Matt Cox

Matt is a game designer, musician, actor and writer. He's currently a Lead Designer on an unannounced video game project for 5TH Cell Media in Seattle. Before video game development, he was a Video Games Editor for the Midwest entertainment publication Magazine. He holds a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Kansas.

Matt and his wife Emily live in Redmond, WA. They sincerely dig the local culture the Seattle metro has to offer, but still frequent the blessing that is Chipotle.

Choosing Creation Over Destruction

There was a time when interactive entertainment was simply two lines and a square “ball” on a screen. This piece of entertainment was called Pong.Although it wasn’t the first game on the scene (Computer Space beat it to the punch) Pong achieved massive popularity and it only exploded once it came home in console form in 1975. This is largely considered the first major boom in the gaming industry.

Every industry has a “father” figure that is widely considered the person from which all industry achievements would not exist without. In the game industry, it’s not Ralph Baer, Nolan Bushnell or any other person who is tied to some version of Pong. This accolade belongs to Shigeru Miyamoto, known in many circles as “the Walt Disney of Gaming” or “the father of modern video games.”

At a youthful 55 years old, Miyamoto’s face still lights up at the sight of innovation and the art of the video game. While he may not be seen as the innovator with the same fervor today, he’s simply going in a new direction. Sure he’s the guy who brought us Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, F-Zero and Star Fox franchises, but in his later years he brought us game that focus more on the beauty of creation and relationships with the critically acclaimed Pikmin series and the wildly popular Nintendogs series for the Nintendo DS.

And it is in his latest philosophies where Miyamoto is carving out his own path yet again. Instead of always designing the same old gun-toting, destructive interactions of most modern games, especially American ones, Miyamoto continues to explore the value of life and creation in his designs, bringing it all home to the consumer. We’ve already seen his influence through the phenomenon that is the Nintendo Wii platform itself, bringing hardcore gamer geeks and their grandmas together for Wii Bowling. Heck, he even made Time’s 100 most influential people list in 2007. But it’s the subtle influences of life in his game designs that keep him regarded as the best in the business.

One day Miyamoto was tending his garden. He was in awe at the process of planting, growing and harvesting and the general admiration of the beauty that can arise out of the garden. This is when the crazy idea of making some sort of garden-influenced game came to mind. As cheesy and boring as it may sound, he did not end up with a design reminiscent of literally watching grass grow on your TV screen. The end result was Pikmin, a title where the player plants and harvests little flower creatures. You play as Captain Olimar whose job is to keep all the Pikmin alive, safe from the large bugs and animals that inhabit the planet. Quite a far cry from the shoot-to-kill mentality, eh?

A few years after bringing an evolved sense of gardening to gaming, Miyamoto oversaw the advent of Wii Fit, a new interactive way to bring health into the fold of non-traditional gaming. So instead of playing a version of creation on screen, the player would literally be working out, which in and of itself isn’t new or innovative, but bringing it into the fold of interactive games is more than admirable. Even the joy of playing music is made simpler, a-la Guitar Hero or Rock Band, in Wii Music – a simpler way to enjoy the beauty of making music than even the aforementioned blockbusters.

This isn’t to say that no one aside from Miyamoto thinks of creative ways to play a game, expanding on life-based ideas, but there is no one as inspired or as consistently original as the father of video games. It can be easily argued that all current innovations on gameplay can be tracked back to one of Miyamoto’s.

Wii are the World

We were designed for community.

The Earth is a complex matrix of people groups, cultures and tastes. Whether it’s a mainstream novel or an abstract sculpture from a virtual unknown artist, you will find a certain amount of people, followers or fans. We were created with desires and personal gravitations to certain types of expressions. When we arrive at this destination that our desires lead us to, we find community.

Whether big or small, community is inevitable. Whether big or small, community is vital to our betterment as people and it would be a shame for us to convince ourselves that art is all about our individuality in some wayward self-absorbed vacuum.

Art is created to not only be expressed, but to be shared with others.

No company understands that more than Nintendo. In a gaming industry where playing online and communicating remotely via headset is the accepted notion of new “community,” Nintendo released the Wii in 2006, a gaming platform that not only redefined how games are played, but reintroduced the in-person social aspect of enjoying games.

The Nintendo Wii gaming console

In case you’re not familiar with the Wii phenomenon – the hook is that the system eschews the traditional too-many-buttons-for-normal-people controller in favor of a remote-like wand, or “Wii-mote”, that tracks actual movement and is a pointing device. So, in Wii Sports, you can bowl by literally making bowling motions. You can play baseball by literally swinging the Wii-mote like a baseball bat. You can play golf by literally swinging the Wii-mote like a golf club. Games built specifically for the Wii platform are molding themselves around these sort of real life mimicries.

And just like that mainstream novel or the niche sculpture, people of all ages and gaming IQs are gravitating to the Wii, creating a new type of interactive community in homes. The Wii controls are intuitive no matter who you are. Many of the games tailored for it promote cooperative play.

Despite not being as graphically capable as a Playstation 3 or Xbox 360, and despite not embracing an online infrastructure as modern as Sony or Microsoft, the Wii has completely dominated the market, leaving the other two current home consoles in the dust.

The beauty of the Wii may not even be the Wii itself, but rather the togetherness it creates in its wake. Sure, there are individual games across several platforms that have true beauty and reflect modern significance in culture, but the Wii itself as a game console is a launching pad for the building blocks of that beauty: relationship.

Not only is there feedback between one player and the screen, but when three of your friends or family play with you, there is a mutual, communal enjoyment of experience. There is a point of reference for the elation and fun you’re experiencing. Just like that book or sculpture, these new communities are rallying behind a game system.

Board games, although still around in great number, have largely been replaced by video games. The sad part is that before the advent of even online communities, video games were largely an individual experience. So it’s very possible the Wii fills the hole left by the death of the board game.

Regardless, if you still don’t believe a video game can promote something as intricate and vital as community and quality time, try tracking down a Nintendo Wii, play a few games of Wii Bowling with your friends and family and get back to me.

Yes, Video Games are Art

Video games are a legitimate art form.

I find it difficult on a regular basis to not only describe what I do, but furthermore explain that what I’m doing as a career has any artistic merit at all. Most people only know the sensational, overblown political side to my industry, because even popular news media fail to really grasp the core nature of this art. Believe it or not, what I do has profound potential to impact those engaged in my creations.

I design video games.

Geometry Wars 2: a simpler art
Geometry Wars 2: a simpler art

I design what the character can do. I design where the character can go. I design the parameters in which the player can interact with an environment, whether they emulate the details of the world we see around us or whether they’re as simple as basic shapes and colors.

But the difference is that in this art it’s not just about how pretty it looks. It’s not just about how well-written a story can be. It’s not just about how beautifully the sounds and music grace the ears. It’s about all of those chosen elements from all the other mediums being woven together in an original creation with the added expectation that a user can interact with it, changing the outcome.

You can’t do that in any other art form other than video games.

Even many of my colleagues struggle with how to define the “art” in video games. It is not sufficient for me to say a game has artistic merit simply because the backgrounds or characters are beautifully illustrated, textured or modeled. Video games are not paintings alone. Video games are not sculpture alone. It is not sufficient for me to say a game has artistic merit simply because the soundtrack’s melodies are awe-inspiring. Video games are not sound alone.

When you hear the bad stuff about the industry, you may see this guy.  (Niko, from Grand Theft Auto IV)
When you hear the bad stuff about the industry,
you may see this guy.
(Niko, from Grand Theft Auto IV)

Not to beat this point into the ground, but the art of a video game lies in its profound ability to create an interactive experience that engages a human in a very direct way, both objectively and subjectively.

Enjoying this art in its purest form requires a constant, active response.

This is not to say there is no enjoyment to be had by passively watching someone play a video game. But you would never think to say you play violin in your local orchestra because you listened to one of their recordings.

Video games have an unfair reputation.

Most find the simple phrase “video games” repulsive because of a generalized stigma. The arguments usually revolve around violence and the degenerate content found in games like Grand Theft Auto IV, a controversial title developed by Rockstar Games. Those unfamiliar with gaming usually condemn the medium itself for even providing a platform for games like GTA IV to exist rather than taking issue with the game alone.

When was the last time you condemned the medium of film because you saw a terrible movie?

When was the last time you cursed the presence of poetry because of some garbage you read in college?

When was the last time you uttered “all music is worthless” because some singing stranger on the bus butchered a favorite song of yours?

You haven’t. Of course you haven’t. That would be absurd. So if you find certain aspects of certain game titles repulsive, do not let that invalidate the medium for you. That would be a shame.

Wii Sports champions the interactivity in the art of games
Wii Sports champions the interactivity in the art of games

For hundreds of years poetry, theater, fine art and music have been avenues through which beauty is expressed and created. Passion is felt through them. Lives are touched through them. Those avenues have matured for centuries and persevere, providing a stable canvas for a wide array of expression. Film is one of the youngest art forms, but even it has proven to be a timeless addition to the way culture expresses itself.

Interactive entertainment is relatively new. The evolution of the video game industry can only be tracked back a few decades. So I suppose it’s not surprising that my realm of work doesn’t get taken as seriously as other art forms that have existed for centuries.

If the arts had a family reunion I guess video games would be the bratty teenage cousins. While young and still waiting to find their true place in the world, you can’t dismiss the fact they’re part of the family and one day, you may even talk to one of them and find beauty within.

I can wholeheartedly tell you that even though the video games industry is still evolving, there have been fruits of beauty, passion and importance that have sprouted from all genres of games, from educational to action/adventure. Just like in any other artistic avenue, you have to search for those works that are truly great.

That is my goal for you: to find beauty in an avenue you least expected to.

I hope to facilitate that goal in the coming months, as I examine great video games.