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Watching ourselves steal cars

November 06, 2005|Thomas de Zengotita | Thomas de Zengotita is a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine. He is the author of "Mediated" and teaches at New York University.

THE WORLD of Big Entertainment is aflutter. A significant threshold has been crossed. Domestic sales of video games and consoles generated $10 billion in revenue last year, surpassing the $9.4 billion taken in at cinema box offices. No wonder they're making more and more movies based on video games, rather than the other way around.

But people are still inclined to interpret the success of these games simply by contrasting them with older venues. Hence, the conventional wisdom: Video games are "interactive"; players get to "participate," whereas TV and movies cater to mere viewers, the "passive" consumers of a bygone age.

The conventional wisdom is right as far as it goes. But the interactive/passive distinction misses the magic, the dimension of the gaming experience that is truly new -- and perfectly adapted to larger cultural trends. The ultimate allure of the video game resides in its form.

"The medium is the message," the most quoted of Marshall McLuhan's epigrams, justifies the existence of "media theory." It says the way we get information may have more influence on us than the content. It suggests that what a controversial game such as "Grand Theft Auto" has in common with an innocuous one like, say, "Tetris," may be more significant than you would ever guess -- given the hysteria stirred up by graphic game violence.

But to appreciate the importance of what these games have in common, you have to place them in a larger context -- the context I call "virtual revolution." Instead of the dreary old Industrial Age scenario pitting workers against capitalists, we now have a glamorous new post-everything scenario pitting spectators against celebrities.

The rise of reality television is the most obvious manifestation of virtual revolution, but spectators are swarming over the barricades on other fronts as well.

Other reality shows, under other names, are flourishing -- all devoted to one thing: paying attention to people refusing to be spectators. Think of all the mini-celebrities who dominate the chat rooms -- and all the bloggers, and those life journals describing and depicting daily activities and intimate moments, to say nothing of the web-cam sites that broadcast people's lives as they live them.

Consider raves and flash-mobbing, iPods and podcasting, disease-awareness walkathons, karaoke bars, focus groups, talk radio call-ins, e-mails to every news show, cellphone camcorders, homemade porn, sponsored sports teams for tots, and the fact that any high school band can burn a CD and Photoshop ironically zany or darkly brooding cover art and posters of professional quality at next to no expense.

The need for acknowledgment is the most basic of human needs. For centuries, the famous and the celebrated hogged it all. Invisible spectators could do no more than gawk and follow. But there was always a hidden and ironic side to this relationship. Spectators, in their hidden-ness, enjoyed a special centrality. The gratifications of voyeurism were very real, and vicious gossip provided compensation to the anonymous, a sop to their envy, an expression of their implicit but enormous power: the power to judge, to choose, to buy the ticket or change the channel.

At the end of the day, it was always up to spectators to make or break the stars. An unconscious sense of sovereignty was conferred upon them, upon those to whom all performances are addressed. A corresponding sense of entitlement, a need for public significance proportional to that implicit centrality, took root in the collective soul. What was wanting were the means.

So when new technologies spawned venues that allowed spectators to take back some of the attention they had been giving for so long, they didn't hesitate. They seized control of the limelight and began to reposition it -- toward themselves.

Now back to the form of the video game. Once you've mastered the console, you aren't aware of that dimension of the situation anymore. You fuse with your avatar. You become the agent on the screen. You get to perform and you get to watch. The powers and pleasures of both types of centrality -- spectator and star -- merge into a single flow. Some new level of synaptic closure is attained, and an unprecedented form of human gratification is yours.

I guess that's worth $10 billion.

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