Game Changer: The Citizen Kane of Video Games

I’d hate for it to seem like all of us at RPI are in a large game of one-upmanship for this past month’s BoRT, but my game changer, what I would dedicate a museum exhibit to, would not be from the seventh generation of console gaming and not even from the medium of videogames itself. My game changer is Citizen Kane.

I’d like to start by just trying to break down what the Citizen Kane of videogames (CKoVG) means for the gaming community right now. First of all, we need to understand that by no means are we looking for a game that emulates Citizen Kane, instead we are looking for the similar cultural acceptance that film received when Orson Welles’ classic was released. I’m sure someone could make a biographical game of a newspaper magnate’s life interesting, but it would be old since we have already seen it (in fucking Citizen Kane). It might even come across as stupid and moronic to so closely adapt another medium’s keystone.

Instead, the CKoVG would have to open up the medium to a wider cultural acceptance and would lead to major media producers taking on the understanding that videogames are essential cultural objects with significant impacts. We might be there already, but we still don’t have the New York Times producing videogame reviews on a regular basis and there is not yet the Roger Ebert of gaming. Film Studies is a strong and plentiful discipline in academia while game studies is slowly coming around in that area.

While we haven’t achieved this yet, we must realize that this concept has had significant impact on the way we view games, especially in the seventh generation. Instead of games being ‘just games,’ the idea of a bounded text has completely died off with this sort of discourse. Games cannot be viewed just for their own narrative or ludic innovations, but must be able to impact the media ecology of contemporary culture (even if some want to keep a certain level of medium separation). There is a requirement now for videogames to not only add to their own medium’s history, but they have to be compared with the milestones of other mediums as well. With this, audience expectations expand as well, taking in the high points of gaming along with those of film, television and radio.

This discourse has also affected how Citizen Kane is viewed, as it is not seen as an individual film any longer. We don’t remember Welles’ performance or camera work any more, but we solely remember it as a benchmark of the medium. The long shots and incredible mise-en-scene is forgotten in favor of privileging the cultural impacts of the movie.

Yes, I’m sure it seems like I’m only responding to a current (and past and future) fad in gaming criticism and journalism (we’ll see if I’m wrong in a year or two), mainly brought about within the last 18 months or so, but imagine the museum exhibit that this could look like in a few decades. It’s 2025-2035 and video games passed the Citizen Kane moment a while back. The walls of the exhibit hall are lined with televisions, newspapers and consoles all showing the similarities between the aftermath of Citizen Kane and the aftermath of the Citizen Kane of videogames, timelines and histories of two mediums’ progression towards cultural legitimacy. The first film reviews of Citizen Kane are placed right along side those of the games that have been pivotal in the medium’s cultural acceptance. Clips of Citizen Kane are shown alongside games that made strides to equalize games with other mediums. Roger Ebert on At the Movies next to the Roger Ebert of gaming on On the Couch (my made-up gaming review TV show).

Now, I realize the implications of this and it’s a mixed bag. The discourse has created a teleology that lays the paving to legitimacy for games in the same ways as film and keeps it within that cultural paradigm. It suggests that only major media producers (network television/national newspapers) can bring about full acceptance. Do we want that? Do we want something different? I’m sure some people would like it and some wouldn’t. However, I can’t really argue against a larger spotlight on games from all arenas of society.

There are many game changers that I thought about writing on. The indie/AAA divide. Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. The standardization of controllers. These are all important things that came with or were highlighted in the seventh generation, but they didn’t control the discourse around the present and future of gaming like that of the Citizen Kane of videogames. They didn’t expand beyond the walls of the medium like this phrase has. It’s difficult to project what gaming will look like in five or ten years, but it is even more difficult to understand how people will view the objects of the seventh generation at that time.

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This post was written for Critical Distance’s Blogs of the Round Table discussion of October/November 2013.

BoRTlg

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2 responses to “Game Changer: The Citizen Kane of Video Games

  1. I’m not sure where the phrase came from, but the furthest I’ve seen it tracked back (and probably one of the more ridiculous articles I’ve seen it pop up in) is a 2009 article on IGN about Metroid Prime. Games are pretty different even in comparison to the last 4 years, never mind the last 8, and I’m glad there’s a lot more awareness of how weird it is to search for analogies between these two media. There was never a search for the “Tristam Shandy of film” in the earlier days of the medium, and no search for the “Hamlet of novels” before that.

  2. Pingback: A Simulated Retrospective, Part 4: Space | Higher Level Gamer

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