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.

Thought engendered by my return to computer gaming after an absence of two and a half years

I was an avid computer gamer for about fourteen or fifteen years. I played all sorts of games– realtime strategies, MMORPGs, first person shooters, turn-based games–but my most favorite games were usually role playing games (Fallout 1 and 2, Planescape Torment, Baldur’s Gate 2) or point and click adventures (Grim Fandango, The Longest Journey, Still Life). [As most gamers can probably tell from that list, I’m mostly interested in games with good stories]. Then, about two and a half years ago, my desktop suffered a mysterious malfunction. It started freezing after a few minutes of operation.

And I never bothered to fix it. For the first time in my life, I was working full time. And I was also struggling to recommit myself to my writing. Every night, I got home, watching an hour or two of TV, read a book for two hours, then tried to write a thousand words. I didn’t have any time to play computer games, so fixing my desktop didn’t seem particularly important.

At various intervals in the last 2.5 years I’ve tried to fix that desktop, usually with the intent of using it to play some game. I have a copy of Dragon Age that I’ve desperately wanted to play for like three years now.

Finally, though, I am game-enabled again. I just bought a huge brick of a laptop that has more than enough power to play any game on the market. And today, I installed Fallout: New Vegas–the latest installment in what is definitely my most favorite video game franchise.

And, man, it is weird to play electronic games again.

The experience of playing an electronic game is, for me, very different from the experience of consuming any other form of entertainment. As a player, my relationship to the story feels entirely different than when I view a TV show or movie or when I read a book.

And that’s because of gameplay. I’m mostly interested in games for their stories. But even the most story-driven games are not mostly composed of story. They’re mostly composed of gameplay, all the parts of the game that involve running, jumping, shooting, killing, exploring, collecting items, gaining experience, and doing all the other random crap that propels you from conversation to conversation or from cutscene to cutscene.

Even in the best games, I find gameplay to be pretty mind-numbing. I think that Gameplay is supposed to feel like playing a sport or solving a puzzle. But it rarely does feel like that, because gameplay is usually not very hard. But gameplay is not boring, either. It does involve the mind. Gameplay is a bit like walking around. In most RPGs, it’s just a way to drag out the process of looking at alot of scenery. It involves just enough brainpower that you become really focused on what you’re looking at, but not so much brainpower that it gets too hard and you give up.

And it really works. Fallout NV is really immersive. It’s not precisely fun to spend hours wandering around, looking at this postnuclear wasteland….but it’s definitely creates this weird feeling that you’re actually wandering around, looking at a postnuclear wasteland. After a few hours, I started to feel like I was really there.

And that’s not a feeling that I get (or even attempt to get) from most other entertainment. Most entertainment is about telling a story about some people…some other people. It’s just like the stories your friends tell you about their lives, except with music and audio and pictures.

Games try to do something different. They actually put you there. They use those pictures and that audio to put you there, in some other world.

This is especially true for representational, open-world games like Fallout, but I think it’s even true for fairly stylized, closed-world games like PacMan. These games hypnotize you. Who hasn’t felt that sense of panic and claustrophobia whilst playing PacMan? Who hasn’t felt anxious and rushed for time during the final moments of a game of Tetris? These worlds have very different rules from our world, but when we play them, we internalize their logic, and we learn to live out a life in which gobbling down some dots is a matter of deathly importance.