What Edward R. Murrow Can Teach Us About Video Games

Edward R. Murrow is without a doubt, most well remembered for his historic debates with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s during the height of the Red Scare in which the fear of communism reached hysterical proportions in the US. However, nearly simultaneously, there was another debate going on.

The television was a burgeoning medium and was quickly becoming a common device found in the average American home. Murrow was becoming worried about how the great invention was being used.

"During the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live…For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive. I mean the word survive literally."

Murrow saw what the medium was becoming, and the reality of what he saw is not far from what we can see today in the modern video game industry. He saw television as having a serious lack of creative responsibility and was upset by the way profits universally took precedence over what was really important.

To highlight this he was once noted as saying, "If we were to do the Second Coming of Christ in color for a full hour, there would be a considerable number of stations which would decline to carry it on the grounds that a Western or a quiz show would be more profitable." In short, he was upset that the greatest tool in the arsenal of television was being squandered in the name of maximum profitability.

Perhaps the most common word used to describe the year’s biggest blockbusters is "immersion." If immersion is the greatest tool in the arsenal of video games then it is a tool largely wasted.

Over the years many games have succeeded in immersing us in truly amazing worlds full of detail and life, but how often have we been taken to a place we didn’t necessarily want to go? How often have we been taken to a place that taught us something about the reality of the human condition? The same criticism Murrow offered in 1951 applies today; we are using this instrument to take us to awe inspiring places and times in the world, but when we get there we are greeted with a version that has been selectively censored to allow us to avoid facing reality.

Perhaps the most appropriate example of this phenomenon is in the World War II shooter genre. Store shelves have been flooded with these games for decades; dozens still come out every year. Yet, in all of those accounts of history, how many times did the course of the game lead us to a concentration camp? World War II history is full of stories of heroism and valor which we are all too happy to exploit, but tales of strife and woe are in alarmingly short supply.

Murrow saw that while other forms of art were being used to give us a better view of the world, television was content to keep us in a perpetual state of illusion and fantasy. The same argument can be made about videogames today. We fancy them as an art form, but where other forms of art use distortion and extremes to show us the truth about our world, gaming in the mainstream fails to elevate to art because it is so preoccupied with perfect realism. It’s like a painter who spends years trying to make his work look exactly like the landscapes he bases them on. Beautiful, but boring. The very best games understand this distinction.

The picture Murrow painted for his audience was one of wasted opportunity. "There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful. Stonewall Jackson, who knew something about the use of weapons, is reported to have said, ‘When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.’ The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival."

Murrow was commenting on the lack of use of this great tool. And now, just as television was in 1951, interactive entertainment is rusting in the scabbard.

Murrow’s words came from a frustration that television had the potential to achieve so much, but the great majority preferred to use it as a way to generate advertising revenue. "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

Disregarding the petty differences in the design of each format, videogames and television (today vs. 1951 respectively) are alarmingly similar as developmental mediums. We need to pay more attention to this connection, because television is an example of a medium that never truly made it. We can’t just sit back and rest on our laurels and simply assume that since film ascended to an art form, so will we.

Too long have we been focused on the similarities of videogames to film. A likely reason for this is out of a desire to view our medium as similar to film because film eventually made it, and was accepted by the world as art. It seems like we want to believe that too, and since we are a young medium we believe we have been endowed with some kind of irrevocable right to become universally respected for our artistic endeavors as long as we put up with the persecution for long enough.

But this is not enough. We have to continue making strides on the creative end, and above all we need to convince publishers that there is room for the artistic game. That is what film was able to do, and what television failed to do.

Videogames have the potential to teach, they can illuminate and even inspire. But they can do so only to the extent that we are determined to use them to that end. Otherwise they are merely coding and lights in a box.

Good night, and good luck.


  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Myspace
  • Google Buzz
  • Reddit
  • Stumnleupon
  • Delicious
  • Digg
  • Technorati
Author: Andy Groen View all posts by

Leave A Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.