Thursday, 29 October 2009

Why I write about video games

What's the best thing about university? It's definitely not the outfits.

No, it's probably the excuse it gives you to pretend you exist on a higher plane of existence far above the corporeal realm and its petty bourgeois concerns (house prices, utility bills, food etc). Pass the Absinthe.

My degree allowed, nay, required me to spend three self-indulgent years wafting around through novels, poetry, essays, political manifestos, philosophical diatribes, films, plays, advertisements and documentary footage. The message was clear from the start: If you want to understand something, you need to look at it from all angles, through all prisms and from every point of view.

Neglect nothing.

Except videogames of course, they're for bored teenagers and itchy-fingered pot-heads.


Perhaps my favourite course was Modern American Fiction in the final year. We studied Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo and Lousie Erdrich. On a cold February afternoon, we settled down to discuss Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel The Road. For those who don't know, The Road is an intense poetic journey across a post-apocalyptic American wasteland. Characters scavenge for food and improvise tools in an inhospitable and savage landcape. At the beginning of our seminar, our tutor (corduroy, leather satchel), asked us if the novel's aesthetic reminded us of anything. But of course!

"Has anyone else played Fallout 3?"

Silent bafflement.

"It's a recent videogame. You're in a post-apocalyptic American wasteland, and you have to fight feral raiders for the last of the supplies. There are even shopping trolleys scattered around, so it's very similar..."

"Ye-es. Thank you. Does anyone recognize this aesthetic from, erm, literature?"

Back in my box.

It was only later, of course, that I discovered that The Road was a direct influence on Fallout 3. Todd Howard, executive producer of Fallout 3, explains:

"The Road is fantastic and came out in the middle of our design phase, so it became required reading for many of us."

For a start, this encouragingly shows that video game designers sometimes take a break from playing with guns and looking at boobies to read the odd book.

But more importantly, it raises the important question of why, when two media address a single theme (that of humanity having to revert to primitive means of survival because of their own mistakes), one is lauded and one is derided, at least in an academic context.

Admittedly Fallout 3 approaches the subject with rather more dark humour than The Road, but both leave the audience (player, reader, whatever) wondering, in the back of their mind, what was the point? Does it matter if these characters survive? Hasn't humanity doomed itself? Do the lives of the characters we've spent the last 8 hours immersed in really matter? The remnants of Washington DC scattered around the Fallout 3 landscape suggest civilization's transience in much the same way as the characters' fragile lives in The Road.

The reasons for the difference in accepted opinion is twofold. Firstly, videogames haven't been around for very long, and they're still expensive to get hold of and play. This means that they are alien to many people. This leaves them in much the same position as the novel found itself in several centuries ago when it first became widely available. Novel readers were not the elite, they were the nouveau-riche who had the audacity to learn to read. Consequently, the novel was widely distrusted by the aforementioned elite. History has shown that opinions in these circumstances change with the times, so give games a couple of decades to cement themselves in the public consciousness.

The second reason is more complex. The question of interactivity, of the player's control over what they see and the story that unfolds, lies at the centre of games' marginal position within the artistic canon (I promise we'll talk less about artistic canons and more about zombies next week, just bear with me). For the sake of argument, let's take a quick look at some definitions of "art" from the Collins English Dictionary:
  • The creation of works of beauty or other special significance
  • The products of man's creative activities
  • Imaginative skill as applied to representations of the natural world or figments of the imagination
The first two rather speak for themselves, but let's concentrate on the last one.

To me at least, art is the representation of the natural world, or at least humanity's experience of it. On a very simple level, everything we regard as an artistic medium does this. Whether it's Turner's landscapes, Sassoon's poems, Shakespeare's plays or Austen's novels, we're looking at a representation of the world through the eyes of someone else.

The difficulty with video games is that although artists have created a world and a writer has written a story, we are still the ones controlling it. This places video games in a strange place. For example, although chess represents war, few would call it art. It's used symbolically in art, but it's not really art in itself any more than football, water polo or skiing.

Games and sports are tests of skill, and are far more challenging than most (yes, yes, Contra fans) video games will ever be because they exist to be won or lost. Games are to be explored and experienced.

They can be "works of beauty", like Beyond Good and Evil. They are "products of man's creative activities", like Portal. And they "imaginative skill" to "representations of the natural world" and "figments of the imagination", just as Fallout 3 is the imaginative interpretation of an America pulled between a desire to retain old-fashioned values and the need to survive in an increasingly hostile world.

Of course, the peculiar limbo which videogames occupy between art and quantifiable challenge makes them very difficult to discuss. This is both a blessing and a curse, and there are no easy answers. Critical language for discussing games is still in its infancy, and whilst there are many who argue that games need to be discussed on their own terms without comparisons to older forms of narrative media, I believe that there's much to be learned from questioning how existing ideas of art and story stand up to the scrutiny that videogames provide.

How do videogames tell stories? Can an interactive medium ever be high art? How is a character you control different from a character you observe?

These questions have fascinated me for years.I believe that art is the most important communicative tool that humans possess, for it is only be provoking emotion in others that we can express our own experience. If you don't believe me, try to explain what love is, or how it feels when you hear fingernails on a blackboard. Art is what human beings have instead of telepathy or a hive mind, so I think that anything which arouses feeling in another person qualifies.

That said, it's worth pointing out that the most pertinent challenge leveled at videogames is that they are frequently destructive, or "mindless".

This is true.

Gamers can neither deny nor refute this charge, and they shouldn't try.

This is not the post for delving into complex psychological discussions about violence, interactivity and our fragile youth (but we'll get there, hopefully before I am arrested for slaughtering pensioners after an intense session of Grand Theft Auto IV), but I will briefly explain why I don't think it should be a barrier to mainstream appreciation of video games.

Firstly, I honestly believe we underestimate our children when we suggest that they are incapable of distinguishing games from reality.

Secondly, it is preposterous to define an entire medium by citing a genre within it. Some video games are mindlessly violent, therefore all video games are beneath contempt? Please. By that reasoning we'd all have to burn our copies of Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Bridges of Madison County and even Withnail and I, just because someone in Van Wilder: Party Liason ***** off a dog, puts the ********* in some eclairs and feeds it to a bunch of frat boys.

And that just wouldn't do.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff! I broke down and bought an Xbox 360 last year as a way of trying to take a break from my own head for small periods of time. I had no idea what I was signing up for, but I've been taken into the world of virtual reality of which I am the surrogate. Though I control my characters fate, I've learned a lot from working within the framework of designer's, who like in Assasin's Creed for example, found it important to recreate circumstances that may have existed in Jerusalem during the crusades. Wicked!