The Cycle of Media Dominance: Chapter 2017
The Star Wars franchise is universally recognized as an important contribution to cinema and science fiction. When it was announced that Star Wars would be continued by Disney, fans rejoiced. Their childhood would be continued through new movies, the ultimate storytelling medium available to society, and the true home of Star Wars. The Force Awakens, a direct sequel to Return of the Jedi, and Rogue One, a direct prequel to A New Hope, have recently released to critical acclaim. With more films on the way, it seems that fans have been granted their wish. However, while the majority of fans possessed knowledge of the films, they did not possess the knowledge of the books, video games, shows, and graphic novels of Star Wars, collectively known as the “Expanded Universe.” Numerous book series such as X-Wing: Rogue Squadron chronicled the continuing struggle against the Empire long after Return of the Jedi, and video games such as Knights of the Old Republic detailed events that took place nearly 4,000 years before A New Hope. Even when “Expanded Universe” fans point out the existence of this content, those who only enjoy the films are generally quick to dismiss the value of anything outside of movies, thus all but ensuring the EU’s demise when Disney obtained the rights to Star Wars in 2014. This begs the question; are books, video games, and graphic novels all equally important art forms like films?
Video games and graphic novels are both struggling to find a broad academic audience that will validate their existence as legitimate art forms. A Pew Research Center paper found that while nearly 50% of American adults play some form of video games, roughly 26% of American adults believe that video games are a waste of time (Duggan 11). Graphic novels have also been discussed in similar terms in the past, rarely being seen as little more than a child’s pastime (Goldenberg 204). Books are also becoming displaced as a modern art form. Another Pew Research Center paper from 2016 shows that 65% of American adults had read a printed book in the last year (Perrin 2). Even though over half of adults are continuing to read books, films that override or reinterpret books are rarely met with opposition. Media scholar and Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts Henry Jenkins brought forth the argument that numerous forms of media, such as books and video games, could contribute to a larger narrative, while simultaneously providing self-contained stories and experiences (6). Despite his calls for equality, Jenkins’ vision of a transmedia future is not yet fully realized. Although there are various stances regarding the importance of different forms of media, film is arguably the most dominant art form in popular culture, which undermines the artistic value of established and emerging mediums alike. Creators of all kinds must understand that new mediums can no longer focus on becoming validated as art alone, they must now also prove their value in comparison to film. The cycle of art forms being rejected and uplifted has existed for generations. It is a cycle that must be broken. To accomplish this task, inclusive, future-proofed definitions of art must be created to allow for transmedia to become accepted.
Since humanity’s first letters were chiseled into stone, society has feared that the rapid spread of depictions of violent acts through new media would harm the minds of younger generations. Today, violence in films and books is critiqued on an individual basis, whereas video games and graphic novels are labeled in their entirety as being psychologically harmful. Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates feared that “improper” stories would damage the developing minds of children (Bell). By 1993, video games were a new danger, and Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut claimed that video games taught children to enjoy torturing others (Gillespie 48). Today, roughly 40% of American adults believe people who play video games are more likely to become violent themselves (Duggan). From books to the internet, older generations have feared that new media would open the floodgates of violent content upon the next generation. While film is the latest medium to overcome this cycle, video games and graphic novels continue to be treated as childish distractions at best, and collections of all of Humanity’s sins at worst. All three of these mediums are visual in nature, yet when violent films are released, society does not denounce all of film. This is because society recognizes the vast array of genres within film. The same cannot be said for emerging mediums, which are still wrongly believed to be mainly tied to violent genres. While a seemingly complicated task, there is a method that can be used to easily identify the artistic potential of a medium.
The storytelling capability of a medium is the most important aspect to show its impact as an art form. Films and books have undoubtedly proven that they are capable storytelling mediums, yet popular culture does not see that video games and graphic novels are equally effective at depicting stories. In a New York Times interview from January of this year, former President Barack Obama described how books helped him during his presidency. He stated that “At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” reading allowed him to “slow down and get perspective,” and also gave him “the ability to get in someone else’s shoes” (Kakutani). At the same time, he has lightly painted video games as a distraction to children throughout his presidency. In a 2009 speech to the American Medical Association, he urged children to “step away from the video games” (Gillespie 48). An opposing viewpoint is brought by software designer Jack McDade, creator of Statamic, a program for building websites. McDade writes that he really enjoys “games with killer story lines and character development.” He listed Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series and The Last of Us, titles that have been critically acclaimed for the quality of their stories, as examples. It may surprise Mr. Obama that books were once seen as not only a waste of time, but also as a source of information overload. Like books, games also allow an individual to gain the perspective of others, and quite literally place themselves in those characters’ shoes. If films and books are judged on their artistic worth by their storytelling ability, all forms of media should be evaluated the same way.
A main cause of the cycle of media dominance could stem from definitions of art being incredibly narrow, which at times invalidates targeted emerging art forms, as well as those currently accepted. Many definitions either refer specifically to visual mediums such as painting, or are explained in ambiguous language that some may find to be from outdated perspectives of past generations. In 2010, the late film critic Roger Ebert proclaimed that “video games can never be art.” He defended his claim by explaining that “art should be defined as the imitation of nature,” and is “usually the creation of one artist.” Furthermore, he explained that since games determine winners and losers, they are intrinsically invalidated as being a form of “artistic expression” (Gillespie 46). Ebert’s definition of art is baffling, as films expand far beyond a pure imitation of nature, and they are certainly not created by a lone individual. A broader definition would be that if a medium can utilize any number of visual, auditory, or textural forms of communication in a creative manner to tell a story, then it is an art form. Art is expression, and stories are a fundamental form of expression that can exist in different ways throughout all artistic mediums. That is not to say stories are the only form of art. As one can paint a picture for purely aesthetic value, so too can there be games, graphic novels, films, and more that are designed for pure entertainment.
An additional cause of this cycle are corporations and companies that place the importance of selling more products to a wider audience above respecting existing stories and art. Books, video games, and graphic novels are seen as disposable items that hold no real bearing on the storylines of films. Star Wars is currently the most prominent example of this cause for media inequality. When Disney obtained the rights to Star Wars in 2014, they declared that the original saga of films and the Clone Wars television series are the “the immovable objects of Star Wars history, the characters and events to which all other tales must align.” Disney also stated that all previous EU content would be renamed “Legends,” which will only stay in print so long as there is enough demand. Additionally, they claimed that “while the universe readers knew is changing, it is not being discarded,” explaining that aspects of the EU will be applied to their new canon (“Expanded…”). Disney makes it clear that the films are what take precedence over all other media. Their new creations are not merely an alternate interpretation of the Star Wars universe, as they all but admit that they are “changing” the existing Universe. Instead, all stories must now be filtered through Disney’s new canon, which fundamentally changes history in a way that denies the existence of events and characters within previous books, games, and graphic novels. If Disney truly saw other forms of media as being equal to film, then they would have taken great care to assure fans that the films were indeed an alternate interpretation, and would have continued support of the existing EU material.
In a little over one hundred years, film has managed to not only endure the rhetoric that every medium has previously experienced, it has also managed to become the most renowned of all art forms within popular culture. While film is following the footsteps of previous mediums, there are opportunities to combat this cycle in ways previously unavailable to past generations. Video games and graphic novels present society with visual mediums that are incredibly unique, and they are continuing to shape preconceived notions of what art can be. While not accepted like film, there are already many examples of not only the artistic impact these mediums hold, but there are also examples of how they can co-exist in a transmedia world.
There have been numerous films which not only respect the “Expanded Universes” of various franchises, but that also separate themselves from the previous works that inspired them, ensuring that the original stories are not undermined. Prominent examples of films such as these include the new Star Trek films, Terminator Genisys, Mad Max Fury Road, and Starship Troopers. Star Trek and Terminator Genisys utilize time travel and explicitly stated alternate realities to create new events, while at the same time not discounting events that occurred in previously told stories. Mad Max also uses an alternate timeline, though this is not as heavily stated throughout the film. Instead, the film uses ambiguity to its advantage, while allowing the alternate timeline to be explained through supplemental graphic novels. The original trilogy remains intact, while the franchise can continue to expand with new content. Starship Troopers provides an example of how a film can draw from books in unique ways, while still allowing the story of the book to be continued if creators choose to do so. The Television series Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles brings another interpretation of the Starship Troopers universe, and manages to blend elements of both the film and book. None of these interpretations of the original work override one another, therefore the book’s value is not negated by the movie or the television series. Any number of these routes can be taken to allow for creativity, while at the same time, not discounting the artistic value of established or emerging mediums. While films can promote and respect broader universes, there must also be further attempts at specifically validating emerging mediums to society as a whole.
Recognition of emerging mediums by highly educated professions will help substantially not only with validating the value of those mediums, but will also help ensure their rights as art forms are protected for future generations. This level of acceptance has been given to films, which merit serious academic discussion in practically all colleges, but not to emerging mediums. Graphic novels are slowly beginning to be used in medical care. Michael Goldenberg, MA of Penn State Hershey Medical Center writes that graphic novels can assist with “educating medical students, mediating the difficult emotional state after diagnostic mistakes, showing examples of good and bad medicine and how to avoid/rectify mistakes, and allowing children to understand their participation in medical research.” He further describes how visuals can have an emotional effect on readers, and that graphic novels engage readers by encouraging them to imagine the motions that occur from one picture to the next (204). Video games have recently begun the process of becoming validated in the realm of law. In 2011, the now late Justice Antonin Scalia stated that “Like books, plays, and movies, video games communicate ideas” (Gillespie 49). While being accepted by popular culture is also of great importance, being protected by the law and receiving government support are of vital importance for video games and graphic novels. These mediums have long been the targets of lawsuits and unfounded legal action in order to have their art censored as a result of the cycle of fear previously mentioned. They need to become protected by the law, rather than targeted. Justices such as the late Antonin Scalia have laid the groundwork for this to become a reality. Within the last decade, video games and comics have begun the slow process of becoming accepted as educational tools as well. If these mediums can be taught equally to new generations, in highly academic fields such as medicine, then society may take one small step closer to ending the cycle of fear.
While film is well known to award its most prominent examples of art, video games and graphic novels perform similar practices with extremely limited recognition from society. It is important for the public to recognize the depths of culture that video games and graphic novels possess in comparison to film. Like other mediums, video games and graphic novels can receive a vast number of awards from industry journals and events. They also have their own historically significant artifacts. Classic games such as DOOM, Quake, and even arcade hits such as Asteroids are hallmarks of video games and their evolution. Graphic novel universes such as Marvel and DC are equally revered for the way they explored and created a new medium. Video games are in a unique situation, as they are also sources of competitive entertainment. The emergence of E-Sports and Twitch are a few examples that have created the foundations for video games to be viewed not only as an artistic medium, but also as an entertaining spectator’s sport. More public awareness of the cultural value of emerging mediums is an incredibly important task to accomplish. Society must see not only that video games and graphic novels are expressing themselves, but must also recognize the methods in which these emergent mediums are able to do so. Even with new avenues of expression, emerging mediums are also showing that they are more than capable of displaying their value in methods that are already established.
In conclusion, the cycle of media dominance is once again completing another phase with a new generation. Film is the latest form of media to become accepted, and in doing so, it is pushing back against emerging mediums. In order to end not only this cycle, but future cycles, emerging mediums can use broader definitions of art as a way to prove their worth to society more quickly than previous generations. Story is also integrally tied to artistic expression, and if a medium can prove its ability to tell a story in its own way, then it may speed up the process of validation even further. While film is currently the dominant art form, it can also be used to embrace and share the stories and worlds from other forms of media. Emerging art forms are beginning the slow process of becoming accepted by academic fields, an incredibly important step to ending the cycle.
Finally, it is important to note that science fiction and fantasy are at the center of this discussion. Video games and comics have been created largely due to these genres, and are a large reason why those mediums are seen as childish. Even within the scope of film itself, the dominant art form in popular culture, science fiction and fantasy aren’t seen as truly artistic choices for movies. No science fiction film has ever won an academy award for best picture, and as far as fantasy is concerned, only Lord of the Rings has been fortunate enough to be graced with that highly selective honor. Within this current cycle, these genres are now more prevalent than in past generations. While it is important that all mediums show their value in relation to film, it will also be just as important for these specific genres to be held in equal light.
Bell, Vaughan. “Don’t Touch That Dial!” Slate, 2010, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2010/02/dont_touch_that_dial.html
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Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design As Narrative Architecture.” Henry Jenkins, 2005, pp. 1-15.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books.” New York Times, New York, National Newspapers Core, 2017, http://ezproxy.scottsdalecc.edu:2114/2017/01/16/books/obamas-secret-to-surviving-the-white-house-years-books.html?partner=bloomberg
McDade, Jack. “Why I play Video Games.” Jack McDade, 2013, http://jackmcdade.com/blog/why-i-play-video-games
Perrin, Andrew. “Book Reading 2016.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 2016, pp. 1-19.