Today, the great people at Extra Credits released their 200th episode. If you’re not familiar with these guys, PLEASE go check out their website. Their series of videos discussing all manner of topics relating to video games are not only entertaining but hugely important to our discussion of video games as an industry and as an art. For my money, James, Dan, LeeLee, Scott, and Other Dan are far and away the best voices out there at examining games in a critical way, and through their work, and the work of others like them, we’ve seen video games mature at an incredible rate over the last few years. What was once thought of as expensive toys for children, are now being regarded in many circles as a culturally legitimate form of media. As these guys discuss in their latest episode, we’ve seen games legally recognized for their artistic merit, used as teaching tools, launch careers, and gain recognition from unexpected places. Lord knows there are still a TON of hurdles for the medium to overcome, but within a decade, video games will become equal with film and literature in terms of their relevance to our culture. It’s an incredibly exciting thing to see.
Less exciting, though, is some of the conversation that’s taking place surrounding recent developments in a few of the world’s most popular theme parks. About now, I suspect that some of you might be scoffing at the idea of me treating theme parks in the same way I treat other forms of artistic media, and that’s totally fair. Right now, most people look at theme parks, at best, as an overly expensive diversion; a large-scale playground for children integrated with a shopping mall. Recently, Devin Faraci of Badass Digest caused a bit of a stir on Twitter by calling theme parks a “cultural nadir. Decadent and juvenile all at once.” Whatever you might think of Devin, this assessment of theme parks reflects the way they are viewed by our culture at large, and it’s an assessment that is not entirely unjustified. I believe strongly that there is artistic and cultural merit to be found in theme parks, but right now, the largest player in the industry and the template behind which all other players model themselves is systematically strip-mining that cultural value and replacing it with a large-scale playground for children integrated with a shopping mall, and a large portion of “fans” are not only allowing it to happen, they’re actively encouraging it.
EPCOT Center, as it existed in the years between 1982 and 1994, is beloved by many fans of the medium for its scale and its thematic audacity. It was a theme park that did not concern itself with thrills or escapism, but rather a more mature exploration of technology and world culture. The park was never perfect, and even in its ideal state many of the ideas were watered down to appeal to a mass audience, but the core of that park was an exciting and bold evolution of the medium, and should have laid the ground work for more diverse subject matter to be explored in theme parks in the future; subjects that could be geared toward an audience beyond families with young children. Yet, this did not happen. Over time, the positive, progressive elements of EPCOT center have been chiseled away and replaced by cartoon characters and overpriced restaurants, the latest example of which is the news that a pavilion originally intended to celebrate the culture and the people of Norway will soon give way to a halfhearted commercial for Frozen toys. And yet, we are seeing a fair amount of people who claim to be fans of the medium defending this move, claiming that it’s a “smart change” and that, “Disney is for families.” The entire thematic intent of the park is being undermined, and “fans” are defending it by regurgitating insincere PR speak.
On the opposite coast, Disneyland just finished work on the expansion of its absurdly expensive private club, and the response has been controversial, to say the least. My good friend Andy Castro of Dateline Disneyland has some great pictures and commentary of the new club, that I encourage you to check out, but the short version is that the legacy and history of the park’s original designer was stripped away in favor of increased capacity. Not only that, but it also dramatically changed the aesthetics of the surrounding area of the park (generally considered to be among the best themed environments ever constructed), and robbed regular guests of a beautiful courtyard that has long been a popular spot for marriage proposals, family photos, and a temporary escape from the higher traffic areas of the park. Yet again, people are defending it. These arguments range from the silly, self defeating, “Bad things are inevitable, so it’s best just to suck it up.” to the rage inducing, “Despite paying $100 a day for admission, you’re not allowed to complain unless you’re paying $15,000 a year for a Club 33 membership.”
This needs to stop. If we want theme parks to be treated with any level of seriousness, we also need to treat them seriously. We need to hold the people responsible for these parks accountable for their artistic integrity, and not make excuses for second rate – or worse – content. Disney especially is blazing a trail towards the decadence and juvenility that Devin spoke of, and if you truly, honestly consider yourself to be a fan of this medium, you should be outraged. I don’t have to pay money to see Transformers: Age of Extinction to be outraged by the existence and incredible success of a film that the director didn’t even want to make, and I can also be outraged over the destruction of the authorial legacy of Disneyland without having to purchase a Club 33 membership.
And yes, Disneyland was effectively authored by Walt Disney. It was a collaborative effort between many artists and designers, but its identity is deeply rooted in Walt Disney’s specific vision and worldview. There’s the famous Walt Disney quote which assures us that, “Disneyland will never be completed as long as their is imagination left in the world,” but I don’t think that quote gives us carte blanche to go in and systematically overwrite the auteurist design of the original work. Any additions or changes should not only be in line with the larger thematic statement of the park, but should serve to enhance what’s already there, not take away from it. Turning the carefully reconstructed lift, based on one Walt Disney saw on a trip to France, into a sad table-for-one booth is an invalidation of the original auteurist design.
This is the difference between being a fan of a medium and being a cheerleader for a brand. If you care deeply about the artistic and cultural value of theme parks, it is your duty to speak up when things are being mishandled. It may not always make a difference, but it tells the people in charge that we take these things seriously, and hopefully encourages that mindset with the people who make these decisions. This is part of what has helped video games go through the incredible evolution we’ve seen in the past several years, and it’s exactly what we should be aiming for as fans of theme parks. Conversely, being a cheerleader just tells the company that you’re a sucker who will spend money on whatever lazy crap they vomit out.
Front page header image courtesy of Andy Castro.