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Game Culture Vultures: Parkour
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Game Culture Vultures: Parkour

March 11, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Video games have long drawn inspiration from real world activities. But more recently this has been on the increase. Many games now entirely shape their structure and play mechanic around some in-vogue reference material. Whether this is hip-hop or skate culture the advantages are clear: they gain a ready-built cultural language and grammar of interaction from the communities they emulate.

It is high time then for a detailed look at some of these video-gaming culture adoptions. Firstly, are the resulting experiences are successful games? Secondly, how authentic these experiences are to their real world counterparts? First under the hammer are the Parkour-informed games of Assassin's Creed and Crackdown.

If you haven't come across it before, Parkour (or "free running") is a physical activity where participants attempt to traverse obstacles in their path in a smooth and fluid motion. The aim is to turn a simple short journey between two points into an artistic performance that draws influence as diverse as gymnastic and ballet. As it is described on the American Parkour website:

"Parkour is the art of moving through your environment using only your body and the surroundings to propel yourself. It can include running, jumping, climbing, even crawling, if that is the most suitable movement for the situation. Parkour could be grasped by imagining a race through an obstacle course; the goal is to overcome obstacles quickly and efficiently, without using extraneous movement.

Apply this line of thought to an urban environment, or even a run through the woods, and you're on the right path. Because individual movements could vary so greatly by the situation, it is better to consider Parkour as defined by the intention instead of the movements themselves. If the intention is to get somewhere using the most effective movements with the least loss of momentum, then it could probably be considered Parkour."

Free runners interact with their environment using vaults, jumps, somersaults and other acrobatic movements. They create an athletic and aesthetically pleasing journey through their landscape (below picture courtesy

Recent TV documentaries such as 2003's Jump London or the later Jump Britain have highlighted Parkour's ability to re-connect proponents to their environment. This, combined with the density of built structures, has led to the activity becoming popular in European urban housing estates and other built-up areas, where it provides a way to redeem these drab, dense urban living solutions.

Although not the central intent, this side-effect fits with the higher aims of Parkour. The focus of practitioners has always been that of satisfying individual performance rather than competition. They aim to attain grace and precision rather than to travel the fastest or the furthest. Free running is at bottom that strangest of animals, a non-competitive sport. In the words of Erwan Hebertiste, "competition pushes people to fight against others for the satisfaction of a crowd and/or the benefits of a few business people by changing its mindset.

[Free running] is unique and cannot be a competitive sport if it ignores its altruistic core to self development." Much of this may be grabbing the minds and bodies of today's urban youngsters, but its uncompetitive nature means that this activity doesn't immediately lend itself to a video game that needs to reward the player through rivalry.

Suitability to Games

But you may ask, what has all this got to do with games? The first thing that strikes a developer or gamer watching free running is an obvious synergy with a variety of game genres.

Although it may not have been called free running back then, its influence is clear in the character moves and abilities of Tomb Raider and Ninja Gaiden. These characters may not draw on Parkour culture or language specifically but their protagonists exhibit the same desire to leap, balance and roll through their world.

In addition to these specifics of movement, other games have more wholeheartedly adopted the wider free running culture. These games provide players tactile urban environments that offer an open playground in which they can try out their moves.

In particular, sandbox games such as Crackdown and Assassin's Creed (as we shall go on to discuss) have not only culled free running moves and movement but also its whole approach to interacting with an environment. This has led both titles to not only create massive explorable cities, but also to re-think how their players can interact in those spaces. They reflect free running's desire to rediscover and re-imagine their drab city environments, and find fun and play in these spaces.

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