Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Past, Present, and Future of Computer Games

by Drew Martin
I recently watched two good movies about computer games. The first is Video Games: the Movie, produced by Zach Braff, a documentary which explores the past, present, and future of video games, and the influence of the Atari games that marked the adolescence of my generation. It validates the medium as a rich, interactive story-telling art form, and demands the same level of respect that the movie industry gets for its participating careers. There has been more buzz around the film Atari: Game Over, also made in 2014, but Braff's documentary is a much better watch, if you have to choose. And if you have all the time in the world, then watch both but also check out Indie Game, which is the best of the three in terms a compelling narrative, and is an all around slicker film. 

One thing I do appreciate about Video Games: the Movie is the discussion about gamification. One of the people interviewed in the film suggests that social media apps such as Facebook are really just forms of video games. This makes a lot of sense since there are actions one makes in return, hopefully, for points...or in the case of Facebook, likes or friends. Thinking about this term today, which is a buzzword now, made me realize that it is simply a human trait that has always existed both at a playful level but also with more gruesome consequences, such as collecting scalps, or marking on a fighter plane how many enemy craft a pilot shot down.

The second movie I want to point out is Computer Chess by Andrew Bujalski from 2013, which I watched last night. It is a brilliant film about a fictitious computer chess tournament set in the 1980s. It is shot with analog video camera and Bujalski cast computer techies for many of the roles. There are one or two characters who broke the illusion of it as a period piece and their presence made the film feel more like a contemporary low-budget Los Angeles indie film, but despite a few distractions in the acting, it is really an amazing film. I love the non-actors he cast and the different levels in the film. Yes, it is a dry comedy that focuses on a 1980's computer chess tournament but it is really an existential film. The tournament occupies an event room at a hotel (where they are all staying) but the same space is used in the early mornings as a couples therapy group led by a spiritual guide from Africa. 

The participants from both events overlap and the limitations of the 64 squares on the chess board are debated. One of the younger computer chess programmers at the tournament has the most thinking to do since he orbits both the seduction of one of the therapy couples who want to sexually liberate him, and the only female computer programmer at the event who also has her eyes on him. He discovers that his own chess program, which has been plagued by suicidal maneuvers throughout the tournament, actually does not want to play against other computers but rather with humans. When he suggests this to the professor lead of his team, a conversation begins about confirmation bias "where you're blind to all the things that will refute your theory and you're fixating on the things that will support it."