Thursday, 18 February 2010

If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

It has been a busy week over in the Well-Rendered camp. As you may have gathered from last week's hiatus, I have been overwhelmed not by circumstance but my own inability to judge the size of my stomach in relation to that of my eyes, so to speak.

Perhaps the most misguidedly ambitious project I undertook was the writing of a proposal for The Escapist magazine. For the unenlightened, The Escapist is an online gaming magazine, the home of Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw. Before I embark on a self-indulgent tirade worthy of Lifetime, or hell, Oprah, let's have one of Yahtzee's videos. They are very funny.

Right, self-indulgence. Perhaps because I had never submitted any kind of proposal before, I took this task extremely seriously. Especially considering that the good people at The Escapist accept only four submissions each month. After spending two weeks' worth of angst-ridden evenings tweaking and polishing my proposal, I sent it off (tired, sweaty, emotionally fragile) on Wednesday at 12:14. By 12:48 I returned to my desk after lunch to find a polite but firm rejection in my inbox.


It's not that I had expected the Escapist to come back to me with tears of gratitude in its eyes asking where I had been all its life. I had in fact been anticipating rejection, if only because I have a GCSE-level understanding of probability. It's just that my fragile ego would have appreciated a little pretense on The Escapist's part. Perhaps by leaving a day or so to feign careful consideration before the inevitable let-down.

But enough of this transparent attempt to conceal disappointment with humour.

This is not the last The Escapist will hear of me. But it is the last time that I will neglect Well-Rendered for anything less than severe (and I mean really, really gruesome) illness or international espionage. I have made a commitment to myself and my loyal readers (Hi Mum), to produce a weekly article on some aspect of video games and I will not let us down again. Of course it's good to aim for higher things, but not at the expense other, perhaps more important things. 

The internet enables anyone with a telephone connection and motor skills to share their thoughts and opinions with the world. I possess enough puppy-like optimism to believe that this is a good thing, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary. I intend not to waste the opportunities afforded to me simply because I had the luck to have been born in the latter half of the twentieth century. If I can publish (for free) a weekly blog about something I deeply care about and enjoy, then I will.

Which means I have to make a slightly embarrassing admission.

I still haven't written anything for Well-Rendered.


Fortuitously however, I am now in a position to post the article which might, in an alternative universe, have been published in The Escapist. Old friends of Well-Rendered will of course realise that this article is merely a re-hash of old Well-Rendered articles with a sprinkling of secondary school narrative theory thrown in. I hope you don't feel too cheated. 

Bear in mind that I sent The Escapist a bullet-point proposal, and the article you see before you is merely a rushed conversion from bullet-points to prose when I realised I would never be required to write it out in full, glittering prose. Also please bear in mind that I spent about 80% of my free time over the last two weeks wringing my hands over what exactly was required of me and re-wrote every sentence about twenty times. Therefore it's more of a verbal doodle than an article. All incredulous questions along the lines of "did this really take her two weeks?" are entirely justified.

All ire should be directed to the comment box and will be dealt with in due course. 

Anyway, here goes:

"Squabbles between psychologists as to whether videogames enhance visuo-spatial and motor skills are largely unresolved. The only thing that everyone agrees on is that playing videogames makes you better at playing video games."                
     Steven Poole, Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames (London: Fourth Estate, 2000) 

...and it's true. Unlike playing a sport or reading a book, gaming is unlikely to improve your health, appearance or vocabulary. Similarly, only a subset of games could be described as social pursuits. So why do so many educated, intelligent adults dedicate so many hours and so much money to them? 

Of course, I don't have to explain why gaming is worthwhile to readers of The Escapist . But the readers of the Escapist may be asked: "but you're so CLEVER, why do you waste your time on those things?" one too many times, so here's a (long-winded) answer. 

At this point it is necessary to make the distinction between people who identify themselves as "gamers" and the emerging gameplaying demographics, i.e. people who view gaming as a time killer (Monkey Ball on the bus, Tetris on a tea break) or as a means to an end (Wii Fit, Brain Trainer), and that only the former really feel the need to defend gaming as a profitable use of time.

Here's a time where such a defense might have come in handy. A university class is studying Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. The tutor asks if the novel's aesthetic is reflected elsewhere in of art or literature. Someone says "Fallout 3!" and is met with baffled contempt. Fallout 3 was actually strongly influenced by The Road, but that's not the point, though it does suggest that video game designers occasionally take time out from playing with guns and looking at boobies to read a book. No, the point is that why, when two mediums address a single theme (that of humanity having to revert to primitive means of survival because of their own mistakes), is one lauded and one derided?

The simple reason is that video games simply haven't been accepted by the public consciousness as a respectable art form. This is because a) games are a comparatively young medium and seismic cultural and technological shifts always take time to gain widespread acceptance and b) access to games is limited to those with the funds and expertise to play them. Anyone who has ever given a novice gamer a 17-buttoned Playstation controller will know this.*

Often, the gamer is compelled to list any number of artistic titles to the non-believer, but without sitting them down, Clockwork Orange style in front of Eco, this won't do much good. I mean, they're not going to take you're word for it, you're a sex-obsessed bloodthirsty video game enthusiast.

However, it is possible to defend gaming as an art form using the power of logic alone...
Firstly, if you want to be nerdy, games adhere to definitions of "art" in the Dictionary, for example: "The creation of works of beauty or other special significance" or "Imaginative skill as applied to representations of the natural world or figments of the imagination".     

But let's get a little more technical. Games are not merely interactive films. If they were, they would be superfluous. In fact, they re-invent narrative. 

Imagine the story from any well-known (or obscure, whatever) book or film. Now imagine that it takes place in an alternative time. Now imagine that it takes place in an alternative place. The story will, in most cases, be much the same as time and place in traditional narrative are context and backdrop, rather than story. This is why Shakespeare translates so effortlessly into alternative settings. 

But there are barely any books or films which would remain the same if the central characters were different (i.e. significantly older or younger, a different sex, different social or economic backgrounds).

Games, however, are the opposite. They subvert traditional narrative by placing setting rather than character at the heart of their story. This is why so many games allow you to create your own character. Indeed, even games with recognizable protagonists (Beyond Good and Evil, Gears of War, Rayman) would not change much if their protagonist was someone (or something) else. Almost all games are defined by their universe and that universe's rules.
Gaming is the only medium in which the universe is at the centre. The Road is the story of a man and his son. Fallout 3 is a world.
So how does this explain why gamers happily spend three hours a day and £50 a month playing videogames? Well, because gaming is the only medium in which players are completely free to explore imaginary worlds as opposed to following a story about a set of characters. This is not to say that story doesn't matter in games, rather that the story is a product of the universe, not the character. If there is a character, it is the person in front of the screen, not the one inside it.

 So, Escapist readers, the next time someone tells you that gaming is a waste of your time, ask yourself this: When one is lucky enough to be living in a time when it is possible to freely explore completely imaginary worlds, it is not mystifying to belittle those who take the opportunity to do so?

*     *     *  
So there you have it. 

I will just say, in parting, that I appreciate anyone who takes the time to read this page. I put a lot of time into it, and although it's not really work, it isn't always easy. I know The Escapist and the like must receive dozens of high-quality submissions every day, but that doesn't make it any less disheartening when days of work are so quickly dismissed. Still, even if I have learnt nothing but time-management from this incident, it has been a valuable experience.

Have a good week everyone, and remember that it is better to try and not succeed than never to have tried at all.

* Although motion-sensitive platforms such as the Nintendo Wii and the iPhone have extremely simple input systems, people who play on these platforms are generally not the gamers spending entire months playing a single title through to 100% completion. This is not to belittle either this emerging demographic or the innovations of the designers who create wonderful games for them. It is merely to point out the difference in opinion which is likely to arise. There are of course exceptions to every rule.


  1. If at first you don't succeed... Its the only advice I can offer and I can't be bothered to finish it. I am happy because you said you are going to commit your attention to Well Rendered, which can only be a good thing because this blog is superb, but I do think that continuing to submit to Escapist et al should still be your goal. Maybe, now this is my shrill little opinion and nothing more, you could include more info on your anti-gamergirl (in pink)struggle to present informed writing on the subject, and the section where you talk about your blood sweat and tears was f*cking funny, and something we can all identify with whilst we laugh at your misery.

  2. The Escapist is missing out! The issues you discuss in Well-Rendered are quality reads and is definitely missing in the minds of some U.S. gamers. Then again, most of the gamers here couldn't tell you Croshaw's name, let alone, what the Escapist is. Keep it up with Well-Rendered! You are truly appreciated on the other side of the hemisphere!