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The North American Innovation Crash of 1993


The Ombudsman of the Washington Post has this to say about “innovation”: “I’m wondering, and readers are too, whether there’s just a bit too much innovation, too fast.” Aren’t we all always wondering that? Isn’t that what Facebook and Twitter feeds devolve into every month? There’s always something new that is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Andy Rooney made a pretty great living off just that sentiment for, I don’t know, thirty years? But not even Andy Rooney was against innovation for innovation’s sake (well, maybe sometimes — but only because there was a paycheck in it for him) and I don’t think that Pexton is, either.

What Pexton is arguing against isn’t exactly “too much innovation”: what he labels innovations are really just adjustments to form that the Post is making to reach the audience it once had without really even thinking about form. You got your news from a newspaper, and the Post was a newspaper. But now people get their news from all over, and so the Post is trying to get itself into many of those places. So, great. But he’s right, too — they don’t seem to have given much thought to what these new forms should do, only what they can do.

After the jump, what happens when you get wrapped up in the packaging, in the form.

[Yep. That’s Joe Lieberman shaking hands with Captain Kangaroo at a hearing on smutty video games. I love America!]

These were games for a video game system called the 3DO. Never heard of it? (Okay, nerd– many of them were available for other obscure systems, too, but nobody’s ever heard of those systems either, so let’s just go with this one.) You’re not alone. It was around when the Super Nintendo was around, and you’ve heard of that, right? The deal with the 3DO was that it could handle FMV (full motion video) games. Meaning that they were like movies. Now, as you ought to be able to tell from the examples above, there wasn’t all that much care taken with their content. This wasn’t always the case, but pretty much always, it was the case. They were essentially hollow, shallow forms — wow! video in a video game!

The only FMV game I knew as a kid was in the arcade in the mall, thirty miles away. It was called Dragon’s Lair.

So, see that part at 00:18 where your character falls through the bridge? That’s the first time you’re expected to “interact” with the game. And, unless you were some sort of psychic or had spent a lot of time standing in front of Dragon’s Lair, it was also probably the last time you “interacted” with the game. I never got past that part. Never. As I recall, you had to press one of the two buttons or move the joystick at the exact right moment to advance. To me, it always seemed like I had already died by falling through the bridge, so I’m not sure I even bothered to press a button, much less the right one. Nothing the player has done up to that point will have produced any change in what is happening onscreen, so why would you start pressing buttons or using the joystick then? There was nothing in the game to tell you that that was the right time to start.

These games were all like that — literally unplayable: there was nothing for you to do for almost all of the game’s play time. You just sat there, watching them play themselves. I am baffled by the decision to produce these games. They are games, after all. See, the form requires participation from the player. You can create a game that works like a movie, but then, really, it’s a movie. (In fact, in the future, we have those now. They’re called DVDs. You know how you go into the DVD menu and select different options on your way to playing the movie? Well, that’s basically how these games operated, only they were much shorter and really, really, really bad.) It seems like a huge failure in understanding the form.

I think that’s ancillary to what Pexton’s saying: all of this stuff that the Post is doing is cluttering up the Post‘s website. It takes a long time to load, and that’s a problem. And the more stuff you add on, the slower it will get. Instead of reaching more readers, it will reach fewer. “Staffers say that sometimes they feel as if the innovations are just tossed against a wall to see what sticks, without careful thought as to which of them will enhance and shore up The Post’s reputation and brand.” When the emphasis is placed on “innovation” of forms as divorced from a consideration of the purpose of those forms, it is just clutter.

Yes, George. Exactly: “A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” That’s the thing about forms. If you’re just using it for the sake of using it, it’s probably going be a failure. But, as often as this is adduced a failure of “experimental” or “innovative” writing/music/art, I find that, for the most part, the shoe is on the other foot. Just because something has been tested and used over and over again is no reason to blindly keep adopting it. True, it doesn’t clutter up the audience’s experience of the work with a lot of new stuff that they need to take into account and process, but it also doesn’t adjust at all to the changing world around it. If the Post had just stayed a newspaper — ink on paper, no social reader, no 108 blogs, no website at all, would Pexton even have a forum for his piece? Almost certainly the answer is “no.” And you and I definitely wouldn’t be reading it.

That’s why I want to leave you with this, from Michael Martone’s recent interview with the FC2 blog:

The mission might have to be rethought as the alternative publishing model collapses. Everything anymore is for the nation’s largest publishers too challenging, innovative, or heterodox. That is to say literary fiction. All literary fiction is no longer commercial. And I think of myself as a formalist. I am interested in exploring various forms of prose fiction and nonfiction. So for me all fiction is experimental. That metaphor, that binary is less and less useful. I believe that a future does lie in our collective effort in creating a new model for publishing as well as figuring out the effects of the new technologies and how to use them to make art.

4 thoughts on “The North American Innovation Crash of 1993

  1. throw everything against the wall and see what sticks is kinda my favorite approach. it probably does impair usability but that seems like an ok tradeoff. i like the fc2 quote. thanks.

  2. Joseph: I think the fact that you’re thinking of it AS an approach (and especially that you’re thinking about questions of usability w/r/t form) suggests that you’ve already thought things through a bit further than Pexton’s bosses or the 3DO’s designers did.

    In their case, I would say that it functions more as an excuse for their incompetence than an aesthetic approach. I don’t think the Post’s intention was to make a cluttered, confusing, slow website, and I’m pretty sure that the 3DO’s designers weren’t setting out to produce games that weren’t any fun. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t designers out there making unfun games because they want their players to have a different experience, or websites that aren’t cluttered and slow because they are meant to be so.

  3. Dragon’s Lair! Man oh man, when Charlie’s Pool Hall in West Eugene planted that front and center, first game in town costing 50 cents instead of a quarter, man how we all gathered around that thing. Teen with the Scorpions bandana safety-pinned to the back of his jean-jacket, jockeying the machine while all us smallers shouldered for a sightline. Finally, your quarters, the quarters you’d been watching slide interminably along the slit below the screen, those would come up and you’d jerk the stick, hammer the buttons, and fall into the same damn trap every time.

    I think that was the exact moment when I lost interest in video games.

    1. And now, with the miracle of Youtube, we can see that it was not only bad as a game, but also bad as a cartoon. I mean, it looks good, but I don’t think I would pay fifty cents to watch it, either. Maybe I’m just grumpy about wasting my money on it at all.

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