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Film grammar of video games: new media modalities of presentation

Film grammar of video games - Ilija Barišić
Film grammar of video games – Ilija Barišić

“It is one of the most brilliant dissertations I had the pleasure of reading, and one of our most exquisite books, opening up new theoretical insights and, at the same time, providing an original contribution to the world theory of video games…” When peer reviews of doctoral dissertations and academic publications are positive, however favourable they are, they are mostly written in a moderate, restrained language, only suggesting and implicitly confirming its scientific weight. The given excerpt, as provided on the jacket of the book by Ilija Barišić, Film Grammar of Video Games: New Media Modalities of Presentation (Filmska gramatika videoigara: modaliteti izlaganja novih medija, published by the Croatian Film Association, with the support of the Ministry of Science and Education of the Republic of Croatia, the Croatian Audiovisual Centre, and the Croatian Film Directors’ Guild), though, betrays unbridled enthusiasm in Hrvoje Turković, the author of the words. His unusual approach is quite striking, even more so considering it is a review by a renowned and experienced film theorist who almost never opts for such a tone in his clever writings.

So if Turković can be so openly captivated about it, this must be an exceptional publication. The book Film Grammar of Video Games: New Media Modalities of Presentation is the adapted PhD thesis by Ilija Barišić (Zagreb, 1981), a history and Croatian language graduate, but also a video game and, of course, film aficionado. By combining these interests and areas of expertise, Barišić has written a text which might be seen as first of its kind in Croatia, and still a rarity and an innovation of sorts in the world as such. Having that said, the author of this article might not be particularly versed in the latter, but he does trust Barišić’s claims that there has not been many scientific theoretical texts and publications on video games before, with perhaps about ten at most focused on the relationship between the medium of film and video games.

“The fairly new, underrated and academically neglected field of video games remains unexplored in many respects, and any research done is often not systematic or completed. The relationship between film and video games is among such interest areas.”

Scientific and theoretical examination of video games is, therefore, in its infancy and, in the sense of its reception, this new, entertaining art seems to share many similarities with the over-a-century-old, but still quite young medium of film. At the eve of the 20th century, video games occupied a position much like film at the start of the 20th century, first being perceived as unremarkable, content-wise worthless even, mere entertainment for the masses; a frivolous commercial product to pass the time. (First video games were developed in the 1940’s and 50’s, but the format’s first big boom would not occur until the 1970’s.) Furthermore, when cinema was still young, it was analysed and written using the terminology, phrasings and aesthetical judgments borrowed from studies of other, older and more established arts, such as theatre, literature, visual arts, music, architecture, and even other sciences such as philosophy, sociology, psychology, politics etc. The situation with video games today is not much different, with them being discussed and perceived from the perspective of thought patterns already familiar and adopted from before.

The way film was being treated in theory and practice would improve greatly after a few decades, when many new cinema-specific concepts were established and adopted and there came more respect for motion pictures in society than ever before, although still partly seen as entertainment, now acknowledged as an art form. Even though many remain tied to other artistic and non-artistic fields when writing and discussing films, even today, this comes across as natural—if not necessary—for complete emancipation would simply not be possible. The video game medium faces similar hardships, with its scholars and advocates (understandably) striving to fight for a more dignified social perception, pushing for its scientific and theoretical liberation.

Many video game enthusiasts, thus, oppose any discussions or interpretations of video games (computer, digital, electronic) from a perspective based in film theory, arguing that such an approach only works to debase and colonise the individuality of the new medium. Regardless, just like it is impossible—and unnecessary even—to make film completely autonomous from other sciences and disciplines (both those mentioned, and not mentioned), which film as art inevitably does have some common ground with, it would not be possible, or even reasonable, to pretend that video games are not imbued with many different elements. Barišić, too, is of the opinion that a scientific and theoretical emancipation of video game studies is both justified and necessary, but it is also quite apparent to him that different ways and perspectives in studying video games—even when they stem from other sciences—are not aimed at devaluing the matter, topic, or field of research; rather, it serves to enhance the study. In this sense, an approach grounded in the study of cinema seems to befit the medium of video games. One might regard Barišić’s penchant for film a happy coincidence here, but the connection would appear natural and instantaneous even to the most superficial and inexperienced viewers; video games simply have much to do with films.

In the 250 pages of his dissertation, printed in rather small letters, Barišić starts by asking how appropriate it is to frame his research on the nature and reception of video games within film theory. He establishes and delineates the video game/film relationship, never subsuming the new art form to the older one. Barišić, then, aims to innovate certain attitudes, theses and concepts related to the gaming world, while updating the English-dominant terminology with specific Croatian coins (e.g. ‘igratelj’ for gamer, ‘igroizvedba’ for gameplay; often in agreement with Turković, who he consulted with in great part, as indicated in footnotes), hoping they could become standardised as parts of the vocabulary related to video game studies, or even wider.

Even if the understanding of the text hinges on the reader’s own familiarity with specific video game works which are, of course, mentioned in great numbers, and, on the other hand, with the given form and style of scientific discourse, Barišić’s writing is as shrewd and potent as it is vibrant. His style is fluent and enjoyable to read, with an occasional witty remark (“As long as we do not lose our way… I reckon we cannot stray far too much, not more than is inherent to theory.”). Film Grammar of Video Games is literature that even people completely ignorant to the world of video games can peruse and enjoy.

The cover design is exceptionally good (Željko Serdarević), a reference to one of the best known film posters, i.e. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). In addition, the book incorporates—as it is supposed to—a bibliography, a ludography (a list of video games), and a glossary of terms from video game theory and culture, completed with index of names, terms used and game titles mentioned, and a summary in English.

Janko Heidl

Janko Heidl

Janko Heidl (Zagreb, 1967), studirao je filmsku režiju na ADU u Zagrebu. O filmu piše od konca 1980-ih za razne tiskovine i elektronske medije, najdulje u Večernjem listu (1994-2009).

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