Monday, June 22, 2009

No, Not That Midway

As we stand listening to the echoes of another E3's passing, my thoughts return once again to the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. And I am not directly referring to this year's return to spectacle, although that would probably be legitimate. Instead, E3 makes me think of an event promoter by the name of Sol Bloom1.

During the initial planning of the World's Fair in Chicago, the Midway Plaisance aspect of the fair was under the direction of the head of the Department of Ethnology at Harvard University. It was intended to be a scholarly depiction of humanity's progress, beginning with an African village and terminating at the fair's "Court of Honour," a series of buildings that were not only themselves architectural marvels, but housed some of Western civilization's latest innovations. It was to be educational and dignified, to the point where Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show was refused inclusion (Cody merely set up the show across the street from the fair's entrance and made a mint).

Now, Bloom had been a successful salesman and promoter in San Francisco, and had left home to see the world at age 19. He ended up at the Parisian World's Fair in 1889 and had witnessed how visitors had flocked to exhibitions of performers from "exotic locales," especially Algeria. Bloom secured a two year contract to represent the Algerians in the Western hemisphere and upon returning to the US in 1891, he implored Chicago's fair board to include his Algerian Village in the midway. He was rebuffed, but upon discovering the stuffy, formal affair the midway's supervisor was intending, he contacted Michael de Young, a member of the national World's Fair organizing committee. Frustrated by the midway's laggard pace, not only did de Young arrange for Bloom's Algerian village to be included, but he offered to pay Bloom to manage the entire midway. At only 21 years of age, Bloom accepted.

Under Bloom's watch, the midway of the World's Columbian Exposition was a tremendous success. Instead of the pretentious, ivory tower affair, the midway was a hurricane of games, restaurants, performances and rides. It featured acts and performers from all over the world, hosted the world's first Ferris Wheel (a towering 80 metre tall structure that carried over 2000 passengers) and to many of the fair's literally millions of attendees, the midway was the most memorable part of the fair. The word "midway" entered into the English vocabulary and is mandatory at every fair, carnival and expo. Bloom himself introduced the "danse du ventre," or belly dance, to Americans and wrote a song (offhandedly, at a press preview no less) that is still familiar even today.

So what does this have to do with video games, beyond giving Mortal Kombat's terminal parent company a name? Bloom understood how to create an environment conducive to entertainment. He understood how to get people excited. And, whether we like it or not, that counts for a lot.

E3 return to spectacle did the same this year. From Natal/Sony's motion thingie to Scribblenauts, there was energy this year. The excitement was palpable and, to be honest, welcome. After six months of depressing closures and layoffs, seeing positivity again was great.

In a lot of ways, E3 is awful. It caters to the lowbrow, hype runs rampant and we could all do with less bullshit. But Bloom exaggerated too; when promoting the fair's colossal Manufacturing building, he didn't merely repeat, as many other had, that it had 36 acres of floor space. He claimed that the entire standing army of Russia could fit within the building. While unlikely, unless it's possible to convince about a million Russian soldiers to occupy about one and a half square feet each, the claim itself didn't matter. Bloom was able to convey the grandeur of the Manufacturing building.

Bloom was not a shyster or a swindler, and this is very important to understand. He delivered upon what he promised. Those that visited the midway at the World's Columbian Exposition saw splendours beyond their wildest imaginations. As those that think games can aspire to far greater than the status quo, it's easy to look down our noses at spectacle. But spectacle doesn't make people excited, spectacle happens because people are excited.

In our efforts to make games more meaningful, we run the risk of doing what the original midway organizers did. By making them too intellectual, we might be taking away what excites people most about games.

[1] - Bloom was actually a rather interesting man even beyond his work at the World's Fair, eventually going on to become a Congressman for many years and serve as a delegate at the convention that founded the UN.

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Blogger Scoutski said...

Really interesting post, you make an impressive argument. Although many gamers who do have an interest in scholarship love the push of the medium as an artform, there is so much to consider; it's all just a business about money, the majority of gamers don't care, it's just a way to pass time and relax. What's best for some will be worse for others, big explosions and exciting cameo's by Pele and The Beatles are pretty impressive when you think about it, despite the criticism such acts gather.


June 22, 2009 at 10:13 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Scoutski Thanks. Not to give the wrong impression, I don't think spectacle for spectacle's sake is all games can aspire too. But in looking forward, we ought not to forget what makes people so excited about this in the first place.

June 23, 2009 at 4:38 PM  

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