Hollywood Envy

For those of you haven’t caught up on your pop-psych, "penis envy" is a concept introduced by Freud, and like many of Freud’s notions, has now been discredited or at least dismissed as politically incorrect. His notion was that the female psyche is hobbled by "penis envy", which develops at an early age when little girls, playing their little naked games with little boys, realize that little boys have penises and little girls do not. Stunned by the realization that men possess something of obviously great value (ahem!) that they lack, women spend the rest of their lives trying to compensate for this deficiency. Given the culture of the Victorian era in which Freud operated, we are tempted to suggest that the terms "career envy", "job envy", "status envy", or "freedom envy" might have been more appropriate (to be fair, Freud did acknowledge these factors). Still, the concept has some utility today, if not in its original form, as a kind of metaphor for an irrational desire to possess something that one can never possess because it is alien to one’s nature.

With this in mind, I propose the term "Hollywood envy" to describe an attitude that dominates the thinking of many in our industry. We seem determined to model ourselves on the Hollywood model. The idea is an old one; the first truly public efforts in this direction were made by Electronic Arts, which introduced the term "producer" to the industry (where have you heard that term before?) Trip Hawkins made much of the Hollywood connection, pushing such terms as "The New Hollywood". It was heady stuff ten years ago, and it fired the imaginations of many. Ever since then, Hollywood envy has played a large role in our thinking.

Consider, for example, the role of the title screen. In the early days, the title scene served several purposes: to provide a copyright notice, to cover up long initialization times, and possibly to provide a primitive game demo for in-store use. Over the years, the title screen has evolved into the title sequence, and is now a much more involved production. It lists the credits of all those who contributed to the project, and those credits have grown enormously. Now, we all know that most games are put together by a small team of perhaps a dozen people, often less, yet we see credit lists that drag on and on and list scores of people. Who are all these people? If you study the credit lists carefully, you’ll figure out that they’ve listed just about everybody in the company. Now, why would they do that? The answer, I think, is that a long credits list suggests something rather like a movie. It’s kinda like a personal resume that drags on for five pages, listing every single accomplishment of the author. Sure, it’s all true, but after a while you get the feeling that the author is trying to overwhelm you with the length of the resume. In practical terms, do we really need to list every single person who had anything to do with the game? Aren’t these long credit lists just an example of Hollywood envy?

Here’s another example: the desire for an awards ceremony. For years, many industry people have been pushing for some sort of formal awards ceremony "just like the Academy Awards". Now, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but why do we need to model it on the Academy Awards? Why not the Nobel Prize, or the Pulitzer Prize, or some other award? Why do we have to model ourselves on Hollywood?

I suspect that part of it is an infantile envy of the glamour of Hollywood. Oh, those Hollywood stars with all their pleasures wouldn’t we like to be just like them?

This is an ego trip, pure and simple.

Let’s face it, folks, we will never have the glamour of Hollywood. You will never see Sid Meier in a tuxedo, surrounded by flashing cameras, with Julia Roberts on his arm. You will never see the National Enquirer going through Will Wright’s trash. And if I ever murder anybody in a fit of passion, the trial will most certainly not be the Trial of the Century. Hell, I’d be surprised if my family showed up to the trial ("Good God, there goes Chris with one of his crazy stunts again...")

But one might ask, "What’s wrong with Hollywood envy? If we want to indulge ourselves in a little harmless fantasy, what harm does it do?"

I see a number of undesirable side effects arising from Hollywood envy.

One of the sillier aspects of Hollywood envy is the undue attention we give to filmic techniques. For example, think how much money the industry has spent on live action video. This stuff is expensive, and what do we get for it? Video clips that never quite fit into the game. Have you ever noticed that the video used in our games has a tacked-on feeling? We interrupt this game to bring you a video clip; wasn’t that impressive? I have yet to see a single game in which the video was truly intrinsic to the game architecture. You play the game for a while and then you pause for a video clip. What’s the point?

Then there’s the brouhaha about using name actors. We’ve seen a number of products with name actors in the last year or two. What, precisely, do these name actors bring to the party? How do they improve the quality of the experience? The value of an actor lies in his or her ability to communicate the finer shades of human emotion. What fine shades of human emotion exist in our games? If all you’re doing is running around blowing things up, who cares about the feelings of the people involved? There’s a fundamental mismatch here; it’s like playing Wagner at the bowling alley. Our games aren’t about the emotional aspects of the human condition; they’re emotionally flat exercises in puzzle-solving and hand-eye coordination, so why do we need great acting talent to enliven such puerile exercises?

I think it’s solely for Hollywood envy.

But the most serious downside of Hollywood envy is the way that it blocks us from finding our true selves. I recall that, when I was a teenager, I became enamored of Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Like any teenager, I hadn’t the faintest idea of who I really was, but I was groping about, and I liked what I saw that character. So I tried on the role for size. I played at being Spock, even shaved my eyebrows at one point. I can now laugh at my excesses as a teenager, and I can even see the value of the experiment. When you’re young and floundering about, trying to find your identity, it’s a good thing to try out other identities, to put them on and wear them like a hat or a costume, and see how they fit. But the emulation phase must pass before we can truly find our identities. I was not Mr. Spock, and never will be. Yes, it was useful to put the hat on my head and fantasize, but only as a transitional phase. The time came when I had to take off the hat and ask who I really was. Had I persisted in the Spock-identification fantasy, I would never have matured to the point of asking more serious questions about myself. I would never have learned as much as I have learned. I would spent all these years playing a role that I didn’t truly fit, spinning my wheels trying to be something that I am not.

Thus, emulating other identities is a necessary part of finding one’s own identity, but it must be put aside as part of the process of maturation. And we’re not doing that. We’ve been stuck for ten years with this Hollywood obsession, and I think it’s starting to stunt our growth. When I ran around as a teenager with shaved eyebrows and mock-Spock attire, I looked silly but exuberant; if I were still doing that today, in my 40s, people would shake their heads sadly at my arrested development.

The time has come for us to outgrow Hollywood envy. We are not Hollywood, and we never will be. We are not "better than" Hollywood, nor "worse than" Hollywood; we are ourselves, something different and special. What we are is good and fine and noble; we have nothing to apologize for and much to be proud of. If the classic Hollywood image is the star emerging from the limousine with the starlet on his arm and the flashbulbs popping, then what is wrong with the image from the last evening of CGDC, at the Microsoft party, of hundreds of frisbees floating through the air simultaneously? Sid Meier makes a pathetic Arnold Schwartzenegger, but he makes a magnificent Sid Meier.