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It may mark the end of culture as we know it. The sideshows are raucous and sensational. They revolve around puerile fantasies of sex and aggression, horror and sleaze. They are also highly addictive. Something in their flickering imagery mesmerises the young (in some cases inducing fits) resulting in short attention spans, truancy, and an explosion of juvenile crime.
Initial comparisons are promising. Like early film, interactive games have become an unpredicted commercial success. In a few years, Sega and Nintendo have amassed a four to five billion dollar annual turnover, capturing some two-thirds of the recorded music market, a quarter of the entertainments industry as a whole. Just as cinema emerged from the protozoic soup of 19th century technology: Fantascopes, Zoopraxiscopes, Kinetoscopes, Zoetrope, Vitascopes, today's interactive media betray a similar proliferation of proprietorial formats. In the last year, in the compact disc market alone, Sega has launched the Mega-CD, Amiga the CD-TV, Philips CD-I. In a market teeming with life, natural selection is already in progress. Some of these mutations will be unviable: others might only last of few years. But among them, crawling out of the swamp, might be the prototype of a new medium destined to colonise the earth.
One proof will be the fear and loathing the new arrival attracts. Writing about film in The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin noted how new art forms initially appear brash and monstrous. They have, by necessity, to shake traditions, offend older sensibilities. Video games certainly fulfil this brief. Witness the uproar that has attended the proposed release of Night Trap for the Sega Mega-CD. The game is billed as an 'interactive movie' in which - among other things - you have to rescue some semi-naked women from a lurking alien threat. Night Trap was one of the first computer games to be referred to British Board of Film Censors (where it was awarded a 15 certificate). By video standards, the content was mild. But the disproportionate outrage just adds to the medium's credentials. As Malcolm McClaren has pointed out: if you want to rebel against your parents, the last thing you'll play is loud rock and roll. If you really want to get them worried, go and play a computer game.
Something strange has happened to the great microchip revolution. Cheap computer processing was supposed to bring us smart TVs and digital organisers, put the sophistication of a graphics workstation, recording studio and typesetting shop within everyone's reach. Through the home computer we were going to be connected to global networks of data, ushered into the era of information. Instead, rather than information, the bulk of home computer processing is dedicated to the production of disinformation: of simulations and games, Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario.
Maybe it's not so strange. Some marketing manager coined 'infotainment' to describe the paradox of information and play and, at heart, cinema also displays the same ambivalence. In the 1870s Étienne Marey and Eadward Muybridge developed the cine camera to help their investigations into animal locomotion. Louis Lumière thought cinema as a tool for scientific research, a way of recording and analysing events, not unlike a computer. It took a showman and conjurer to turn it into a vehicle for mass appeal.
The showman was Georges Méliès (an exhibition of whose career is still running at the Museum of the Moving Image). The Frenchman was the first fully to explore the fantastic possibilities of film: his favourite genres were fairytales, burlesque and science fiction. Méliès mastered endless unique special effects for making women turn into mermaids, heads to fall off or inflate, bodies dismember themselves and individual limbs go dancing about the screen. He loved the irrational side of film, the erotic, the comic, the macabre.
Cinema partly derives from photo realism, from the documentary impulse to describe the world, but Méliès represents the other equally important tradition: stage magic, deception, trick photography. Despite his kitsch and playfulness, Méliès probably advanced the genre further than any other single figure. Indeed, by pursuing the lowest possible audience taste, he was testing the form to the highest technical limits. After all, what better proof of the verisimilitude of the moving image than that it convey a sexual charge? And what more graphic demonstration of its capabilities than showing a man removing his head five times, and placing each singing head on a bar of five telegraph wires like so many musical notes?
In the history of cinema, play has often been the mother of invention. For the new digital media, this has proved equally true. In the 1970s, in the Californian town of Palo Alto (where Muybridge studied animal locomotion a century before) Rank Xerox set up a research centre. Its aim was to develop the next generation of computers and according to Larry Tesler, one of the core engineers, they soon turned to computer games for inspiration. Millions who found information technology complex and intimidating were less circumspect when it came to playing Space Invaders or Missile Command. If it appeared as a pacman or asteroid, most were quite happy manipulating electronic data on a VDU. It was this insight that led the development of the 'Graphical user interface', the use of windows, icons, and desktop metaphors to simplify tasks. This interface, in turn, led directly to the launch of Apple MacIntosh and Microsoft Windows and the beginning of the end of IBM. By imitating games personal computing became, through the 1980s, the fastest growing industry ever.
We are still living through the golden age of computing. Most of the languages, algorithms, and metaphors created today will provide the foundation for the next hundred years. Whether it's a game to save Lemmings from extinction, a beautifully tailored personal organiser, or a screen saver showing flying toasters, current software is a source of much of ingenuity, wit and invention. In a few centuries time the shoot-em-up arcade games that so worry commentators will probably be in display cases at the Design Museum or the V&A. Now that the office market is saturated, corporations are looking to exploit the home market and once again computer games are leading the way.
Yet, as with the early years of film, official culture refuses to recognise it's crass, nerdish newcomer. The higher arts look down on their pixilated relatives with dismay and disdain. Both film and computer software come from the boiler room of culture, designed by pioneers with a technical or manufacturing background rather than a training in the high arts. This means that achievements tend to go unrecognised until too late, just as the critics began to praise the era of silent movies the moment the talkies came in.
All of which makes predictions generically difficult. Indeed, this could be the moment the analogy between cinema and the digital domain ends. Unlike the mimetic traditions of photography and film, a new interactive art form might follow an entirely different logic: the logic of simulation. Current computer games such as A-Trainor Sim City are not really representations of the world but software models, virtual machines sustained by their own mathematical engines. Alternatively, film and computer technology could be converging. Francis Ford Coppola - who used much of the new technology in his underrated Dracula - has predicted that it will open film-making to ordinary people. He expresses the hope that one day soon a film masterpiece may be made at home in her room by 'some fat girl in Wisconsin'. In this light digital media could fulfil the promise of cinema, making the manipulation of images and the creation of a new visual language more accessible and seamless.
According to a Russian maxim, the Fox knows many little things but the Hedgehog knows one big thing. But what is the big thing that Sonic the Hedgehog knows? What else waits to crawl out of the digital swamp?
For the moment he is silent.
Published in New Statesmen July 1993