Frantic illumination

In many ways we live in the flashing lights of the world of the videogame arcade; a blitz of colour and bleeps saturated with boredom. Nothing ever happens in an arcade, there’s only the electric gloss to distract your eyes, ears and mind from the emptiness of it all. It’s a world for teenagers, but now it’s not only teenagers who have nowhere to go and nothing meaningful to do. For adults, the noise and lights decorate the boredom of their homes. The more boring and more meaningless things get, the louder and flashier the special FX must become. TV, film, videogames – all could be accused of administering this sort of spectacular anaesthetic. But it’s videogames we notice now as being the numbing agent that helps us forget, the murky lake we immerse ourselves in to forget about Real Life.

Unlike videogames, TV and film have their classics and exceptions to prove they aren’t merely forms of social control. Of course there are outstanding videogames that rival art in any other media, but none have yet become part of acceptable culture, part of a canon. The call of late has been for a videogame canon, either made up of existing games or to be embarked upon after a future game scales the supposed peaks of that quintessentially canonical work of cinema; Citizen Kane.

But this begs the question – what good has come out of cinema in the last 20-odd years (the years of home consoles and PCs, of post-arcade videogames)? Like in videogames, there have been a small number of notable exceptions hidden amongst a trash vortex of the unremarkable. The majority of the canonical classics of cinema came about before the videogame crash of 1983.

TV is different, though. I’ve been interested in television recently. Older stuff, inevitably. Programmes shown on TV right now seem to be about office work more than anything else and that doesn’t appeal to me. The structure of almost every ‘reality’ programme puts contestants/workers under a small group of evaluating managers. These managers – ‘experts’ – set gruelling tasks with vague directions and demand individuals work as a team while simultaneously competing against and undermining each other. Oh and they have to win over the audience as well. The other form of ‘reality’ on TV is rolling news, which spends most of its time veering between the aesthetics of boredom and the aesthetics of rabid paranoia.

Paul Virilio talks about television “flattening all forms of representation, thanks to its abrupt use of presentation, whereby real time definitely outclasses the real space of major artworks, whether literature or the major arts.” So rather than being interested in television that flattens with “real time” – either by being recorded and/or broadcasted now – the programmes I’ve been interested in are almost all avi files or youtube videos downloaded from the internet. In fact, one can’t really call them ‘programmes’ or ‘shows’ as the time that they were programmed to be shown is often long in the past.

Managing exist in both “real time” and timeless internet (infinite) reruns, quality TV is known to reside on the US subscription channel HBO. HBO makes good, worthwhile TV programmes (or so I’m told – to be honest I’ve never seen a complete set of any of their shows as they tend to go on forever, though I catch the odd episode or series) that don’t constantly insult the viewers’ intelligence or attention span. Much of it is like an American version of the stuff the BBC used to make, before it developed its own submissive ‘special relationship’ with the culture of that country. Unafraid to be slow-paced, thoughtful and troubling, this sort of television is notable for being so easy to watch episodes of it back to back for hours on end. I would be loath to watch a three-hour film, but not three episodes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (replace with HBO show of your liking). Videogames can have the same effect, quickly eating up time at a lugubrious tempo.

What is interesting is that much of the canonical films and TV were either made in the past or by state-subsidised institutions (Europe) / subscription channels (US). To be thought of as commercially viable, TV/film/videogames have to be exciting in one way only; to work like the audio/visual equivalent of a sugar rush or a line of cocaine. To exist without this requirement needs alternative sources of funding. Videogames have come of age in a time of massive cut-backs to the welfare state, to a dismantling of the infrastructures that subsidise culture and the arts. Left to its own devices, the market throws up more and more of the same. Videogame development is expensive and when profits are your only metric of success then artistic risk-taking is not an option.

This doesn’t mean that the pace of a box-set doesn’t exist in videogames. There are overload-style games, but the big ones right now – the sandboxes especially – have as a mean tempo one of cautious calm punctuated by occasional action. They are large, long and slow. But they’re also often quite dull. Red Dead Redemption has the dignified pace of a quality box-set, but says nothing. Games like this are large in order to give players ‘value for money’. They are slow because it takes too long and costs too much to make enough stuff to fill them with. Unlike Mad Men – which is loved for the clothes and the smoking and the period references, but also for the way it explores modern feelings about advertising, propaganda, consumerism, health, sex and sexism – Red Dead is for the most part an uncanny-valley pastiche for the sake of it. The question is, if we want more than that, do we have to do more than just pay for it?