Could video games finally be heading for mainstream recognition?
We speak with Casey Baltes, Vice President at Tribeca Games & Immersive.
It's a well known fact that once a new medium gets introduced, it's often immediately rejected as corrupting the souls of the young and easily swayed. It happened to TV, it happened to radio, and, believe it or not, it even happened to writing which Plato and Socrates condemned as being inferior to face-to-face dialogue back in ancient Athens. And of course, video games have had their own share of controversies being blamed for everything from toxic behaviour to terrorist attacks since games like Doom, Mortal Kombat and GTA gained notoriety.
While most mainstream media nowadays have caught onto the fact that playing games doesn't automatically make you a coldblooded killer, video games are still often viewed as a kind of mindless entertainment. There are signs of that changing though. Hollywood has been digging into games recently, and during the Covid-19 pandemic games like Among Us and Animal Crossing found a brand new audience among people who don't necessarily consider themselves dedicated gamers.
Perhaps one of the surest signs that video games are gaining recognition came last year when the Tribeca Film Festival officially made room for games on its award program and even changed its name to Tribeca Festival to illustrate that cinema is no longer the sole focus. During THIS Games, a cross-media festival in the Danish city of Aarhus, we talked to Casey Baltes, Vice President at Tribeca Games, about how the festival promotes video games as an art form and how the medium might gain more recognition.
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"Previously, we were able to bring creators of games such as God of War, Red Dead Redemption II and Death Stranding to the festival, mainly to show audiences that maybe had not played games before, that there is an artistic approach to the medium," explains Baltes. "In 2021 we were able to add an element of discovery. Our official selection allowed us to bring new game developers and new games into the mix. And it also allowed us to bring independent titles, titles that had not been published before or titles that were newly discovered, to the table. With this evolution we were able to show, for a lack of a better word, some of the bigger blockbuster games out there, alongside titles that are not yet that well-known."
Clearly, the focus is on narratively or visually distinct experiences that favour a more or less "artistic" approach. But that doesn't mean that the selection process for Tribeca is limited to games with a traditional story, as the aim is to highlight all sorts of interactive experiences, explains Casey Baltes. Even a wacky title such as Trombone Champ, released too late to be part of this year's selection, nonetheless gets highlighted by Baltes.
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"What strikes me about a game like Trombone Champ is the story that I'm reading in the newspapers, the stories that I'm seeing in videos of people playing, who have never played it before. From actual trombone players picking it up trying to see what it's about, to the crazy parties of people modding a trombone and playing it together. That dialogue, in a cultural sense, of the stories that are created outside of the game, is just as much a part of the cultural dialogue, as what film, TV, immersive experiences and games can push outward into society."
How we "talk" about games in a broad sense - the way we describe them in YouTube videos, in conversation or write about them in articles and reviews - plays a huge role in broadening their appeal, tells Baltes: "I spent about ninety percent of my time talking to people who don't play games. And there is a little bit of a language gap between those that regularly play games versus those who may have played just a single game or have never played games in the past. And I think what is missing in the conversation about games can almost be drilled down to the most simplistic language you would use to speak about any cultural form. How you are talking about things you've read or seen lately."
Besides the language, all our quests, levels, power ups, fps and such that may not make much sense for non-gamers, there are other barriers as well of course. While books can be read for free at the library, and current series and films are never more than a subscription or a movie ticket away, games require a heavier investment. And even if people can afford it, not everyone is happy with a console under their TV or a monstrous gaming PC spewing all sorts of RBG-fireworks in their bedroom. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is understanding games; how they control and their internal logic, which can be hard to grasp if you didn't grow up glued to a Game Boy, Nintendo DS or a similar system. That is why at Tribeca, a major focus is on presenting games in a way that also appeals to non-gamers.
"We usually start off with the story or concept. We start off with describing it like you would anything else," explains Casey Baltes. "It actually helped to work in the immersive space a bit, because more often than not, you would start by describing a VR project with what it is and then of course describe the platform and technology next. I feel the barrier for the controller or for any number of things is lessened when you have that immediate interest at the onset versus starting with explaining, 'this is a PC game, you need a controller' and so on."
With games long ago surpassing movies financially and now also catching up in terms of recognition, we are perhaps starting to see a convergence of talent. Examples include the game director Sam Barlow who directed and produced three separate movies for his latest project, Immortality, or, moving in the other direction, Josef Fares who started out as a successful film director in Sweden, and last year won Game of the Year with It Takes Two.
Because of this, Casey Baltes believes that games and films will become more closely aligned in the future: "There are a lot of tools, and knowledge that can be shared across industries to better help cross collaboration in a genuine way. Understanding what are maybe some of the strengths of that technology versus some of the weaknesses or the learnings of industries, to be able to actually share in a language of storytelling, cinematic language, real time technology and production, those things will overlap."
Of course, whether video games will one day be consumed and discussed with the same ease as books, films and sports remains to be seen. But things are certainly moving in the right direction and one thing is sure. Games can no longer just be dismissed as mindless entertainment.