--Marcel Duchamp in a letter to Francis Picabia, 1921


But enough of that. Right now I am in Los Angeles. I am in a ragtop under the brightest, bluest sky. I am taking my favorite drive, to Malibu. (There's a big rock out there where I like to watch seals and dolphins.) Driving west on the 10, I see the Hollywood sign planted beside it like a billboard. The sidewalks along Highway 1 are full of pedestrians, and when my hands slip off the steering wheel for a second I mow them down, one by one, without a dent or spatter of blood. Driving south from Malibu, I enter Burbank and the movie-studio back lots. It makes no sense. Geography's gone wrong. Everything's a little surreal here, or unreal, including my money. The tarnished brass tokens read "NO CASH VALUE."

I lean back into the hard plastic seat, pumping the foot pedals -- almost never the brake -- and pass the finish line. I enter my name. I'm in the Family Arcade on Vermont Avenue. The game I'm playing is called California Speed.

INSOFAR AS THE 20TH CENTURY HAD SIGNIFICANT CULTURE, IT HAD POP CULTURE, MASS MEDIA: RECORDS, RADIO, movies, television, comic books, novels, magazines. For the audience, or the fan -- let's be clear about how most of us first come across this stuff -- this mass culture was merely representative of life, or a diversion from it. It emerged not from needs and rituals, but from commerce. It was life experienced at a remove.

Thus we became alienated from ourselves. This might sound silly if your relationship with mass-cult media extends only to falling asleep in front of the boob tube and making out to soft-rock radio. But think about it: You probably modeled parts of your life on what you saw and heard in films and books and TV. Were you a punk rocker or a hip-hopper, part of the literati or an art fag, a cinephile or a sci-fi freak? Did you lust after movie stars or read issues of People and follow those stars' lives, like an earthbound astronomer following bright, bright human things? If so, you were modeling yourself on commodities, lusting after pop portraits of experience. Part of your life has been based on unreality.

But now there is a new kind of medium, which has begun to close the gap between culture and life. It is an interactive medium, or, more specifically, video games. Compare games to earlier forms of pop culture, and you'll soon realize that they are really different. The more closely games mimic life -- with visual realism, emotional weight, an intuitive interface, conceptual rigor -- the better they get. And most games try to do more than replicate life -- they systematically probe the fantastic, the better-than-real. One senses that the best games aspire to supplant the living of life.

Many in the industry believe that 2002 is the year video games will cross over from ubiquity to universality. They're currently mainstream in the same way that skateboards and comic books are. But while the audience is still perceived as male, adolescent and slightly cultlike, the Interactive Digital Software Association, an industry lobbying group, says that the average gamer is 28 years old, and that almost half of them are female. It also makes the claim that 60 percent of all Americans play video games. Though gaming has come a long way from its origins as a rec-room novelty, the goal of the industry is to make the medium as commonplace as film or radio. In this new world, anyone unfamiliar with games would be considered aberrant, hermetic, out of it.

Sales of hardware, software and accessories have already outpaced sales of movie tickets -- $9.4 billion to Hollywood's record $8.38 billion at the box office last year. While the numbers for video games don't approach those of film when VHS and DVD sales and rentals are included, the gaming industry's 2001 totals represented a 43 percent increase over the previous year's. Today, three systems vie for market dominance: Microsoft's Xbox, its debut in consumer gaming hardware; Nintendo's GameCube, its latest system; and Sony's PlayStation 2. Within a month of their respective releases, the Xbox and PS2 sold nearly a million consoles each, GameCube over a half million. Were it not for production delays, the holiday sales figures for the GameCube and Xbox might have been even higher. The pressure is intense: Last March, Sega, a pioneer and longtime player in the console market, stopped production on its Dreamcast platform, only a year and a half after it debuted. The company decided there will be more money in developing games for the three new platforms.  

Those aforementioned production delays exist because the hardware in these machines is bleeding-edge. While any hardcore gaming aficionado will tell you that it's the software, not the hardware, that counts -- the wonder of the game, not the graphics -- gamers are inevitably familiar with the latest specifications. (It's the equivalent of a music lover saying it's the music that matters, then briefing you on the ins and outs of fidelity, e.g., vinyl vs. MP3 vs. compact disc.) The unit of measure by which graphics specs are judged is the polygon: The number of polygons a console is able to render per second determines how closely the visuals approach reality. Game magazines toss around these figures like men judging women by the size of their breasts.

Among the last generation of consoles, the Nintendo 64 rendered 150,000 polygons per second, the first PlayStation around 360,000, the Sega Dreamcast 3 million. The new Nintendo GameCube displays 6 million to 12 million polygons per second. Alvy Ray Smith, a computer-graphics pioneer who helped found Pixar, the animation studio responsible for Toy Story and Shrek, and who has worked everywhere from Lucasfilm to Microsoft, makes the controversial claim that we view reality at 80 million polygons per second. Under ideal conditions, it's said, the Sony PlayStation 2 can display 75 million polygons per second -- pretty damn close.

The Microsoft Xbox renders 125 million polygons per second.

Of course, these specs don't take into account actual gameplay, which can radically reduce the numbers. "The PlayStation 2 is a raw polygon monster. Everything about its design is constructed in order to push out millions of polygons," an article on the gaming Web site begins, before turning indignant. "Not only do Sony's polygon performance claims not factor in such important elements as textures, they don't equate gameplay physics or artificial intelligence either -- rather integral features in today's software."

While Nintendo continues to traffic almost exclusively in the misadventures of various fuzzy cuddlies -- the wildly anticipated Super Smash Bros. Melee is a reunion of its franchise characters -- most new games for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 adhere to a reality fetish. Gran Turismo 3, one of the biggest hits for the PS2, features lighting effects so lifelike, you could mistake the game's replay mode for a television broadcast. Headlights are filtered through dust rising off the racetrack; reflections bend off the curved metal of the car bodies; oily patches mimic heat's effect on pavement; sunbursts reproduce the look of noon light through a camera lens. Amped, a game for the Xbox, replicates the physics of snowboarding in a manner that is both amazing and frustrating. "Because the levels are so incredibly organic, sometimes the ability to spin in any direction and do snap turns can work against itself," complains a reviewer at In Halo, the Xbox's killer app -- defined as a piece of software that single-handedly justifies the purchase of a console -- you are dropped into a cinematic world that matches the pacing, tension and realism of the best sci-fi thriller.

The fact that players enjoy living vicariously through onscreen avatars has not gone unnoticed. The Sims is the most popular PC game of our new century, despite the fact that the majority of the gameplay is devoted to quotidian activities such as waking up, eating, going to the bathroom and getting to work on time. It has sold over 4 million copies since it was introduced in 2000. Currently, an Atlanta company called 3Q is manufacturing a booth it plans to place in malls so players can create 3-D models of their own faces to upload onto the heads of characters in games like Quake. 3Q calls them "clone generators."

Unfortunately, the better-than-real of today's video games too often involves driving fast cars, shooting people, playing sports or exploring fantasy lands. Game aesthetics are too often focused on sleek visions of a paved-over, dystopian future, or on pneumatic female flesh. And then there is the potential downside common to all immersive environments: When we are in the world of the better-than-real, we forget about the real. If 20th-century pop culture was life experienced at a remove, interactivity could turn everything into a game.

MARK PESCE LOVES VIDEO GAMES. LAST spring he wrote a piece for Wired anticipating the Xbox's hardware specs: "Forget the OS monopoly -- this year they could own the X in Xmas." Founding chair of the interactive-media program at USC's School of Cinema and Television, Pesce is also an outspoken practitioner of paganism and witchcraft, a screenwriter, and creator of VRML, an early 3-D language for the Web. In his book The Playful World (2000), he warns that we must embrace interactivity or risk being destroyed by it.

Mark Pesce believes
computers will begin
to act like his couch.

"Who are you?" I ask.

"I think I'm a guy who's been in the middle of things for 20 years," says Pesce. "And sometimes when I say things I'm full of shit, and sometimes when I say things I'm not full of shit. So that's what I think I am. Back when no one knew what the Internet was, I was writing code for it."

He wears flip-flops, a Hawaiian shirt in a pineapple print, and round glasses in the modernist-futurist style. His eyes are the color of ice packs, and his buzzcut hair is black speckled with white. The way he charges at you with his ideas gives him a feral geek quality. Though his body lives in a Laurel Canyon bungalow filled with books, DVDs, three computers and Japanese prints, his thoughts on games and interactivity lie at the outer fringe. He spends much of his time considering one ill-defined term: virtual reality.

Pesce's interest in VR was sparked when he dropped out of MIT and started working as a programmer at Shiva, an early creator of network-management software for the Apple Macintosh. As the networks became more complicated, they became harder to visualize and thereby harder to work with. When Pesce came upon William Gibson's 1984 sci-fi classic, Neuromancer, and read about characters jacking into the virtual world of cyberspace, where information was rendered as architecture, he had the same reaction as many a techno-nerd: Why couldn't this novel be his reality?

"I wanted to take networks and make them things, places, tangible, rather than the extremely intangible entities most people connect to. That led to my work in VR. I went off, moved to San Francisco in '91, and started a crazy VR start-up that was going to make . . . I'd say if you took the Sony PlayStation and an inexpensive head-mounted display, that's what we were aiming for. But head-mounted displays turned out to be horrifically bad for kids."

As it turns out, the dangers of gaming could be more than metaphoric. Attempts to replicate the natural stereoscopic vision of our human eyeballs on tiny video screens mounted inches away from them caused "binocular dysphoria." Using such a display in excess of 20 minutes threw off depth perception even after the headset came off. "No one knew what kind of effect it would have on growing children, who have highly flexible nervous systems," Pesce writes in The Playful World. Although his company, Ono-Sendai (a name plucked from Neuromancer), managed to sell a significant portion of its work to Sega, those headsets never went into mass production.

Pesce's current excitements revolve around notions of intelligent, interactive objects. As an example he cites his heavily padded, plush brown couch. "Quite often I'll sit and I'll watch the tube," he says, leaning back. "That's why this pillow looks like this." He sits up again and points out the depression that remains. "There's a lot of memory in this object."

Pesce believes computers will begin to act like his couch, with the advantage of powerful microprocessor brains. He mentions toys that most think of as Christmas fads -- Tamagotchi, the digital pet, or Furby, the googly-eyed creature that could learn and talk. "When I was getting started," he says, "computers didn't have that much interesting to say. People tended to be the most interesting things to talk to in an environment. That's starting to change, because systems are getting smarter -- not because they've been programmed to be smarter, but because they're learning in very organic ways . . .

"Interactivity is something that doesn't present one face, it's something capable of drawing you in. I'll go back to Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, because McLuhan is, in a sense, my prized possession. He changed my life, back when I didn't know any better. And McLuhan -- although he was not a mathematician, much more of a poet -- always talks about things in terms of loops. There are loops of communication being formed. And whatever these loops are shaped to fit forms a Procrustean bed -- certain things get chopped off in the process. When you use a telephone, you chop off your eyes. When you use a car, you chop off your legs. That's the funny thing about it: You chop off your legs to move around better. The car is a very interactive device, but to use it you have to stop using what you normally get around with. When you manipulate the pedals, you replace your natural interface -- your legs -- with a control interface to extend your abilities. All aspects of interactivity have that going on. There is a contradiction involved."  

"All media work us over completely," McLuhan wrote in the The Medium Is the Massage (1967), a compendium of his ideas intended for a wide audience.

They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. All media are extensions of some human faculty -- psychic or physical.

For McLuhan, the printed word was an extension of the eye, the wheel an extension of the foot, the electric circuit an extension of the nervous system. The way video games present us with virtual worlds makes them an extension of the hand, the eye and the brain. Or of the imagination, of the id. One begins to wonder: What is the difference between an extension of man and a replacement part?

"HEAD, HEART, HANDS, EYES," I'M whispering softly to myself.

"Blam, blam, blam," goes the gun.

I'm shooting at hostage targets. One man's silhouette is wrapped around another silhouette, threatening to kill. My job is to take one of them out (or both). The interface for this game is analog and plastic. It's light and has realistic recoil. When I pull the trigger it smokes.

I finish my turn and move out of the way so my friend Josh can take his. We thought it'd be fun to come here and play. He loves it. What a fuckin' trip. Fire blasts from the barrel of the gun.

The Glock jams.

Josh gets the most scared look on his face. He swings around toward me -- swings the gun at me -- and asks if I'll clear the cartridge. Neither of us has any idea what we're doing. The smoke is real. The guns are real. The fear is real. This is not quite a game.

I've been here exactly once before, but they don't care who you are at the LAX Firing Range, as long as you're of age and as long as you pay. I brought Josh here on a lark, because we're fey dudes, and I don't know, I guessed in an ironic way that it would make us feel more like men.

We turn in the jammed gun and let the attendant take care of it.

I return to the line. I take my mark again and aim. "Kidneys, sternum, shoulder, legs . . ."

"WHAT STRUCK ME AS I WANDERED through the hall at E3" -- the Electronic Entertainment Expo -- "was the sheer intensity of the display space, and how that translates into the aesthetics of games that actually get produced," says Henry Jenkins. "If all the games are designed to debut at E3 in this space, where there's 5 zillion video-game noises playing at once, and enormous monitors the size of movie screens flashing images at you, then you can expect the gameplay to validate it, to equal that enormous intensity. Just as you start to understand the hyperbolic quality of Hong Kong cinema if you go to Hong Kong -- their films need to be hyperbolic to be heard over the roar of the city."

Henry Jenkins thinks the
packaging of childhood play
provides it an opportunity
to aspire to art.

Jenkins looks like both a mountain man and a genius. He wears a scraggly white-and-gray beard and has a landing strip of bald flesh running down the center of his head. He's comfortably out of shape. Director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, he has an infectious, concerns-be-damned enthusiasm for the future (though he has concerns). As editor of The Children's Culture Reader (1998) and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (1998), and author of some of the earliest academic writing on video games, he was the professorial voice Congress called on after the Columbine High School shootings. In the face of accusations that first-person shooters like Doom and Quake drove Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to kill 13 of their classmates, Jenkins' testimony provided perspective:


The media backlash against popular culture in the wake of the Littleton shootings reflects these three factors: our generational anxiety about the process of adolescence, our technophobic reaction about our children's greater comfort with digital technologies, and our painful discovery of aspects of our children's play and fantasy lives which have long existed but were once hidden from view. Read in this context, the materials of youth culture can look profoundly frightening, but much of what scares us is a product of our own troubled imaginations and is far removed from what these symbols mean to our children.

He makes a point of the public's warped view of the power of mass media by quoting a Gallup Poll conducted in the wake of Columbine. When asked about causes contributing to the massacre, 82 percent cited the Internet, 60 percent the availability of guns.

"I think our culture has some schizophrenic attitudes about games, to put it mildly," Jenkins says. "One is, yes, games are what you play when you're a kid. On the other hand, chess has a very different reputation." Jenkins suspects that the misapprehension of video games stems, in part, from the limits of the term. "In the physical world, there is an evolved vocabulary that distinguishes between play, game, sports and toys," he says. "All of those words are collapsed into the word game when we're talking about the general medium of video games."

What once took place in the invisible world of the back yard -- youthful exploration, youthful violence, the neighborhood bully using cops and robbers as a chance to beat up his next-door neighbor -- has now been moved indoors, packaged and made visible. And for an increasing number of intellectuals, it's this shift of childhood play into a packaged medium that provides it an opportunity to aspire to art.

"I think most of the great art of the 20th century was art that was made in a commercial context and was sold to the popular masses," Jenkins says. "At the end of the day, what's going to survive is what Gilbert Seldes identified in his book The 7 Lively Arts: jazz, comic strips, cinema, the musical. Not installation art or easel art, and certainly not in the American context."

Writing in 1924, Seldes was the first to insist that popular culture -- Charlie Chaplin, George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Al Jolson and Irving Berlin -- deserved serious attention from cultural critics. ("I've learned a great deal from your own work, Mr. Seldes," Marshall McLuhan told him during a 1958 interview at Ohio State University, "and you were in this field before any of us. And we've toiled along in your footsteps, as it were.") Seldes' definition of what makes "lively art" certainly sounds more appealing than what we think of as art on high. He argued that art should be deeply embedded in the everyday, that it should reflect our modern lives -- technological and urban, dynamic and kinetic, conventional and comfortable -- yet push the bounds of experimentation. Most of all, Seldes thought art should be emotionally engaging. It should be a rock concert or a drive-in movie -- date material, not lecture material.

"The art world is as governed by trend-setters as commercial culture is," says Jenkins. "We've seen it driven by fads, star performers who do shows for two or three years, get all the covers of the art magazines, and disappear into oblivion because they were the hot new thing. The difference is the art-world trendsetters are operating in response to a much narrower range of tastemakers, so it doesn't actually have to have a lot of substance or weight. Art doesn't have to appeal to a cross-section of the public in order for it to be celebrated by the museum circuit. So of the two, pop culture and high art, both of which are commercially driven contexts, pop culture creates work that touches more people and creates a broader range of aesthetic pleasure and experience than the work that appears at the Guggenheim or other institutions."

If anything is holding video games back, Jenkins argues, it is the way the hardcore gamers -- the fanboys -- govern the decisions of the salesmen, the programmers and the digital artists who create them.

I'M STANDING ON A ROOFTOP IN DOWNTOWN Los Angeles, holding a heavy rifle whose butt digs into my shoulder. My left hand is under the barrel, my right index finger curled around the trigger. I'm far away from my targets, so I zero in on them using a scope.

The only sound I hear is the distant din of the arcade mixed in with my heartbeat. It takes a moment for the beads of sweat to stop forming on my face, for my toe to stop tapping. I aim and fire at black-clad bodies, and their heads burst like melons painted the color of Caucasian flesh. Blam!  

Over time, my accuracy increases. (I've kept track, from 40 percent to 88.9 percent.) In the next level, I am cruising along in the back seat of a fast car. I'm supposed to free the president's daughter. I'm a sharpshooter. I'm going to win.

Konami's Silent Scope unfolds less frenetically than most games, more like a real mission might, with lulls and stops. You have time to breathe. There's a need for precision. You hunt for your opponents in the dark. It is a beautiful game, though every bit as violent as those that Congress has held hearings about.

Most games, especially in hackneyed genres like shooters or racing, are too thrilling. Their ability to embrace slowness, to replicate the rhythms of the physical world, may be the only way they can continue to impress.

MARCEL DUCHAMP IS WIDELY ACKNOWLEDGED as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, because he raised the possibility that a choice or an idea is as much a piece of art -- as much a creative act -- as an object. Eventually, he left even ideas behind. In 1923, Duchamp made it publicly known that he had ceased producing art, by which he meant his painting, his sculpture and the conceptual armature behind his work. (He actually continued to make objects in secret for the rest of his life.)

Four years earlier, Duchamp had fallen in love with a game: chess. He began referring to himself as a "chess maniac." "A game of chess is a visual and plastic thing," he told Pierre Cabanne near the end of his life, in a definitive book of dialogues.

Duchamp: . . . The pieces aren't pretty in themselves, any more than is the form of the game, but what is pretty -- if the word "pretty" can be used -- is the movement. Well, it is mechanical, the way, for example, a Calder is mechanical. In chess there are some extremely beautiful things in the domain of movement, but not in the visual domain. It's the imagining of the movement or of the gesture that makes the beauty, in this case. It's completely in one's gray matter.

Cabanne: In short, there is in chess a gratuitous play of forms, as opposed to the play of functional forms on the canvas.

Duchamp: Yes. Completely. Although chess play is not so gratuitous; there is choice . . .

Cabanne: But no intended purpose?

Duchamp: No. There is no social purpose. That above all is important.

Cabanne: Chess is the ideal work of art?

Duchamp: That could be.

In the decade after his abandonment of art, Duchamp played chess aggressively, pursuing his dream to become a master. He entered tournaments around the world, acted as the French delegate to the International Chess Federation and worked on a book about special endgame situations. As late as 1937, he wrote a weekly chess column for the Paris journal Ce Soir. Duchamp liked the fact that games have a purity no art can match: They are creative acts that leave no trace. He also liked gamers. "The milieu of chess players is far more sympathetic than that of artists," he told Cabanne. "These people are completely cloudy, completely blind, wearing blinkers. Madmen of a certain quality, the way the artist is supposed to be, and isn't, in general. That's probably what interested me the most."

Although American master Edward Lasker was quoted as saying that, had there been rankings in the '20s and '30s, Duchamp would have been among the Top 25 American players, his final assessment of the artist's game was dismissive: "He would always take risks in order to play a beautiful game, rather than be cautious and brutal to win."

I AM DANCING DANCING DANCING AT THE collective home of some fanboys I've just met.

Though networking cables snake through the house, connecting the computers in each of their bedrooms, the entire place has been tailored to showcase the front room and the boys' new 53-inch Hitachi 53sdx television set. At least three gaming systems are connected to it. I'm trying to learn what makes a great game from some true acolytes.

"You know something went wrong in the design process when a game becomes more tedious than enjoyable," says Mike. "It becomes like work." But at the same time he's telling me this, his friend Gus, who wears a T-shirt with the word "Geek" in big letters on the front, recounts the story of their buddy Mitch. Mitch would spend hours on end playing the massive multiplayer game Ultima Online, literally chopping digital wood to increase his carpentry skills. "Ultima Online's not the kind of game where you have to go find and kill dragons," Gus says. "For Mitch, it was a Zen kind of game."  

As we're talking, the guys set up Dance Dance Revolution, a game you play by leaping around in stocking feet on a large plastic pad, landing on the control buttons in sync with bass-heavy pop songs such as "Have You Never Been Mellow" and "Boom Boom Dollar." I'm awful at it.

After watching me struggle for a while, Gus brings out The Typing of the Dead, a game based on the first-person shooter House of the Dead 2. It's a typing tutorial, one of the last games Sega released before it discontinued the Dreamcast. In it, you peck out words on a Sega-brand keyboard to blow up your enemies. The onscreen avatars have Dreamcasts strapped to their backs and keyboards at their fingertips.

I have only a foggy notion of polygons, but I type upward of 80 words per minute. I play the game, walking through a dreary world, blowing up rabid dogs and dissolving zombies with words and phrases like "Gen Y," "Dot-Com Kids," "Young Punk," "Sink or Swim," "Washboard Abs," "Smile Therapy" and "Golf is seventeen holes too long." I'm real good. The Typing of the Dead is an experience that feels a lot like writing -- it involves 26 letters and an infinite number of choices.

My new friends are very frank: "You've found your game."

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