Why Video Games Matter

As I mentioned awhile back, I have something in common with most males of my age and social station: I have been an avid player of video and computer games. And like most of my peers, I have at times questioned the aesthetic worth of electronic gaming. Are games art? Are they good art? Did I get any sort of positive return from the thousands of hours that I spent in front of a rapidly-flickering screen?

These questions form the basis of essayist Tom Bissell’s collection of musings on electronic gaming, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Bissell approaches these questions in just the right way. He has impeccable gaming credentials. He’s not some outside cultural critic like Roger Ebert (who recently stirred up a shitstorm by claiming that video games were not art). Bissell is a gamer, like us. But he’s also kind of a snob. And he definitely has alot more doubts about the aesthetic worth of video games than his forthright subtitle suggests. In the end, he is not quite sure whether video games matter. He writes:

More than any other form of entertainment, video games tend to divide rooms into Us and Them. We are, in effect, admitting that we like to spend our time shooting monsters, and They are, not unreasonably, failing to find the value in that.

Do the question of whether video games are art, his answer is a qualified ‘yes’. Of course they are. As visual art alone, video games are often arrestingly beautiful. But he remains ambivalent over whether any video game is really an artistic masterpiece.

…what distinguishes one work of art from another is primarily intelligence, which is as multivalent as art itself. Artistic or creative intelligence can express itself formally, stylistically, emotionally, thematically, morally, or any number of ways. Works of art we call masterpieces typically run the table on the many forms artistic intelligence can take: They are comprehensively intelligent….Many games have more formal and stylistic intelligence than they know what to do with and not even trace amounts of thematic, emotional, or moral intelligence. One could argue that these games succeed as works of art in some ways and either fail or do not attempt to succeed in others. “True” art makes the attempt to succeed in every way available to it. At least, I think so.

Basically, the problem is that even the best games have pretty bad narratives. Oh, there are some games with okay stories–Fallout 3, Bioshock, System Shock, Deus Ex, Planescape Torment–but even these games are rife with poor acting, laughable dialogue, silly plots, and a basic lack of thematic complexity. To Tom Bissell–and to me–it often seems like the best video game narrative is no better than a mediocre novel or film.

And the problem goes beyond simple quality: the sort of thing that can be solved by hiring better writers and designers and voice actors. No, there’s something in the video game form that actually seems to resist narrative complexity. After interviewing Jonathan Blow, a designer of indie games, Bissell writes:

…the video-game form is incompatible with traditional concepts of narrative. Stories are about time passing and narrative progression. Games are about challenge, which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression. The story force wants to go forward and the “friction force” of challenge tries to hold story back. This is the conflict at the heart of the narrative game, one that game designers have thus far imperfectly addressed by making story the reward of a successfully met challenge. According to Blow, this method is “unsound,” because story and challenge “have a structural conflict that’s so deeply ingrained, it’s impossible” to make game stories strong. Can better writing solve this? In Blow’s mind, it cannot. The nature of the medium itself “prevents the stories from being good.”

When a person plays a game, they experience the game’s story in a sort of linear way: one thing happens after another. But they experience the game itself in a repetitive way: they’re performing the same actions over and over and slowly getting better at them. This creates a weird kind of dissonance. It’s like playing a game of football where you have to watch a movie after getting a first down. In this case, even if the movie is very good, it’s still fundamentally set apart from the play.

Blow suggests that the solution is to pare away in-game narrative: the dialogues; the cut-scenes; the radio broadcasts; the overt characterization. Instead of trying to resemble movies or books, games should look to another form of aural/visual entertainment: Dance. With their gameplay and their visual elements, games could create a more unified experience. Examples of this would be games like Tetris, Flower, or Blow’s own (fairly popular) game, Braided.

Bissell kind of steps back from agreeing with Blow here. This book of essays is not normative, it’s descriptive. The issues that Blow brings up are real ones that, I think, every gamer can agree with.

As for myself, I share Bissell’s ambivalence. Gaming is one of the most entertaining things Iv’e ever done. And I have many exhilarating memories of playing games. But, after I spend a few hours reading books or watching TV, I don’t feel quite as cheated as I do after spending a few hours playing video games. Perhaps part of this is cultural–our culture places a fairly high value on being well-read–but I think part of it is that games frequently feel vapid. Their characters and stories don’t resemble anything in the real world. They don’t create interesting effects. Video gaming is often a very immersive experience. Fallout 3 transports me to a post-apocalyptic wasteland in a way that post-apocalyptic literature frequently fails to do. But I don’t feel like I bring anything back from that wasteland. It’s a dream that fades away as soon as I wake up. The emotional experience offered by literature is, in some ways, more paltry, but it also offers an intellectual content that is a bit slower to fade away.

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