((Dr. Kenneth Hawley's perspective, along with Dr. Matt Byars's, was recently featured in "An LCU Professor Perspective – Storytelling and the Evolution of Video Games." Here is a copy of Dr. Hawley's complete commentary on the development of video games.))
The Atari games I played as a child were not very complex. Not in terms of graphics. Not in terms of storyline. Pong, for example. Bink. Bink. Back and forth. Score a goal, make a point, send it from one side to the other in a contest of speed, agility, and paddle-eye coordination.
Combat was different—there were tanks, planes, battles. But it was essentially the same. Hit the other player’s pixels with your pixels.
Pac-Man was a game changer, so to speak. There were levels to reach. A screen to clear. Power-ups to enable ghost-gobbling and score bonus points. There was even a Mrs. Pac-Man. A family. A Saturday morning cartoon with storylines—all of which were essentially the same, of course, but there were plots and stuff.
Don’t forget Missile Command (save the cities from attack) and Pitfall (win the treasure like Indiana Jones). Eventually Mario. The Legend of Zelda. Baseball. These last few I only barely know, because we never had a Nintendo. Not until I became a dad.
The Wii was for my boys—a Valentine’s Day present. This is how dads raised on video games show their love. Back then, our Mecca-like pilgrimages to the game room at the mall were inspired by the advent of The Return of the Jedi game, which allowed us to be Luke or Han or Lando, destroying the Death Star and re-enacting the best movie ever. Now, with Lego Star Wars, my kids could do the same thing, but within a particular universe of mini-kits and power-ups.
So many things are possible even in this gaming system—not to mention the Playstation and Xbox platforms (too expensive and complicated for old school dads). Users can enter the universe of the game, play by its rules and system of justice, and make their way through its levels and worlds. Sometimes the metaphor is ascent (from one level of accomplishment to the next), sometimes it is competition (on the field, the pitch, the court, the gridiron, or the racetrack), sometimes it is restoration (from a beat up old junker to a tricked out street racer), and sometimes it is conquest (achieving greater power and control over territories, planets, and systems). But the depth and quality of development within these games is truly astounding.
The various coins, bonuses, awards, badges, and prizes keep the users going, feeding ego and ambition, rewarding meticulous dexterity and careful navigation. The realistic graphics can fool some passersby, making them think that the Cowboys really are beating the Giants. And the degree to which a user can enter into that space and become one of the agents within the ongoing narrative is fascinating.
This is way beyond creating a Mii that looks a little bit like yourself, adding glasses and a hat, or picking a favorite color. We have some Miis on our system that look like the grandparents—even one for Harry and another for Snape (it is fun to see Severus hit a home run). But many of the video games go well beyond that level of involvement and engagement.
It is not just the changes in technology that have made such developments possible. Surely processing speed, memory, and storage capacity have a great deal to do with what is possible, but consider the work of writers and designers, imagining the characters and levels and worlds. Consider also the involvement of major corporations and media conglomerates—with tie-ins to toys, board games, movies, soundtracks, television shows, phone apps, and competing platforms. The profits possible for such a venture go well beyond what a book or movie could earn on its own.
For scholars and students interested in popular culture or in the nature of stories and storytelling, the traditional forms of page, stage, and screen must certainly be examined; however, in a day like ours, where narratives are being played out in living rooms and basements and on mobile devices and high-definition screens, it may be that some of the more creative and cutting-edge work on character, plot, conflict, identity, resolution, and meaning may emerge from what some might have always considered idle amusement.
These days, for a kid to put down the controller and pick up a book is not to put away the toy and enter a story—he or she was already in the middle of one (as a character, a creator, a master, a servant, a warrior, a player, an agent within a world of actions and consequences).
It is entertainment, and it is business. It is seductive, and it is addictive. Stories have always been that way—from the fireside to the lecture hall, and from the writing desk to the computer monitor—and those who make them and those who receive them have always found it most effective when the readers are more like participants, when the passive audience becomes an active part of the ongoing and climactic storytelling.
Remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books? Modern gaming makes such engagement possible for users young and old.