Stories Don’t Die…
“The Worm has turned”, Jack Nicholson once said in the otherwise-forgettable Wolf, “and it is now packing an Uzi.”
I’m minded of this quote when reading various reactions to the concerted move by the established entertainment industry to stop piracy. It’s not just SOPA and PIPA, but also ACTA in Europe and a variety of national-level legislative campaigns which propose draconian, over-reaching controls to protect content industries at the expense of all others.
The normally-placid geek industries, which prefer to make stuff rather than lobby, are nettled to such an extent that key figures are declaring that it’s time to saddle up. That it’s time to lobby and cajole on issues like relaxing copyright and patents for real rather than talk about it. That it’s time to, as Paul Graham wrote last Friday, kill Hollywood.
So do you want to take up the call?
First, not all entertainment is the same, nor should it be. Though certain sections of the games industry like to over-inflate the story power of games (because of emotional validation and legitimacy issues), they tend to be less interesting as stories than most books or films. This is fine, and not a judgement on any medium. It’s a reflection on how attention span works and what the brain can reasonably be expected to focus on at any given moment.
Second, stories are important. Again, this is not a value statement to disenfranchise any other kind of art (including games) but just an observation. Stories are retold from generation to generation with new signifiers and emotions. Stories teach wisdom and activate the art brain’s wider sense of perspective and theme. This is why as long as there has been language there have been tales, epics, sagas, myths, allegories and so on. They serve an important function in understanding who we are.
Third, stories are universal. They take many forms, but the plots, themes and struggles that they reflect do not change. A story as old as Gilgamesh still has relevance in the modern world, but it has to be translated into the communication form of the day. Not many people really read epic poetry any more and its mode of communication seems arch in a time of multimedia experiences and diversity. Yet when it is translated for them, they get it.
All of which means that the story will live forever and not be subsumed or supplanted by games (or vice versa). However that offers no guarantee regarding specific modes of expression.
…But Movies Might
There are already plenty of relic genres of storytelling. Opera, for example, largely survives on the life support of grants, while the novel seems to exist in a permanent cycle of death and resurgence every three years depending on whether there’s a Harry Potter in play or not. New technologies offer the possibility of doing interesting new things (such as Apple’s new iBook software) but that comes at the expense of other forms.
It is simply about attention span, and the worldwide collective amount of it that can be devoted to one activity over another. It is also about cost, although not the freeloading that the various content industry lobby groups like to paint it as. It is instead about the sense of feeling over-charged, over-handled and controlled. To watch or listen to many forms of content today requires having multiple solutions, publishers who want business from the viewer and so on.
It is also about relevance. Movies used to have a power to define generations, but that has drifted away as the industry started to spend ever more money on process. Many Oscar-winning films are such heavily internal conversations with other movie makers (such as The Artist) that the public barely relates. While at the same time many of the giant summer spectacles are more about emotional validation than exploration.
All of which means that movies might die. Perhaps to be replaced by better television (in the United States, television writing has been considerably sharper than film writing for over a decade). Perhaps to be replaced by Youtube, with series like The Guild. The point is that movies as we understand them do not have some inherent right to exist just because they have existed. It is up to movie makers to make movies worthy of attention, cost effective and relevant once again, which they seem unwilling to do.
Silicon Valley Doesn’t Really Get Culture… Yet
To Valley geeks, everything is a solution to a problem. Graham’s post outlines a future which looks like some sort of more sophisticated Zynga. For many gamers, that shows a devaluing of the qualitative aspect of entertainment and reflects a wider sense that the tech community frequently doesn’t get games. It understands them as behavioural systems and engines perhaps, but not so much on the grander ambitions.
Entertainment industries have a long history of not behaving like other industries because they do not solve problems. They make magic, bottle it and sell it, and the process has rarely been easily repeatable. Nonetheless the Valley is on the move, sick of dealing with contra-evolutionary protectionism from an industry that it regards as corpulent and uninterested in change. It is actively interested in forcing that change because it is to the benefit of the technology economy and the economy of ideas. Y-Combinator is looking to fund startups that promise better ways to entertain. YouTube wants you to make shows, Apple wants to connect iTunes to your TV set and so on.
They may not grok the finer points, but they’re willing to disrupt it anyway and are looking to games to do the disrupting. Games, after all, are increasingly the home of the freemium model of entertainment payment and clear demonstrations of the willingness of fans to pay for the things that matter to them. As I’ve advocated in this blog before, other media have much to learn from this model but seemingly don’t want to. They would rather lament.
This creates a lot of possibilities. You should be paying attention.