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The Fragility of Video Games as Art

Years ago, I joined the conversation about whether video games constitute “art.” The late Roger Ebert spawned a thousand hot takes by refusing to classify them as such, arguing that their winnability set them aside from classical art forms that cannot be won or lost, only experienced. I wrote this on the subject almost five years:

“Classic [Nintendo Entertainment System, hereafter “NES”] and [Super Nintendo Entertainment System, hereafter “SNES”] games are nowadays mostly playable only via emulation. Imagine if you could only watch The Thief of Baghdad or The Birth of a Nation by “emulating” (or actually using!) an early 20th century era projector and screen. Of course, that isn’t the case – you can watch either one on an device that has Netflix on it. Similarly, imagine if the works of Shakespeare could only be read on 17th century folio paper and were essentially illegible on anything printed after that time. Such a reality would be absurd, but it’s basically the issue that plagues video games: their greatness, with precious few exceptions, isn’t transferrable across eras.”

If you are not a frequent gamer, allow me to take a step back and walk us through what either of us would need to do in order to play, say, Excitebike, a game that launched alongside the NES in 1985. I basically have three options, which I will present in descending order of fidelity:

  1. Play the game from a physical cartridge on either an original NES or one of the systems it was ported to, such as the Game Boy Advance.
  2. Play it from the NES Classic, an official Nintendo product launched in 2016 with 30 built-in games remastered for HDTVs.
  3. Emulate it using specialized software on a PC/Mac (a hassle if you aren’t technically minded) or within a web browser, both of which are legally dubious.

None of these options are ideal if you are accustomed to the seamless on-demand exprience of video/audio streaming and digital books in particular. And would you believe that Excitebike is probably a relatively easy game to dust off, since it: a) was released before the era of online gaming and downloaded content and b) is maintained by Nintendo, one of the world’s most historically conscious and nostalgic companies. Many games will not hold up as well.

Excitebike

As I see it, there are at least three major obstacles to the preservation of video games as art:

1. Disappearance of specialized hardware

Most games are designed to exploit the particular hardware of a given system. Super Mario 64 was constructed around the Nintendo 64’s distinctive analog stick, while GoldenEye 007 forever altered video game control schemes through its use of the trigger-like Z button on the same console. The Wii is home to countless games requiring motion controls, including its pack-in, Wii Sports, which is the best-selling console game of all time. Smartphone/tablet games are no different, with controls incorporating taps, swipes, and other gestures.

What happens when all this hardware is no longer readily available? We already know the answer, given the enormous demand that has chased the limited supply of NES Classic and SNES Classic consoles that bundle their respective titles into ready-to-play hardware. People will likely not play or experience those games anymore, unless they have a really convenient option for doing so (and DIY emulation doesn’t count).

Games that are emulated or ported to other platforms lose some of their original design, in a way that a book, painting, album, or movie cannot. For example, if I play Excitebike on my comptuer with a keyboard and infinite save states, that’s a very different experience than playing it on an original NES. In comparison, the differences between watching Citizen Kane on my phone and in an arthouse cinema seem minor.

2. Online functionality

Online gaming took center stage beginning in the late 1990s, with consoles such as the Sega Dreamcast and Microsoft Xbox incorporating internet connectivity infrastructure right out of the box (previous systems had required various aftermarket peripherals). The spread of broadband interent further fueled the rise of franchises that not only had online multiplayer functionality, but in some cases had nothing but that (the massively popular Destiny 2 is online-only, for example).

Of course, a sustainable online-only or online-mostly game requires a healthy community. Some games, such as World of Warcraft, have sustained their fanbases for years, while others have shut their doors after interest waned, rendering them unexperiencable to posterity.

Nintendo offers some prime examples of the tenuous nature of online games. Its Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service, which powered many games on both the Wii and the DS, shut down in 2014 becuase it had been hosted on 3rd-party servers that were acquired in a merger. No one can go online anymore in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin or any other title reliant on the Wi-Fi Connection platform. Similarly, the company shut down Miiverse recently, leaving the lobby of the online shooter Splatoon weirdly vacant; it had previously been populated by virtual characters who, if you approached them, presented drawings made by players and saved to Miiverse servers.

3. Software updates

This flaw is not one I considered in my 2013 post, but I now think it may be the most significant of the three. To understand why, we have to ask first: Why even bother with game consoles in the first place?

A console is basically a shortcut. Instead of having to build your own gaming PC or purchase a super high-end mobile device and keep updating it every few years, you can purchase a standardized piece of hardware that will be good for at least 5-7 years before a successor is released. Plus, you can reset assured that any title released for the system will work on the hardware you purchased.

Consoles were once super distinct from PCs, since they had essentially no user-facing operating system. You couldn’t dig into their data management setups, change their network connections, or do anything you take for granted on other platforms, since they didn’t have any such features.

That began to change when consoles became internet-enabled and gained media playback capabilities, with the DVD-playing PlayStation 2 and Ethernet-equipped Xbox perhaps the first real inflection points. Today’s games often require enormous patches or updates to remain playable and secure, as do the system OSes they run on.

Updates are a particular weakness for phone/tablet games. Consider the iPhone: Every single year, it receives multiple new models, with fresh software APIs, updated chips, different screen resolutions/sizes, etc. Like clockwork, the presenters at the Apple keynotes talk about how these new features will make the device “console-level.” Yet iOS and Android are still most synonymous with free-to-play gambling games, which account for enormous amounts of all platform revenue, than with more in-depth gameplay. Why?

I think the endless upgrade cycle is partly to blame. One iOS game developer decided to leave the App Store altogether recently, saying (emphasis mine):

“This year we spent a lot of time updating our old mobile games, to make them run properly on new OS versions, new resolutions, and whatever new things that were introduced which broke our games on iPhones and iPads around the world. We’ve put months of work into this, because, well, we care that our games live on, and we want you to be able to keep playing your games. Had we known back in 2010 that we would be updating our games seven years later, we would have shook our heads in disbelief.”

There’s simply no guarantee that a game developed for any mobile platform will run even a few years later without proactive updates to save it from obsolescence. This issue doesn’t exist as much on consoles (since they are designed to be fixed systems with long lifespans), and especially not on older consoles. I can put a cartridge in a 1998 Game Boy and, barring any electrical or technical issues, be certain it will load and play as intended. I can’t say the same about an iOS game that hasn’t been updated since 2016.

The future of gaming history

The software update issue was raised by a blogger, Lukas Mathis, in a post about the wrongness of various other tech bloggers’ predictions about Nintendo. Between approximately 2011 and 2016, it was very fashionable to proclaim that Nintendo was failing and headed the way of Sega, i.e., toward being a software developer for other people’s hardware, instead of a hardware maker in its own right (Sega exited the console business in 2001, only ten years after its sweeping success with the Sega Genesis). A few choice quotes (all emphasis mine):

John Gruber in 2013, in a post comparing Nintendo to BlackBerry: “No one is arguing that 3DS sales haven’t been OK, but they’re certainly not great…Here is what I’d like to see Nintendo do. Make two great games for iOS (iPhone-only if necessary, but universal iPhone/iPad if it works with the concept). Not ports of existing 3DS or Wii games, but two brand new games designed from the ground up with iOS’s touchscreen, accelerometer, (cameras?), and lack of D-pad/action buttons in mind. (“Mario Kart Touch” would be my suggestion; I’d buy that sight unseen.) Put the same amount of effort into these games that Nintendo does for their Wii and 3DS games. When they’re ready, promote the hell out of them. Steal Steve Jobs’s angle and position them not as in any way giving up on their own platforms but as some much-needed ice water for people in hell. Sell them for $14.99 or maybe even $19.99.”

MG Siegler that same year: “I just don’t see how Nintendo stays in the hardware business. … I just wonder how long it will take the very proud Nintendo to license out their games.”

Marco Arment, responding to Siegler: “I don’t think Nintendo has a bright future. I see them staying in the shrinking hardware business until the bitter end, and then becoming roughly like Sega today: a shell of the former company, probably acquired for relatively little by someone big, endlessly whoring out their old franchises in mostly mediocre games that will leave their old fans longing for the good old days.

There’s endless more material like these pronouncements, all of it built on several (in my opinoin flawed) assumptions about the future of gaming: First, that it will from now on be irreversibly dominated by buttonless pieces of glass (i.e., phone and tablet screens) and the race-to-the-bottom pricing they encourage; second that gaming-specific hardware eventually won’t matter, since everything will be done on general-purpose computing devices; and third that developers like Nintendo can build sustainable businesses selling high-quality games for $20 or less, despite the enormous resources required to make something as daring as Super Mario Odyssey.

If the assumptions are correct, there seems little prospect of even today’s most famous games being preserved as “art,” since they’ll have to be endlessly redeveloped and remonetized to be sustainable. But what if the assumptions aren’t correct? What if mobile no more cannibalizes consoles that PCs did in the 1990s?

The punchline to those quotes is that Nintendo ended up selling 70 million 3DSes (almost on par with the PlayStation4 at the end of 2017) and saw the Switch have the best first year sales of any home console in U.S. history. It accomplished all of that while keeping online functionality and software updates relatively minimal in its first-party titles and going all-in on the bizarre, distinctive hardware of the Switch.

Switch

It’s hard to describe what the Switch does if you don’t own one. It’s essentially a console that works like any other, hooked up to a TV, but that can be also picked up and taken with you without any degradation in picture or play quality. It has a touchscreen tablet that can be combined with two hardware controllers with numerous buttons and joysticks (they slot onto the sides of the tablet), or simply used on its own as a Hulu Plus media player.

My first encounter with the Switch had me going back to my phone and thinking of the latter “this feels old.” Perhaps tapping on a phone screen isn’t the “end of history” of video gaming it has sometimes been presented as; maybe there’s a place for more sophisticated hardware after all. I hope so, since the production and preservation of such systems will be crucial if we are to ever have a real “art history” of video gaming.

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