The Citizen Kane of Videogames




Ok, so most people think about videogames as a relatively young artistic medium. It therefore apparently makes sense to compare them to the early days of cinema. Partly this is because the early days of cinema are well documented (where figurative art, for example, goes back to cave paintings and is hard to summarise), and partly this is an attempt by people to shrug off the accusation that games are infantile and hollow distractions for children, and that they have nothing artistically interesting to offer.

I understand this comparison. I think it makes (superficial) sense to compare the two, and it would seem to be a good way to take games more seriously as an art form. Unfortunately, this has led to something of a meme (in Dawkins’ sense of the term) where gamers ask the question: “Where is The Citizen Kane of videogames?” The unspoken implication here is that games lack a properly interesting example with mass appeal that will make people think that they are a worthy medium in which to express important or interesting ideas about the human condition.

Spoilers: I don’t think this comparison holds up to scrutiny. Nevertheless, I am about to scrutinise it.


 Just silly

Early cinema and early games actually compare very well in that both were modest demonstrations of a new technology. Both were attempting to demonstrate a concept, not attempting to explore that concept and see what could be done with it. For example, the Lumiere brothers’ famous “L’arrivee d’un train a La Ciotat” was not attempting to say anything other than: Look! This is cool! Similarly, Pong was a demonstration that information could be displayed graphically in an interactive way on a television screen. You can play Pong on an oscilloscope too, and that says exactly the same thing. It’s cool because someone worked out how to do it, and it hadn’t been done before. Like pop-tarts, or dubstep.

One clear implication of “The Citizen Kane Argument” is that somehow Citizen Kane was the moment when cinema stopped playing around with slapstick and women tied to railway tracks, and became a way to express truths about what it is to be human. Somehow it got serious, and deserved to be taken seriously.

I think any cinephile would argue with this. Citizen Kane was released in 1941. Before that there were (among many, many examples) such hits as Battleship Potemkin” (1925), “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) and “Gone With the Wind” (1939). Even examples of what might be thought of as epitomising the sort of silliness of early films were becoming more exploratory and expressive. Charlie Chaplin released “The Great Dictator” in 1940. To parody the rise of Hitler in his own time in such a way is certainly brave, and I think easily arguably “Art”.

Of course I’m missing the point with these comparisons, and I haven’t even mentioned “Metropolis” (1927).  The point isn’t whether Citizen Kane was the first classic of cinema, or even whether it’s actually any good. The point is that games haven’t produced anything comparable. However, do not ignore the seemingly obvious fact that the reason people inside the games industry sigh when they hear the phrase “Citizen Kane of videogames” is exactly the same reason.

Putting aside whether or not Citizen Kane was actually a milestone in the history of cinema, another way to interpret the phrase is “Videogames don’t have a timeless classic with popular appeal.”

But of course games have produced classics which are still played today. Videogames have produced a Citizen Kane. Many, many times.

Myst and Doom were both released in 1993. Citizen Kane and Jungle Girl were both released in 1941. Both Myst and Doom were doing something arguably new with the technology. (Yes, I know that Wolfenstein and others did 3D first-person first.) Myst was attempting to tell a reasonably serious story in a straight-faced way, and demonstrate the graphical marvels that could be created using 3D computer modelling and lighting. Doom was attempting to tell a ridiculous story about demons on Mars but used the “whack-a-mole” mechanic of clicking things on a screen using a mouse as an analogue for firing a gun. (This mechanic happens to work very well, and is popular because it works, not because it’s mindless. Even though it is). Doom also had very big guns and lots of blood.



You could argue that Myst was the Citizen Kane of videogames. If you like. Actually Myst’s popularity probably had more to do with the fact that it was packaged with CD-ROM drives (all the rage at the time) than with any real appetite from the public for its po-faced tone and mad “logic”.

You could argue that Doom was the Jungle Girl of videogames. If you like. At least people actually bought Doom though. They did want to shoot demons on Mars. As much as they wanted to watch fifteen episodes of Jungle Girl, and happily paid to go to the cinema to do so.

The obvious truth here is that neither comparison makes any real sense. The rise of popular first-person shooting games like Call of Duty is no more surprising or childish than the rise of overblown nonsense like Michael Bay’s Transformer films.

If you’ve read Don Quixote (1605-1615) then you’ll know that it is a parody of the kind of populist books of knights and their adventures that were popular in the sixteenth century (and before). Are novels simply a way to distract the masses with bread and circuses? Is literature pointless and mindless?

Clearly there are thousands of games that are attempting to do something more than simply cash in on the public’s appetite for spectacle. Clearly there are thousands that aren’t. You can choose your own Citizen Kane of videogames. If you like. Thief, Deus Ex, Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, The Last of Us. Whatever. It’ll make no more sense than calling Shigeru Miyamoto “The Shakespeare of videogames”. (Even though he kind of is.)

Shakespeare was incredibly popular in his time, and deliberately sought out the widest market possible. The fact that he was, and is, successful shouldn’t make us hate him any more than the fact that Justin Bieber is successful should make us hate him.

Is Call of Duty the Elvis Presley of videogames (rubbish and derivative, but incredibly popular)?

Yes, games are often childish, repetitive and vacuous. Yes, they can be mindless and stupid, and popular at the same time. But I hope I’ve made my point by now that it is not the fault of the medium, it is the fault of the market; of the people.

Basically, it’s your fault. Although, given that you’ve read this far, it probably isn’t actually. Sorry. Bet you liked Doom though. I know I did.


One thought on “The Citizen Kane of Videogames

  1. Pingback: Violence | What's your game?

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