Screenshot: Saving Private Rohrer

At the 2009 Game Developers’ eXchange (GDX), indie developer Jason Rohrer gave a unique talk that you should definitely check out on YouTube, whether you are into video games or you think they are just stupid entertainment for teen boys and young adults, called “‘Game’ and Other Four-Letter Words.” Rohrer is mostly known for Passage, a game about the meaning of life that will take you just five minutes to play: five minutes to grow old in-game, to love and to smell the roses, to grieve and to die; five minutes without power-ups, weapons or enemies. In his talk, Rohrer argues for this very gaming ethic: gaming as a way to think, as a way to experience life.

Obviously Passage—which Rohrer released as public domain—is not the kind of game that will earn millions of dollars, let alone half a billion. Call of Duty: Black Ops II, on the other hand, hit that number within 24 hours of its release on Nov. 13.

In Call of Duty, you keep shooting at things forever. This is a lot of fun, for sure, but it’s not the only thing to do in video games. Still, first-person shooters (FPS), such as Halo or Battlefield, are the leading genre for hardcore gaming right now, the bulk of the video game industry being an infinite catharsis of ammo and trolling around with buddies. Folks like Rohrer are exceptions to the rule. While most of the time they remain unnoticed and stigmatized—both in the video game arena and in the public world—at least some of them have a sense of humor about it. In his GDX talk, for instance, Rohrer makes this hilarious analogy between video game blockbusters and the porn industry. He argues that both are male-targeted, that no one cares about stupid cinematic cut scenes, that the plot is awful (the acting even worse) and that everyone wants to get to the action ASAP—and, of course, there is the obsession with head shots. But sharp as Roher’s analogy is, there is one problem: Steven Spielberg would never make a porn movie, and he is the one responsible for the Call of Duty method of gaming.

It’s true. Spielberg founded his own video game company, DreamWorks Interactive LLC, in 1995 and in 1999 produced the acclaimed video game Medal of Honor, a FPS set during World War II and published by Electronic Arts (one of the biggest video game companies in the world). At that time, most FPS had sci-fi and/or fantasy scenarios, but Spielberg thought it would be a great idea to immerse the gamer in a more realistic battlefield, like he did for audiences with Saving Private Ryan only a year before. Wouldn’t it be awesome for any gamer in the world to control the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan, instead of just being a passive watcher? This was exactly the idea behind Medal of Honor, and it was so successful that Spielberg sold DreamWorks Interactive to Electronic Arts a year later for a considerable amount.

In 2002, part of the team that made Medal of Honor created their own company, Infinity Ward, and were hired by Activision (another large video game company) to make a similar video game, Call of Duty. The rest is history (video-game history, at least), for Call of Duty would reshape the whole hardcore gaming market.

Rohrer’s conception of gaming builds curiosity and exploration into game mechanics, while Spielberg’s shooter sacrifices player freedom to provide an action-packed experience. In Passage there are no goals to achieve nor directions on how to play or what to do; you just walk to the right for as long as you can, exploring a vast, empty scenario with some treasure chests and obstacles such as trees or rocks that you can easily avoid until you die old. In Medal Of Honor you are always told what to do, where to point at, where to shoot; people die all around you while you try to kill to accomplish the missions you have been assigned.

Both are immersive games, but Passage idealizes a natural landscape while Medal Of Honor strives for a manicured lawn. These different types of immersion reflect the very different aspirations of the artists that built the games. Spielberg aims for a game on rails, and Rohrer for a truly open world.

Incidentally, it was a bit of legal trouble surrounding an overgrown lawn that first gave Rohrer the idea for Passage. In 2006, Jason Rohrer represented himself in court, fighting charges of “not cutting the grass.” Apparently, a local ordinance prohibited grass taller than ten inches, and that was against Rohrer’s conception of natural landscaping. He and his wife cultivated a natural meadow landscape around the house and they found the mowing ordinance to be a violation of their free speech. Finally, the court entered a decision of “not guilty” for all charges. They won, and that was a good day for video games, because the whole point of the case was of freedom as an emergent narrative, as something growing spontaneously, just like Passage.

When you play Rohrer’s miniature, you face a world of endless possibilities because there is just nothing to do there. You explore a scenario with obstacles that you can easily avoid, along with treasure chests that will give you useless points. Eventually, you can find love in the game. At this moment, you’ll be moving a couple instead of a single figure. This way you won’t be alone, but—as in life—your freedom is restricted and moving around obstacles is slightly more difficult. As you play, the figures grow older together and, although you accumulate points and open treasure chests, nothing seems to be worth it, as there is no enemy to beat or ultimate goal to achieve. Like a blade of grass in a meadow, you will grow free and unique each time. But, inevitably, she will die first and you will die a minute later. No matter how you play, this will always happen because gameplay was designed for you to experience the fragility of life.

Spielberg’s shooter, however, is a mowing machine. You always have a mission to accomplish and a roller coaster to ride on which, each second, you are told what to do, where to go and how to feel. But nothing seems to grow here; everything has been cut and reorganized for you in the shape of a familiar narrative, that of epic cinema. You are no longer a player, but a cameraman following director’s instructions. Needless to say, if Spielberg is the director, the ride is going to be awesome.

Pablo R. Balbontin studied Philosophy and Literary Theory in Spain, then moved to the U.S. to write a dissertation on Spanish litera- ture and media.

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