UPDATE: I wrote the essay below during February 2013 as a response to that month’s Blogs of the Round Table at Critical Distance. A couple of days after I posted it, I took it down again and posted a different piece about violence and Hotline Miami. It felt presumptuous for me, with no professional involvement in videogames, to seek to understand the relationship between games writers and their work. I came across the piece again, today, while housekeeping. Since February 2013, I have seen — from the back of the stands — first a torrent of wonderful and diverse voices flooding into the games field and then a noxious cloud of hatred which descended during 2014 and drove out writer after writer after writer. That cloud is still there, much to my surprise and disappointment, sitting over the games writing community and stifling open discussion. My takeaway in the piece below was ‘there is room for everyone’. I no longer care about being presumptuous and I think this message still needs repeating — so I decided to release the essay into the wild in the hope that someone, somewhere might read it and think twice before trying to slam the door on other voices in the name of contaminated ‘ethics’ and spurious objectivity. I have not edited the piece below since the time of writing, so I apologise for broken links and references to recent events or essays that may now have passed beyond the veil of history.
February’s Blogs of the Round Table invites writers to tackle the issue of how reality is reflected and represented in games. I am going to take the scenic route, hopefully arriving within sight of the topic by the end of the post.
The last month or two has seen a flurry of activity surrounding the question of ‘personal’ games writing. This discussion kicked off from Mattie Brice’s article ‘Would You Kindly’ about the ‘unreality’ of representations of violence in videogames, as compared with the threat of violence in her own life, an article which prefigures this month’s theme. The article was cited as a primary discussion example in a number of critiques and defenses of ‘personal’ writing. Ironically, it was not a good example to pick on for those seeking to challenge ‘personal’ games writing: I don’t think I was alone in finding Brice’s article to be an insightful challenge to the state of gaming and appreciating the value that her personal experience brought to the argument she was articulating. It was not at all an exclusively ‘personal’ piece in the way some people seemed to suggest.
Another angle on the issue of ‘personal’ writing spins out from Ian Bogost’s tweet several days ago that “it stills feels illegitimate to be a games writer. A constant effort to find something ‘real’ to staple overtop”. I am an outsider as far as games writing is concerned and have zero professional involvement in the field. However, I can certainly see where Bogost is coming from. In the writings I read – Gamasutra, Critical Distance, Nightmare Mode and so forth – it is very common to see articles that sprinkle a serious, extrinsic seasoning over discussion of games. One example of this is the focus on ‘the market’, ‘consumers’ and ‘product’ from writers who choose to staple the banner of ‘valuable business’ overtop. Another is overlayering the concerns of social justice or identity politics. A further version is certainly the attachment of a more involved personal story.
All of the above approaches are totally legitimate. If your livelihood depends on making games that sell, then it would be perverse not to address the market in your thinking about games. Similarly, questions of representation are no less important because the representation is within a game. If you have a personal story that interfaces closely with your playing of games, then, as a reader interested in the way people play games, that story is of interest to me: one of the best things I read last year was certainly Patricia Hernandez’s article about her relationship with Fallout 2 for Rock Paper Shotgun’s Gaming Made Me series.
But, notwithstanding the above, it is notably rare to find writing that engages with a game purely on its own terms and for its own sake. There are borderline cases, like some of Rock Paper Shotgun’s WIT pieces and Bogost’s recent triple review of Proteus, but it is not the norm to address a game without bringing into play, at some level, personal, political, business or other angles or without framing the discussion in terms of journalism and consumer-oriented review – another form of, perfectly legitimate, overlayering.
There are lots of legitimate reasons why writers take these approaches and I am not criticising bringing extrinsic concerns into game writing; however, Bogost’s tweet is asking why it feels so difficult not to do this, why writing about games purely for their own sake still feels illegitimate. I think this is an interesting question and it plays into a wider issue that relates to the theme of this Blogs of the Round Table.
Adding a further ingredient, the issue discussed in ‘Tennis with Plato’ by Mark Rowlands, I think shines some light on the issue. Rowlands writes about his relationship with sport and exercise and how he rediscovered his youthful enjoyment of physical activity for its own sake. What is interesting is the extent to which he found himself justifying his sports activities to others by reference to wider ‘grown-up’ benefits. He would point out to his wife that it was, of course, very good for his heart. For others he would agree with their suggestion that it helps him work more effectively and be more productive. As an adult, he suggests, there is a strong cultural bias against doing anything for its own sake. As an adult, your role in life is expected to be essentially utilitarian – a machine for feeding children or for achieving some serious and worthy goal that has wider implications.
Passive entertainment is fairly acceptable – drones need down time – but creative or active pursuits are viewed with suspicion: why aren’t you turning that energy into useful work? My wife read my post on Proteus last week. She was impressed that I had found time to write it but also slightly suspicious; I could see her wondering whether I had somehow skimped on chores (I hadn’t – I wrote it on the train). Several of my clients and colleagues know that I am interested in games but I am happy for them to assume that it is simply a TV substitute; I would feel awkward if they knew that I take the medium and community seriously enough to write posts like this one. My stockpile of ‘seriousness tokens’ is expected to be reserved for remunerative work or familial responsibilities.
For those who are professionally committed to writing about games (or making them for that matter), I imagine that the utilitarian expectation described above creates a significant awkwardness. Most people in the field currently are there because they have a passion for it. Unlike accountancy, I doubt anyone becomes a professional games maker or writer out of familial expectation or out of a desire for a safe, stable and high income. However, if your professional identity and income is bound up in games, then the cultural expectation of adulthood is that your efforts must have a utilitarian motivation: whether that is money, social change or academic status or whatever. How can you do something for its own sake if it is also your professional job? Maybe this cognitive dissonance motivates in part the need to staple more ‘real’ themes on top of games writing, as Bogost identifies?
On the other hand, I am the other side of the coin – my engagement with games must not be perceived as too serious in case it undermines my role as a father, husband and employee, with all the responsibilities that those roles entail. If I’m not getting paid to do it, should I be doing it all? I write under a separate name precisely so that I can duck this issue to some extent. For me, the dissonance comes between wishing to address the medium seriously while also knowing that my engagement is necessarily shallower, carried out in the interstices of my day to day life, and less credible than that of people who are personally exposed and full time in the field.
For other media, the huge widening and development of academic culture over the last century or two has created frameworks for ‘pure’ engagement with literature, art and so forth on its own terms via the academic establishment. Sitting in an Oxford college and thinking solely about ancient greek drama is now an acceptable adult activity (of which I strongly approve). This helps to address the first side of the coin and will definitely happen for games in time. People like Ian Bogost are the vanguard who are carving out and shaping that environment, which I imagine must be an exciting but not entirely comfortable prospect. However, the academicization of fields like literature does have the side effect of closing out the position of non-professionals who are interested in the field and narrowing the terms of engagement, so it is not an unqualified solution. It also remains to be seen how far the huge connectivity of the Internet impacts on this dynamic as games becomes a fixture of the wider academic establishment.
The above pressures and issues all pour into a question that is, in a sense, a necessary preliminary to this month’s topic: how do we, as players, writers and developers, reflect the reality of the games with which we engage?
It is an old truth that for most media – whether artistic, literary, musical – the experience of a given work happens in the space between the viewer, reader, listener and the work itself. In other words, the text or sculpture cannot be discussed meaningfully outside of its relationship with the reader or viewer. In old fashioned academic writing, stylistic norms sought to militate against this relational consideration: the cult of ‘one’, as one of my lecturers used to describe it, seeks to put the author outside of the boundary of their discussion. However, this obviously doesn’t work.
Consider this hypothetical assessment: “When one examines Botticelli’s birth of Venus for the first time, the figure’s stance, and the curve of the hip and thigh, convey an immediate sensuousness”. The author reaches for a universalized characterization that is applicable independent of the specific viewer. However, it is a total charade: all the author is really saying is “I, Jerome T. Beardwrangler PhD, think she’s got a sexy body”. It is a totally personal response that is dressed up as being universal.
Any attempt to write about videogames faces this problem particularly acutely. In addition to all the ways in which our personal make up impinges on our experience of the game as a narrative or work of art, the interactive nature of a videogame brings a whole host of very concrete ways in which our experiences vary. Richard Terrell’s article at Critical-Gaming Network discusses precisely this issue and the impossibility of achieving a ‘complete’ experience of a game. Far more than any other medium, our experiences of a particular game are conditioned by our history with other games. On the interface level, in particular, games are massively intertextual: the reason I am stuck in Undead Burg after ten hours with Dark Souls is closely linked to the fact that I have very limited experience playing third-person games with a controller and very limited experience of fighting games. Whereas lack of literary experience simply makes our reading of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land that much shallower, for a game like Dark Souls, lack of the right gaming experience can destroy the experience altogether.
The interface issue also cuts to our ongoing relationship with particular games: last year I fired up Wolfenstein3D in celebration of its anniversary but I had to stop after ten minutes – the strobing, jagged edges were making me feel sick; similarly, I tried Descent for the first time in over fifteen years and found the game totally inaccessible – I just couldn’t get the hang of six axes and keyboard controls. My relationship with a game I greatly enjoyed as a teenager is now an estrangement. Furthermore, it is also obvious that the interactivity and non-linearity of games means that any one playthrough only ever delivers a slice through the overall possibility space and that slice is determined by the player’s choices.
Between the external pressures and agendas that impact on individual writers, the impossibility of discussing any work in genuinely universal terms and the heavily intertextual and inherently partial experience of playing a game, is there even the remotest possibility of reflecting the ‘reality’ of a game? The short answer is ‘no’: any attempt to do so is necessarily through a mirror that is twisted almost beyond recognition by our own history, preconceptions, agendas and experiential choices, from our parents socio-economic status right down to the muscle memory in our fingers and thumbs.
So where does this leave games writing? Is there any point to it at all? Are we saying anything useful? Are we even communicating at all or are we each stuck on our own private gaming island? Is writing this blog a purely onanistic exercise?
Leaving the last question aside, it is clear to me (but maybe not to you) that games writing is worthwhile. Videogames are a fascinating, growing and changing medium and the process of making and experiencing games is one that is both interesting in its own right and has a wider impact on numerous facets of our lives, culture, economy and society. Even if no-one is in a position to hold up a perfect mirror and present an undistorted reflection of videogames, there is value in sharing the warped and distorted reflections that we do cobble together. Your personal reaction to a particular game may contrast significantly with mine, leading me to look for additional angles and depths in my experience. Alternatively, you may identify something in a game, or its societal context, that resonates strongly with me and impacts on how I engage in future. It may not be possible to communicate an objective and undistorted experience in games writing, or in games making (a nod to the original topic); however, the aggregate of our perspectives is a beautiful thing in its own right – a many faceted crystal of experiences.
I’ve arrived at the end of the post and, as happens when I am allowed to cook, I appear to have used far too many ingredients, failed to stir thoroughly, and ended up with something that even Heston couldn’t love. So it’s time to abandon the dish and head for a takeaway.
My takeaway is simple: there is room enough for everyone. Looking for the ‘reality’ of videogames is a false grail, let alone looking for ‘reality’ within games. I find the violence in Hotline Miami more real than that of Fallout 3. (I have a half-finished post on Hotline Miami which I’ll hopefully put up next week.) However, your experience may differ. What’s more, trying to pin down the ‘reality’ of a game necessarily excludes those who don’t, or can’t, experience the game in that way or from that particular vantage point.
There is room enough for everyone: whether that means examining your own negative experience with videogames, looking at the use of games in the classroom, exploring routes to success in the market, bringing in lessons from modern art, pulling apart the springs and cogs of RPG structure or just plain messing around.
If you are a professional, fully active in the field as a journalist or critic then you are lucky: you have an opportunity for a far deeper, better informed and credible engagement than the rest of us. If you are not professional, simply writing for personal interest, then you are also lucky: you don’t have faculty, colleagues, competitors and dependents breathing down your neck as you write. Chasing ‘reality’ as an excuse to exclude other perspectives, axe-grinding in service to the ‘right way to write’ or wishing failure on someone’s career for an ill-judged article serve only to diminish and obscure what makes gaming, and games writing, such an interesting, unpredictable and largely untrodden panorama.