Notes on video games as culture.
My co-Gent Barrett, in his post “Computing in virtual worlds,” writes:
“…there exists a faction represented by such people as Roger Ebert who believe that one may refer to one’s self as cultured while knowing almost nothing about the state of gaming…”
Some thoughts from a gaming outsider:
1.) Gaming is worth taking seriously, but this also means being ready to criticize. Plenty of what gamers do is, from my perspective, a waste. There’s a common perception that gamers spend a lot of time trying to get away from reality, to lose themselves in worlds which aren’t this one. There’s truth in this. It’s sad to me when someone masters Guitar Hero instead of actually learning to play guitar. On the other hand, judging gaming culture by its best-selling franchises would be like judging film by Michael Bay or contemporary literature by James Patterson. That is to say, it’s an exceptional community where the most interesting stuff doesn’t happen mainly on the fringes.
2.) Barrett’s exactly right to zero in on “sandboxes” as the most impressive sector of gaming culture. About once a year I go on a Conway’s Game of Life binge, marveling at, say, the Universal Turing Machine built on the grid. This “game” was one the earliest demonstrations of gaming culture’s impulse to wring as much complexity as possible out of constrained environments. I’m continually amazed by what happens when game designers set up open environments and let players loose to create. I’m delighted to see what talented puzzle-makers come up with when they pick out an interesting scenario — say, playing with time in a 2D platformer.
3.) However, games often stumble when it comes to narrative. There’s at least one sharp critic on this point in the gaming community: Ben Croshow, a.k.a. Yahtzee, the verbally dextrous and consistently NSFW voice of Zero Punctuation. While Croshow has a handful of examples of effective game storylines (e.g., his write-up of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time), he spends a lot more time lambasting games for awful writing, stupid characters, and contrived events. My limited experience with major-release games is that there’s a constant give-and-take with interactivity: the story-driven game may or may not give you choices, and if it does you’re going to be constrained and herded toward the handful of endings the developers had in mind anyway. The stories work better for me when they’re minimal, more suggested than spelled out, as in, say, Shadow of the Colossus. One caveat with regard to stories and games: I’ve never played a MMORPG, so I’m not sure what it’s like to be part of one of these huge game-wide narrative events.
4.) Another major tension in story-driven games is that between the story’s need for a protagonist and the gameplay’s demand for continual violence. This got quite comical in Grand Theft Auto IV, where you were expected to somehow summon sympathy for Niko Bellic’s emotional turmoil between tasks that required you to guide Niko to commit mass slaughter. To return to the film analogy, you get a lot of the video-game equivalent of Michael Bay, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get Peckinpah or Miyazaki. But could you ever have an Antonioni? I’m not at all sure if this will hold up, but I’d posit for the sake of discussion that in film the relevant axis is stimulation-meditation, whereas in games the relevant axis is destruction-creation.
5.) The fanboy approach to gaming will continue to keep knowledge of gaming from functioning as cultural capital. If the gaming community wants to be taken seriously by the Eberts of the future, it should generate more of its own thoughtful critics.
6.) I would seriously love to play Miegakure.