Last year Executive Producer Zach Braff and Director Jeremy Snead launched a campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to make an indie documentary about video games, and it arrives this month.
Although it's a feature-length film with an impressive assemblage of expert interview, there are still plenty of gaming-related issues left to explore. Among the people interviewed in Video Games: The Movie were Nolan Bushnell the founder of Atari, and filmmaker Max Landis. Complex spoke with both of them to get a closer look at some of the themes they touched on in the film.
Nolan Bushnell founded Atari in the 1970's and his Atari 2600 was synonymous with video games for a decade thereafter. Bushnell says “In the early days there was a certain amount of skepticism on the part of the public. People thought that video games were a waste of time. Later on people started noticing that programmers loved to play games in off times. It slowly dawned on people that computer games were training wheels for computer literacy.”
Throughout his career the myths and moral panic over video games remained “There were a lot of studies trying to show that computer games are bad for you, when all they showed is that computer games actually increase your cognitive abilities. Some people believe it eventually increases your IQ.”
When Max Landis was asked about the perception of gamers in recent years he replied “I feel like 'gamers' really only came into being once video games got really mainstream popular; back in the '90s everyone just sort of low key played Nintendo, girls played, boys played, maybe your pot-smoking uncle played, it wasn't a big deal. But then once video games blew up with the N64, then the Playstation 2, etc, it seemed like 'people who loved video games' needed a way to distinguish themselves. It depresses me a little to listen to people brag about playing video games, or hear people describe themselves as “gamers” like it’s a meaningful part of their personality.”
I’m of the opinion that pretty much everything is a video game now. Facebook and Twitter are both video games, alongside being social tools.
The film also explores the roots of the game industry, decades before coin-op machine and home consoles; when computer engineers made games like Spacewar that played on giant mainframe computers at universities.
"Spacewar was the first game that took advantage of the video screen.” remembers Bushnell “Computers up until then just had printers. That was the demarcation. Imagine if you would, sneaking into the computer lab at 2:00 in the morning to play that game, with all the lights off, then you get a magical experience.”
Although the first games were made for their programmers to amuse themselves and their friends, there was a clear market for them, but not everyone had a mainframe computer (And a spare room to keep it in) “It's hitting the proper price point.” continued Bushnell “I played Spacewar when I was in college. I understood the economics, so when I saw the million dollar computer, I knew that THAT wasn't the solution for the commercial market. As cost came down, subsequently I figured out I can do this at a price point that was appropriate, which was a couple of thousand dollars for an arcade machine.”
In those early days of computer engineering, the technology needed to make a home gaming system was rapidly evolving. “This required a microprocessor, and it wasn't invented until 1974. It was only a 4 bit slice. It took until 1976 for a microprocessor that was sufficiently strong to be able to play a video game [On a console with inter-changeable cartridges].”
Video Games: The Movie also looks at how games have become a ubiquitous part of modern culture. Landis observed that by the late '90s “There had already been some video games of movies and movies of video games, but that was when it kicked into high gear because video games began fundamentally aping movies in the way they told stories; act structure became clearer. There'd always been RPGs, which mimic the tangential, free-form storytelling found in novels, but more and more first person shooters and action games started to directly reach for the 'feel' of cinema. And, conversely, movies, through computer animation, started to slowly look and feel more and more like video games. There’s a nexus point coming; I can’t say exactly when, but I feel like Triple A (mainstream) games are inexorably headed for a convergence with films in meaningful, game-changing way.”
When asked about his work as a screenwriter and the difference between storytelling in movies versus games, he pointed out “Ideally they’d never have to compete. Video games, ultimately, still just represent the illusion of choice; no matter what you choose, no matter how many endings they write or moral choice systems or whatever, what happens is all predetermined. There is no video game equivalent to the level of variables presented by actual existence. What’s neat about cinema is that it doesn't even address those variables; it’s essentially a roller coaster. The track is set, and you’re pulled through a story; the pleasure we get from it is all internal, you know, experiencing a preset series of events. A movie is like telling a great story to your friends; a video game, I’d say, is more like telling a great lie. You can change things you don’t like, embellish it, take control. But they’re two different mediums…so far.”
Video Games: The Movie covers the high points of gaming history, but also looks at the lows. The crash of the entire industry in the early '80s was linked to one game—the Atari 2600 adaptation of the movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
This came in 1982, several years after Bushnell had left the company. “It was massively mismanaged on the part of Atari, trying to push another several million 2600's into an already saturated market... After I left, Atari refused to upgrade the hardware. When they did, it was called the Atari 5200. It was a rush job; it was based on the personal computer, the Atari 400. It wasn't designed to be a game player.“
In those early years of computers, the average person didn't understand the exponential rate at which technology would advance “The big problem is that Warner Brothers put in a bunch of record executives and they thought the business was based around new cartridges. They didn't realize that the technology was moving so quickly.“ Says Bushnell of the industry crash. “Moore's Law increases performance at an astounding rate. Games have to always be on that bleeding edge. Each new platform represent new innovations... People are gaming all the time with tablets and cellphone. At one time games were limited to bars and arcades.”
Landis also commented on the ubiquitous nature of gaming now that portable devices have the processing power once seen in room-sized computers “I’m of the opinion that pretty much everything is a video game now. Facebook and Twitter are both video games, alongside being social tools. Remember when you used to call someone on the phone and have a conversation? Imagine if afterwards you could rate that conversation. That’s a video game. People curate the hell out of themselves, selfies are a video game to look attractive and cool.”
Just as Landis says selfies are a game, and “Likes” are points, most of human society can be seen in terms of a game “Life has always been sort of an effort system, right? Why do people work out: to get the body. Why do they want the body? Up their health-bar, increase their sexual attractiveness stats. Video games are just an extension of the human search for meaning, our frantic innate desire to better ourselves, move towards some goal, not just be monkeys living and dying on a planet. On some level, the same mentality that created Super Mario created Mona Lisa created the Parthenon created the Pyramids created the Bible, i.e., let’s have something to do other than just standing around surviving.”
Several films written by Max Landis are arriving in theaters in the next year, and his film Me Him Her, is going to festivals later this summer. Nolan Bushnell's BrainRush is currently developing educational games that use adaptive learning. Video Games: The Movie hits theaters in a limited run this month and is available on a variety of digital distributors.