Monday, 9 December 2013

The Revolution Has Been Televised...

My grandparents remembered a time before television. My parent talked about a time where only one or two houses in their street had a TV... Black and white of course, with a whole three stations. I myself remember the hype when a forth station was added to this lineup only to be followed, some years later,  by a fifth. By this time our family TV was a whopping 28" and in colour with almost twice as much stations as it used to have, and not only that... I could also plug my VIC-20 computer into it and actually play games on there as well. Surely we were now truly living in modern times...

Oh how long ago that seems. Now here I sit in front of our modest 42" flat screen HD digital TV watching SKY and wondering if theres anything more interesting on NetFlics or LoveFilm, whilst typing this into one of our three tablet devices, and checking for e-mails and tweets on my smart phone. But if my teenage self could suddenly jump from then to now all this would be secondary, amazing, astounding, but secondary... Because underneath the TV sits a PS3. And there's an Xbox 360 and a PC in the bedroom, and what would I think when I switched ether of these, now aging, devices on - well, what would I think after wiping the drool away from my gaping mouth, that is?

Interactive media is an integral part of life for most of us now, and no part of this has grown more than the video game. We now have two generations of adults; middle-aged, and young; who have mostly grown up with some form of computer and or video games, even although it's only started to become mainstream within the last twenty or so years. It was very much with these thought in mind that I recently sat down to watch a few documentary films about computing in general and video and computer gaming in particular.

This is a review of sorts, mostly it is my own personal take on these films. So it may be prudent to remember where I'm starting from...

  • Moral Combat:
  • First off, many people would say that this is a film that there should have been no need to be make, as the film tackles the negative attitudes to violence in videogames. But the truth is many people now have an issue with video gaming. Even if it is, as some would say, a manufactured issue mostly conjured up by the media and opportunist politicians looking for an easy scapegoat. To many people the issue is real, and I think this film goes a long way towards educating those people to the facts at least. It may not be able to convince someone towards one way of thinking or the other, but then that's not what this film is about. It gives a refreshingly balanced view of the various arguments over the years, and allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. The only gripe I have is that the trailer shows a very strong anti-games bias... perhaps to court controversy, and I would say it isn't the best advert for a what is actually a well balanced, and un-sensationalist film - based on a very sensationalist subject.
  • Life 2.0:
  • Now this one truly disturbed me. People have argued about the effect violent video-games have, or have not, had on children since the time of space-invaders. But never before have I seen evidence of the virtual world getting out-of-hand as much as in this film. Yes, I know the cases they followed were intended to illicit a shock reaction, but it was the broader implications, especially the financial aspects of Second Life that truly astounded; and I have to admit a little bit both bafflement, and concern. I now get the comparison between the 'virtual environment's,' they don't like you calling it a game, currency and the invention of bit-coins: both being virtual currencies that only hold a virtual value in cyberspace because of their (supposed) inability to be digitally copied. But the film did show that VR can affect the real world, at least in the cases of the people followed by this film. Their 'virtual life' very much intruded upon and changed their behaviour in the real world, mostly to their detriment... Something that 'violent' video-games has never been proven to do. This film did sensationalise its content, perhaps more than a bit, and did appear to have an agenda. It was still an interesting and informative film though, and I would recommend it to someone who has no idea what these virtual worlds are all about. Just take a pinch of salt along with you...
  • Indie Game - The Movie:
  • To many this was the definitive Indie Games documentary, and it did pick some very good cases to follow. It just makes me wonder how much footage of failed projects they had left on the cutting room floor. The film basically follows the developers of FEZ, Super Meat Boy and Braid, as they struggle to get their games to the masses. Their is some bad language and fairly raw footage in this one, but I think it does capture the commitment and frustration of the developers well, although the processes shown are already becoming a bit dated as the industry is changing it's attitudes to Indie developers and Indie publishing.
  • The King of Kong - A Fistful of Quarters:
  • And now we have a bit of a strange one. The King of Kong follows the hi-scoring exploits of Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchal and as they compete for the all-important high-score in the ancient Donky-Kong arcade cabinet game. This is actually a good entertaining film, that doesn't take itself too seriously. It also does a good job of explaining where the hi-score culture came from, and how it is still very much alive within a certain community of hard-core arcade gamers. Although solidly chronicling the Donky-Kong battle it does touch on other high-scorers, and both explains and explores the hobby/obsession in general. Perhaps another one to be taken with a pinch of salt though.
  • Minecraft - The Story of Mojang:
  • Well, this one is exactly what is says on the box... The story of Minecraft is the story of Mojang, and it's a very interesting story at that. Arguably the bigest 'breakthrough' Indie game to date, Minecraft has generated millions in revenue, and is now recognised as a household name. Everyone from pensioners to preschoolers can, and does, play Minecraft, and this is the story of how it got to where it is, and of the people involved and affected.
  • Downloaded:
  •  You've heard of Napster, right? You know the one. The nasty music pirating software that almost brought down the poor little nieve music industry. Well, thats what some would have you believe anyway. The main question asked here is: "Is what you have, probably, heard from the media the whole truth?" This film attempts to tell the real story of the big-bad-napster and the evil depraved hackers behind it in a non judgemental just-the-facts manner. It does this through a lot of candid interviews from both sides of the fence, and is quite telling and definitely interesting, especially if you remember the media hype that surrounded the software and people involved. It is mainly a 'talking-heads' movie, and can get a bit dry if you aren't very interested in the subject matter, but overall I found this a very informative watch.
  • Get Lamp:
  •  It has to be said that one of the earliest types of games I really spent a lot of time on were text-adventures. Nowadays it's long since changed its name to Interactive Fiction; and may be more than a bit niche, hidden, and perhaps even mainly forgotten; but it's still very much alive. Given the drastic changes in technology and computer games in particular, I find this somewhat amazing and somehow more than a little reassuring. As you have probably guessed by now Get Lamp is all about the wonderful world of text-adventures, both then and now. This is a fairly in-depth exploration of the medium, it's history, and current status. The film is obviously shot by someone who likes the medium, but that doesn't mean it contains bias views or has any form of agenda. I would recommend this to anyone who has a passing interest in Interactive Fiction, remembers these programs, or is even slightly curious as it's an interesting and informative look at an almost forgotten piece of computer and computer games history.
  • BBS The Documentary:
  • Not a film as such, this is actually a documentary series. Each episode focuses on a different aspect of Bulletin Board Systems, or BBS for short. It does a good job of exploring a rather closed pre-internet on-line culture, that most people didn't know existed. It explains the, by today's standards very limited, computer and networking ethnology used, but the main focus of all the programs is firmly on the people involved, their interests, goals, motivations, and how the BBS phenomenon has affected their lives. This series of documentaries is a detailed and candid look into the lives of the people concerned, possibly more so, than it is about th e technical aspects of their 'hobby'. Again there is some fairly raw footage in this, grievances are aired and adult situations, including divorce and adultery, are recanted. This documentary series shines a very bright light into the rather murky pre-internet world of electronic communications that would otherwise have remained in darkens for the vast majority of the public. This is definitely a very informative and enlightening series that I would urge anyone interested in communications or the beginnings of the Internet to watch..