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You had to be there: The Concertification of Video Games

I still remember, with perfect clarity, getting my Xbox Live starter kit 10-or-so years ago. I can’t peg the exact date without looking, but I can definitely peg the distinct sense that something magical was happening. I had played online on PC in the years prior – in fact I’d played online on my Dreamcast in the years prior – but for some reason, putting on a headset and playing these console games in the non pay-per-minute environment of broadband was, ostensibly, real life wizardry.

The magic didn’t end at the technical level. This was also a unique instance of a console’s entire online population flocking to less than a handful of games. People, with zero interest in racing games with motorcycles in them, were playing the Moto GP demo provided on the starter kit’s demo disc. People with no concept of slowing down to navigate around a corner would flip off of their bike and end up in a big human pile. Then they’d respawn and merrily continue their squirrely journey. It wasn’t about the noobs or the pro’s. It wasn’t even about the game. It was about community – about an experience shared between gamers world wide. Even if you were to acquire all the hardware and software that originally granted people the access to that sensation, you couldn’t recreate it. Essentially, it wasn’t about hardware or the games – it was about a moment in time.

“…the actual sensation of playing Goldeneye is inseparable from the sensation of playing with the weird, E-shaped Nintendo 64 controller”

The attempt to conserve the essence of a video game is complicated even when it’s not about that many factors converging. Granted; experiencing Goldeneye when it first came out involved appreciating the steps it took in bringing a legitimate first person shooter to consoles, and its place in time is essential to understanding why that game was impressive. But in addition to that, the actual sensation of playing Goldeneye is inseparable from the sensation of playing with the weird, E-shaped Nintendo 64 controller, and its flimsy, literal analogue stick. The tactile feeling of squeezing the Z trigger to fire off shots, or pressing the tiny “c buttons” to lean out from a corner – depending on your control settings, of course – is as ingrained in my body as the death animation with the blood running down the screen is in my mind. Is it absolutely paramount to experiencing Goldeneye in full? I dunno – you tell me. But if it is, then no amount of emulation (well, actually, there is no amount of official emulation because I’ve apparently picked the worst example possible), will capture what Goldeneye was about. Not completely.

For an artform, this is a problem. The problem isn’t getting people to call video games “art” – acceptance of a medium as art always lags behind its actual transformation into art. The problem is rather preserving it. What good does it do us if it can’t be referenced, rediscovered, reinterpreted – if it comes with an expiration date; sometimes deliberately?

Because it becomes a deliberate practice when the platform the games are on is pulled away like a rug from under us. I’m writing this hot on the heels of Microsoft announcing that they are discontinuing Games For Windows Live – a service that has been berated since its inception. Effectively, this means that games relying on it as an online service will be crippled come June 2014. It’s impossible to imagine an equivalent to this for a book, a movie or a painting – having a key component to appreciating it simply cease existing.

“Anarchy Reigns as I knew it and loved it is already, effectively, gone.”

Sometimes the games themselves take care of this aspect, simply by not having the desired impact. Anarchy Reigns, one of my favourite games from this year, is already unrecognizable as the experience I describe in my review, simply because the support isn’t there any more. We are often kindly warned that the online experience may vary, but that’s hardly any consolation. Anarchy Reigns as I knew it and loved it is already, effectively, gone.

And games are moving full steam into a new era where they’re more and more often cited as “services” and “platforms”. Ubisoft are putting online hooks into nearly every game they’ve announced for the next generation of consoles, making them all susceptible to the kind of change in environment that renders them useless, eventually. That is even before they pull the big proverbial plug on the infrastructure that supports them. Vague promises of cloud processing come bundled with the more concrete promise of eventual obsolescence, and games are increasingly trains to be boarded ASAP, unless we want to miss out. They are, by design, becoming events – becoming the concert you had to go to to get it.

And they sometimes are an event, to be sure. I can only imagine being part of World of Warcraft as the virtual-landscape-changing Cataclysm launched, or part of The Matrix Online when that was being shut down. EVE online is subject to daily, sweeping-yet-fleeting moments of drama and adventure. The sensation of a dynamic, always-unique experience is very potent, and games are becoming increasingly adept at providing just that. Perhaps the late Roger Ebert was on to something when he said video games aren’t art, but was speaking to their malleability and impermanence – factors that by any other measure could be interpreted as strengths. When it comes to leaving something behind, creating something with longevity and historical relevance, they are lynchpins that inevitably come loose.

“’when I was little, it was about two paddles and a dot bouncing between them’”

But lets explore malleability and impermanence as positives. We talk about games as experiences and pay little attention to what that means. We write at length – songs and poems and novels – about love, loss and happiness, because there’s a need to communicate our experiences to other people. It’s not about having everyone go through the exact same thing, it’s perhaps about the opposite. I’ve talked before about the pointless endeavour of defining “games” any more, but maybe areas of gaming are coming out of a cocoon state and becoming experiences that you either had, or didn’t. Maybe the legacy of some video games will have more in common with actual history than we think. An older gamer recalling “when I was little, it was about two paddles and a dot bouncing between them”, isn’t asking us to sit down and play Pong. It’s just an experience related.

I once was convinced that video games as a medium would be something you could share with other people indefinitely – that if I spoke to someone yesterday or ten years from now about a game, I could simply put it in his hands (virtual or otherwise), and he could have the experience that I was talking about. The way you can stick Jurassic Park on VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray or Holo-Graphic Future-Film in someone’s hands. But even with experiences that are “static”, that doesn’t always seem to be a likely outcome. Games are arbitrarily tied to hardware architecture, to hardware specific features – mostly in the name of competition, but ultimately to the detriment of their long term existence. Something as completely off-beat and unique as the Wii was practically an instant death sentence given to every experience developed to take advantage of it, with its legacy only partially carried on by the Playstation Move. All technology that doesn’t change the landscape of gaming threatens to anchor games in time.

Is permanence important? Is preserving the record of the video games we played – or didn’t play – ultimately pivotal for their long-term relevance? These questions are too complex for one writer to answer. Tell me what you think.