Playing for Keeps

When I was thinking about what to write for this Editor’s Note on serious videogames, I had originally thought to discuss the universal trend of new media evolution from humorous and fanciful to serious. And to make sure that I was correct in my assumption and to find supporting facts, I went digging for the first TV show, the first motion picture and called to mind what I knew of early stage productions in ancient Greece. In so doing, I found that my assumption was less than correct.

I say less than correct because I wasn’t completely wrong – with the exception of ancient Greek plays (comedies came later and were initially frowned upon), the first widely accepted and broadcast TV shows and films were of a more jovial nature. Many have seen, either in person or in other settings, The Howdy Doody Show (starting 1947) or are aware of Disney’s early jump onto the talking motion picture bandwagon with Steamboat Willie (1928). And those are some of the first widely available uses of those mediums.

However, it seems the first TV shows and motion pictures were (so far as I can tell) actually more serious. The first commercially produced film was apparently a passion play which someone filmed in 1898. And the first TV show, apparently a drama called The Queen’s Messenger, aired in 1928, with audio broadcast over a radio station. It turns out that the Greeks weren’t the exception to the rule as I’d previously supposed.

But upon further thinking, I do believe there is a pattern. Early books were non-fiction-ish accounts of real battles. The first film is a non-fiction-ish account of a real person. And the first videogames were simulations of physical games. The first entertainment media, in large part, appear to be reflections of our world.

Within each medium, it was not until awareness rose and artistry matured that we began to explore, not just the world around us, but our imaginations. And along with the exploration of our imaginations, came the need to understand and ponder abstract issues facing us in life. Once the media became more sophisticated, these nebulous topics could be explored. The evolution is reflection, imagination, sophistication.

And this latter is the stage at which we find videogames. The technology is becoming such that deeper and more textured experiences are possible. In order to remain relevant and fresh, the vast number of topics broached by videogames must expand outside of those fantastical ones that have been the mainstays of games past. And the issues surrounding us everyday, the interpersonal issues, the resource allocation issues, the environmental and health issues provide interesting fodder for a deeply interactive media.

And that’s an exciting thought. That videogames can be a vehicle through which more people can gain a greater understanding of issues facing the world, or through which people can be educated to better their lives, or the lives of those around them, is good. That people are actually beginning to explore that possibility is great. And that’s why, this week, we’ve dedicated this issue of The Escapist, “Playing for Keeps” to serious games and those who are making them.


-Julianne Greer

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