Hitting theaters this week is “Video Games: The Movie,” a feature-length doc directed by Jeremy Snead (and produced with the aid of actor-director Zach Braff, among others). It dutifully covers the history of the form, keeping the focus on the technology: from the refrigerator-sized machine that processed the first video game at MIT to the advent of today’s sensor-based motion systems.
For those who don’t know much about the history of games and their hardware, the documentary offers a decent primer. But in the area of story — that is, the stories within games that can make them so engrossing — don’t expect much profundity. Other than to tell us that story and character are important, “Video Games” doesn’t explore what can make a good game so exhilarating, frustrating and emotional all at the same time.
There are other shortcomings. The documentary sings the praises of video games as learning devices but fails to address those tragicomic YouTube videos of kids melting down over games. And, as my colleague Robert Abele points out, the lineup of talking heads in the doc is very dude-heavy.
Of greater interest to me is the MOCAtv series, which looks at the ways in which the art world and the video game worlds have intersected, particularly in Los Angeles. Currently, there are 11 online segments, each between three and five minutes long, which explore a variety of people and topics: from a game about pooping in a hot tub (seriously) to the ways in which SoCal, with its unique confluence of Hollywood film studios, universities and technology sectors, has served as a creative hotbed of the form.
But the shorts are, well, short — and some of them come uncomfortably close to feeling like promotional videos for the subjects they purport to interrogate.
All of this leaves me wanting more, specifically more context: such as what greater societal forces are shaping the types of games we play and why? And what do different games reveal about us as a culture?
These are not impossible questions. A 2007 series by the Discovery Channel called “The Rise of the Video Game” looked at the ways in which the politics of the Cold War led to the creation of games obsessed with missiles and space.
I’d love to see documentaries that do this for the games of today, that probe difficult questions of culture and gender and violence and human interaction. In other words, the sorts of questions that will get people to take games — and their attendant documentaries — seriously.
“Video Games: The Movie” screens this weekend at the Downtown Independent (251 S. Main St.) in downtown Los Angeles and the Frida Cinema (305 E. 4th St.) in Santa Ana. MOCAtv’s “Art in Video Games” is ongoing on the museum’s YouTube channel.
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