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Video Game Invasion: The History of a Global Obsession
game: Video Game Invasion: The History of a Global Obsession
four star
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: GSN
developer: Beantown
date posted: 12:00 AM Tue Nov 23rd, 2004
last revision: 12:00 AM Tue Nov 23rd, 2004

Click to read.Giving four stars to a documentary produced by the Game Show Network kind of gives me a bad feeling in my stomach. On the one hand I don't want to fall into the classist snobbery that insists nothing good can come from the higher channels on the dial (or from anything on TV for that matter). On the other hand, Video Game Invasion: The History of a Global Obsession is a real player in a field that just isn't very crowded.

Cable channels have been hurting games lately. Well, maybe the schlock that passes for videogame coverage? on most channels doesn't exactly HURT the games themselves (and probably, like spam mailings, they work to sell more copies of the games), but they hurt me as a gamer. Physically. I cringe whenever MTV2's Video Mods comes on. The entire series is nothing but a giant EA advertisement--videogame characters lipsynching to crappy pop songs is not my idea of creative modification. And anyone who knows anything about making movies with game engines knows that the show should really be called Video Machinima, which further demonstrates the ignorance of that show's producers.

Last year SpikeTV weighed in with their utterly sh*thole Video Game Awards. The VGAs were so incredibly flawed that it was impossible to sit through the whole thing. Any awards show that gives characters in the game a prize is not worth watching. I've attended the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Awards several times and never once seen a videogame character awarded a statuette -- I guess the videogame characters just DON'T ACTUALLY MAKE THE GAMES. This fact that videogame characters aren't alive is just one of the things networks like Spike get wrong. And if you thought G4/TechTV would be any better, well, it is only marginally so. The game coverage there might be more legitimate, but we haven't seen anything really informative come out of their production departments.

I wish that I could say that academia was any better, but it hasn't been so far. The Media Education Foundation, for example, made the entirely wrongheaded documentary Game Over: Gender, Race & Violence in Video Games (2001), which features a whole bunch of psychologists and sociologists talking about how bad games are in ways that simply reveal that they haven't actually played a game before. These are the kinds of academics who observe? gamers playing games rather than playing themselves. It has the additional onus of predating only slightly the rise of game studies as an actual academic (inter-)discipline and now seems dated beyond its years.

Other than some industry-oriented documentaries? (I'm not sure where one would put the annual Future of Videogames?/E3 Access series NGV produces), there's not much out there for people really wanting to harness the power of sound and light to recount the history of gaming. PBS just produced a documentary called The Video Game Revolution: History of Gaming, and it's a good watch. Typically PBS,? it clocks in at two hours, feels like three, and features pretty thorough history and then follows up with some decent analysis/prediction. It is lighthearted? for PBS, and I enjoyed it. But there's always room on the couch for one more player.

And, finally, that's where Video Game Invasion: The History of a Global Obsession fits in. It easily rivals the PBS fare in content, and in presentation it definitely outpaces all of its competition with snappy visuals, great design, and loads of archival footage of games and game-related media. The feature presentation is a 90 minute documentary, hosted by Tony Hawk. It's apparent that this doc was meant to be broadcast on TV, as every eight minutes is punctuated by Tony's intro and outro of the topics. Probably the least enjoyable aspect of the feature is this obviously made for TV? feel, and the opening scenes didn't help allay our fears that this would be yet another videogame PR move, disguised as legitimate mediamaking, gone awry.

Early on, Tony Hawk says, If you think the history of the videogame invasion is all about cool graphics and cutting-edge technology, well, you're right.? Uh-Oh. Then, he goes on to describe how, in the world of videogames, game developers are rock stars? and Willy Higginbotham is first rock star of them all.? Uh-Uh-Oh-Oh.

Fortunately, that's about the low point. From there on Videogame Invasion gets a lot better. (In all fairness, Tony follows up by saying that the history of games is also about determination, innovation, creativity, and luck.) Interviews with a lot of developers like Peter Molyneaux and John Romero, industry moguls like Trip Hawkins and Nolan Bushnell, and gaming journalists like EGM's Dan Shoe? Hsu, and (much more impressively) GameGirlAdvance's Jane Pinckard. There is a good array of industry folks represented here, and it lends the proper air of expert authority.

Anywhere that air of expert authority might fade is filled in with Steve Kent's commentary and/or adaptations of his writing. Kent's book, The Ultimate History of Videogames, is often cited as one of the most interesting and thorough accounts of gaming's past. The book is made up of anecdotes and stories from the people involved, giving the feel of a very social? history of the gaming industry, and readers of the book often have the feeling that they're being let in on? some inner circle of those in the know. The reliance on Kent's book in Videogame Invasion is not an accident or a bad move. In fact, that same feeling of getting the inside story on industry history is present when viewing the film, and makes for a quick pace and enjoyable experience.

Of course, Videogame Invasion does focus dramatically on the industry. You won't find much discussion of art gaming, machinima, game studies, interactive fiction/drama, or alternate reality gaming. These niche areas of interest, which fascinate us, but often do not penetrate mainstream gaming media, are still not represented, which just means there's still room on our couch to fill.

The DVD includes a good amount of extra footage, mostly interview clips. The soundbytes about people's first/favorite game is a great gem. And the extra interview footage with Molyneaux is also really interesting. Most interesting, I think, is the interview with Tony Hawk about gaming. It's impressive to see a franchise star discuss games and gaming so eloquently, and it made me think of the stories Trip Hawkins relates about Madden's insistance that the first version of Madden Football include the full number of players on the field. It helps us understand what might be an important and often unrecognized key to a successful franchise.

In all, I can definitely recommend Video Game Invasion for a watch, if not a purchase. As an educator teaching the history of videogames, I'm keen to utilize elements of this disc in-class. I hope that other cable networks take a cue from GSN and begin to produce game-oriented material of a similar quality.  There are so many interesting topics to cover, yet nobody seems all that interested in making anything other than commercials. Kudos to Beantown for creating a documentary that is enjoyable, sharply designed, and more informative that just about anything else out there.

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