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Evolution of Entertainment: From Superman and Pong

by Dylan Woodbury on 12/27/10 08:31:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This article was posted on http://dtwgames.com. Go there now for many great articles on game design, for beginners and veterans alike. This article's location: http://dtwgames.com/design_articles/entertainment_evolution.html.

                The famous adage, that history repeats itself, applies to the video game industry. I have spent the last couple of weeks thinking about super heroes and comic books, and out of that I began looking at a bigger picture, the entire comic book industry, and have realized a great many aspects to its history that have been mirrored in the video game industry.

                And why does this matter? Because these two industries have gone through just a similar metamorphosis, we may be able to predict where games are headed. And this might not just be games and comics. The trends seen in these two industries might be inherent in many areas of culture. I have researched the history of both comic books and video games, and I hope you find my findings as interesting and important as I do.

                The origins of comic books are deeply based in drawing, and more directly include political cartoons and comic strips, which were both too short to tell a real story. Drawing goes way back with the history of humanity, whether it be prehistoric cave drawings or 14th century sketches made on the first paper. Comic books would slowly expand comics. Collections of comics, comic books, began to arise in the early 1800s. The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats, published in 1897, collected 196 5X7 inch pages of black-and-white comic strips and is known as the first proto-comic-book magazine. Comics went color with The Blackberries in 1901, and comic books first went monthly with Comics Monthly in 1922. In 1929, The Funnies offered original comics, without news, again evolving the comic, now in 4 colors and 16 pages. This extension of the Sunday comic strip continued to expand.

                The origins of video games are deeply based in games, and more directly include board games, sports, and other games, all of which have possibilities which open once technology is utilized. Games go way back with the history of humanity, whether it is the Mayan ball game or the Ancient Chinese Go. Sports, board games, and childhood “playground games” had always been popular, but limited, much like the comic strip and political cartoon. From 1947 to 1958, computer games like “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device”, “NIMROD”, “OXO”, and “Tennis for Two” were programmed in computer labs. “Spacewar!”, created by Harvard students, showed a flicker as to what video games could be, and was a stepping stone to the grandfather of video games.

                Both comic books and video games are the next step in their form’s evolutionary path, drawing/art and games. Very simple precursors led to a single product which would establish its respective field. These products are Action Comics No. 1(Superman’s debut), and Pong.

                The Golden Age of comic books, which lasted through World War II, was led by superheroes like Superman and Captain Marvel, and was the time during which many of the comic book series we have come to know were created, including Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, etc. And although we think of the superhero genre when we think of comic books, many genres were reaping benefits, including romance, western, and comic animal comics. Comics, like all other facets of life, reflected the events which happened around them, which, in this case, was World War II, which suddenly became the theme of most comic books. After the war ended, people began to lose interest in comic books and the superheroes who lived inside of them.

                After Pong, the Superman of video games, arcade games began to boom, with hits with similar mechanics to Pong. Arcade games, which had now drawn influence from sports and other, less abstract concepts, led the way for video games through the 1970s. From this time period we have iconic games like Asteroids, Space Invaders, Pacman, Missile Command, Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., etc. Much like how comic books began to cover many genres, video games expanded their diversity too. Adventure games evolved from Adventure and Zork to point-and-click adventure games like Maniac Mansion, the game Street Fighter broke new ground in the fighting genre, platformers like Super Mario Bros , Metroid, and Prince of Persia broke new ground in the platformer genre, RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, Dragon Quest, and Final Fantasy broke new ground in the RPG genre, and many other genres, like stealth games, scrolling shooters, and simulation games succeeded in sales.

                After the golden age of comic books, the entertainment form as a whole was being scrutinized, following the publishing of Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed society’s problems on the comic book, claiming they were responsible for instilling violence in the youth. Sales dwindled, many publishers stopped selling books altogether, and the art form was to be restricted due to the pressure of the public. This was 16 years after Superman burst onto the scene in 1938.

                After the golden age in video games (I am coining this – the industry is too young to generally split its history into far-reaching eras like comic books), video games were beginning to be shot down more and more for instilling violence in youth. Hearings began around 1992, almost 20 years after Pong, and the case was eventually heard by the Senate in 1994. But where comic book sales dwindled, video games had already reached a larger audience of both the youth and adults, and their success increased if anything.

                The comic book industry went through a transformation, and the silver age began with the reboot of The Flash in 1956. Publishers began updating their superheroes with a newer art style that finally broke the barrier that the preceding comic strips had placed on them. Not only were the comic books being admired for their art, but their characters – beyond the mask. The Fantastic Four comic series, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby 5 years after the beginning of the silver age, had characters with real problems and real emotions. Not only did a superhero have to save the world, but he/she also had to pay the rent. Writers had to look past the single side of a superhero and examine the problems that went with being a superhero, socially, psychologically, etc.

                Video games began to move past the 2D styles consumers had seen far too much of and to better graphics. These better 3D graphics, which allowed for a higher degree of realism and far more possibilities than was previously available, ushered in a new era of gaming. Super Mario Bros, which had been the iconic game of the golden era, was rethought for a 3D game, which utilized the many possibilities that went with being able to move in all directions. Even games that still had 2D graphics benefitted from the improved graphics, allowing for greater stylism than what was previously possible. New, better stories were being told, beyond just rescuing a princess. Final Fantasy VII dealt with death, in a huge breakthrough that proved that players can feel emotion when playing a game. I believe we are still in the silver era – we are still exploring the more practical problems our video game heroes can face, and although not all characters should have everyday problems (most games don’t), the fact that some heroes becoming a little more real shows a greater diversity in games and that games have the possibility of exploring real problems in our world, our real world. And art should be able to do that. Grand Theft Auto 4 touches on the troubles immigrants face in America, Snake from Metal Gear Solid 4 has to deal with the anxiety of war in addition to the people shooting at him, and Persona 4 even deals with the struggles faced by those of a certain sexual orientation. In Heavy Rain, the most “real” game I can think of has you bathing and eating, challenges that have no challenge, challenges that are the most real of our kind. And those are just a few recent examples, but if you take a look back, you will realize that games are becoming more and more real, whether they take place down the block or across the universe.

                The bottom line is that characters from both comic books and video games in the silver era began to get more real. Beyond the perfect being, Superman, who was rather dull in the start, comes a superhero with a real personality and real challenges that we see every day. Beyond the blank protagonist from Grand Theft Auto 3 (I can’t even remember his name!) comes the real character known as Niko Bellic, a veteran immigrant learning the current state of the American Dream.

                But if video games are still in the silver age (which I believe they are), what comes next? Well the bronze era was known for non-superhero protagonists, antagonists, which I do not believe we have seen too much of yet. Relevant issues were also extremely common, things like drug-abuse (Stan Lee told a great story with a great message about narcotics against the current comic book code) and social issues (we have seen very little of this – Persona 4 is the only large example I can think of right now). We are not even close in this regard, though. Maybe when we see the first iconic African-American protagonist, more of the non-hypersexualized women protagonists, some more sexual diversity, Nathan Drake facing his new habit of drinking, or Master Chief battling against his crack addiction (okay, maybe not Master Chief). Characters also grew much darker during this era, which was necessary due to their deeper awareness with the problems of society and greater vulnerability to enemies, both physically and psychologically. More games will deal with the darkness of mankind (again, Heavy Rain appears to be a revolutionary game), not embracing it obliviously (we need games that will explore the horrors of war and the psychological effects of it, the opposite of games like Call of Duty and Bad Company and Battlefield and Resistance and Killzone and (gasping for breath) . . .). But all that will come as we progress through the evolutionary path all forms of entertainment go through.

                This is what we have to look forward to – and I for one cannot wait to be a gamer in an era in which game designers are allowed and have earned the responsibility to make a great game that will explore boundaries, without the fear of being slapped by the public. But what can we do as gamers? Well, for starters, we need to stop blindly hailing games because the main character has sex with another character, or because you can make explosions two times as big… if I asked a few mature comic book readers which super hero was the best, they might argue that Batman has a great psychological aspect to him, making for a more interesting character, or that Spiderman, without his costume, is struggling with day to day life, not having the wealth of a hero like Batman, or that Wonder Woman has to fight against both physical enemies and social enemies of being a strong woman in a society in which many see this as odd… this argument is a sign that the comic book industry has really reached a high level of maturity. However, ask a few mature video game players who their favorite protagonist is, and they will begin arguing about how strong Master Chief is, or how smart-mouth Nathan Drake is, or how Lara Craft has a nice butt you get to stare at the entire game (I’m sure you’ve heard (or thought) things like these too). This is a sign of an industry in the early eras of its evolutionary path.

                I am looking forward to the day when, at E3, we see not only the inventive new gameplay, but the real, compelling story and the real, compelling character who must go through it. Even though video games allow for a more personal experience and story, the industry mirrors the comic book history, but we are not quite as far along as they are. I am estimating, based on the year-length of each industry’s eras, the bronze age of video games will star in about 4-6 years (give or take), about 17 or 18 years after Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII came out. I would really like some people to research a little more into this series of common trends seen in sources of entertainment, and not just games and comic books, but maybe music, or specific music genres, literature, anime, television, film, etc.

This article was posted on http://dtwgames.com. Go there now for many great articles on game design, for beginners and veterans alike. This article's location: http://dtwgames.com/design_articles/entertainment_evolution.html.


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