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Video games have long been seen as child’s play, but now they are the source of massive TV ratings and legitimate artistic expression. We talk to author Andrew Ervin about the transformation.

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  • Andrew Ervin, author of Bit by Bit: How video games transformed our world

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Video Games Evolution

Gary Price: Sporting events take all shapes and sizes. Every year brings around hundreds of baseball games, a Super Bowl, NCAA tournament games, and now video game championships. Video games, an entertainment form once written off as child’s play has become a path to college scholarships, big time paydays, and yes, even massive TV ratings.

Andrew Ervin: The League of Legends Championships gets streamed online and it can get more viewers than a World Series game. Video games are no longer a subculture, they are no longer just a little pastime. They are in many regards as big as Hollywood movies, they’re as big as professional sports.

Price: That’s Andrew Ervin, a critic and author who explores the past, present, and future of video games in his book, Bit By Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World. And he’s right — last year’s televised championship of the game “League of Legends” drew a staggering 36 million viewers, about 15 million more than watched the Cubs beat the Indians in game 7 of the world series and 5 million more than tuned into the decisive game 7 of the NBA finals. Ervin says whether we all notice it or not, video games have become as major an entertainment medium as anything else.

Ervin: There’s a perhaps a too easy parallel to draw with the history of cinema. That’s a useful analogy and it takes us pretty far, but not all the way. Where the early days of cinema it was merely a technical achievement; that cinema was great because all of a sudden there are moving pictures and all of a sudden there’s sound with them, eventually there’s color and all these different technical advances helped people who were thinking in terms of artistry and self expression, they started to use these tools top their advantage. Orson Wells certainly didn’t invent cinema, but he revolutionized it, he demonstrated that it is a valid artistic platform or art form. We saw the same sort of development with video game, where beginning in 1958 at a government lab on Long Island we had a game called Tennis for Two that by any definition today’s is crude and frankly boring. But every generation added to the technical prowess at our fingertips.

Price: Of course with growing popularity, video games have very famously been scorned. The game “Doom” has been blamed for emboldening the Columbine shooters in the months leading up to the massacre. More recently, parenting groups have come out against games like “Call of Duty” and “Mortal Kombat” for exposing children to increasingly realistic violence. Ervin says this isn’t so much of a problem with video games as it is something the entire culture needs to reckon with.

Ervin: People don’t understand that video games are just another form of expression. They’re still seen as something other than what we’re accustomed to from our storytelling media. A large part of that I think had to do with the perception of video games as violent. Most people when we think of video games we think of guns and militaristic shoot-em-ups, first person shooter games and it’s true that those are often the most popular and best selling games every year, just as the most popular and best selling films can be quite violent. But at the same time just as there is a lot of violence at the Cineplex, there are also the local art house theaters showing great thoughtful, quiet, contemplative films. Video games work the same way; there are an enormous number of really beautiful, smaller games or independent games made by individuals who are just trying to get some idea across.

Price: Ervin says important for people to see video games as more than just violent. He says there’s so much more to the vast library of games than just first person shooters.

Ervin: Video games can teach empathy, they can teach social skills, video games can teach high level problem solving, they can be as maddening in some regards as the most difficult crossword puzzles, they can teach us motor control in some regards. There are frivolous video games, there are video games that are as junky and as brain candy like as the worst Hollywood spectacles, but there are also video games that are working at a deep intellectual level and making us rethink the world and our own assumptions about it.

Price: Ervin says that as a child of the 1970s, the light bulb that video games could be more than just disposable entertainment went off in his mind when he was just a kid.

Ervin: It’s one of those experiences that right now we take it so for granted, it’s so mundane that we no longer think about it. There’s a game called Adventure on the Atari 2600, and this was the first game where there was an avatar on the screen that represented us as players. Of course, this is obvious now  — we have avatars in every game we play where all these characters and all these games, but the first time we saw that, or I saw that was this little innocuous square on an Atari 2600 that all of a sudden that was me somehow on the screen and I’m also sitting on the floor of the living room with the control with the joy stick in my hand. That represents a fundamental shift in what it means to be human, and that sounds like a grand statement, but I think it’s true. Walt Whitman famously said, “I am large; I contain multitudes,” and he was speaking about how of us as an individual has all of these different voices and personalities and attitudes, and we are complex difficult creatures. With that little square in Adventure, for the first time it wasn’t that I contain multitudes, it’s that I am multitudes. I am more than one thing at one time.

Price: According to Ervin, that once monumental realization has become somewhat ordinary to our modern society… but that doesn’t mean the feeling of multitudes isn’t still central to experiencing a video game.

Ervin: Right now, we see that across social media platforms. I’m this person sitting here talking to you and your listeners on the radio, I’m the man in the Atari game, I’ve got my Facebook profile, I’ve got my Twitter feed, I’ve got a persistent avatar in the game World of Warcraft, all of a sudden what it means to be an individual human being has been diffused across a lot of digital spaces. I think that’s more apparent in video games than anywhere else.

Price: And as time has gone on, Ervin says that experience has become even more engaging as the video game industry has grown more and more vast.

Ervin: The greatest strength of the video game media is that diversity of games and kind of games, and that goes along with the diversity of the players themselves. Everybody plays games now, every demographic every age group; it’s a very exciting thing. And I think that speaks to what makes this medium slightly different from books, which I love, obviously I’ve written a book. There’s interactivity to reading, there’s an interactivity to watching a movie. I don’t think we’re merely passive viewers. But when we play a video game there can be a social aspect that is enormously rewarding, and I think that communal experience of telling and sharing and experiencing stories together is very exciting.

Price: Ervin says that ultimately, like films before them, video games have transcended their status as a technical achievement and become something more powerful.

Ervin: The general idea that I started with is, can a video game be a work of art? Has the definition of what we consider art broadened enough or have video games progressed enough as a medium that they’ve become artful? And what I’ve discovered is that the later is certainly true, that there are video games right now that are doing all of the things that great movies do and great books do and great television does. We’re seeing that more in video games now. Across any platform you might have at your disposal there are artistic games that you can find that are going to make you think about the world differently and think about yourself differently. Even on your iPhone or your cell phone there’s a game called Passage, created by a man named Jason Rohrer. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has added this game to their permanent collection, which I think says something. It takes five minutes to play the game and within that five minutes you will experience an entire lifetime in the life of a character. It starts in youth the game ends in old age and eventually death, and to have what seems like a simple video game raise questions about mortality itself to me is tremendous.

Price: And Passage isn’t alone. Ervin also recommends the iPod game Monument Valley and The PlayStation 3 Game Journey for people looking for more artful video games to really make them think. Andrew Ervin’s look Bit By Bit is available now. For more information about all of our guests, visit viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.