Monday, January 19, 2009

With the general trend of the democratization of the internet, I've noted two trends with regards to video games: (1) mainstream sites (e.g. GameSpot) have seen their reputation plummet, and as consequence, (2) there has been a rise in more independent writing on games (a relatively "mainstream" example might be the Escapist). Both are good things, I think; while I feel that GameSpot isn't as fawning as people claim, I think that the sort of critical analysis that is commonplace with books and movies has been missing from the industry as a whole. Which makes (2) a good thing. In theory.

There are a few dangers with introducing the aforementioned style of critical analysis to a new medium. Two that I can think of are that, obviously, one can go overboard, and also that one can start finding things that are not there, just because pretending they exist, or at least overstating their presence, leads to neater analysis! You might have guessed that I think some newer writing on gaming has flirted with these problems. While I've enjoyed some of the social analysis of gaming, and also the very personal meaning it has in people's lives, I think the case for the immersiveness of game worlds, and the choices that games present, are sometimes a little overstated by the new school of gaming journalists and bloggers. Instead of overhyping the case for a game based on graphics, they do it based on gameplay :-) I am a staunch believer in the power of quality games - as I've written about here before - but I must admit that this type of game comes about fairly rarely. I very much understand the wish that more games were like this, but pretending like a good game is great by attempting it to study it formally (usually with the word "aesthetic" used a few times) is just wrong. This overly academic analysis treats a game as though it's a book. It's understandable; many of these writers are probably young, either in our just out of college, maybe studying the humanities. But the danger with using this sort of analysis is simply that I don't think games are currently complex enough to warrant it, so the writing can come across as pretentious. Not to mention that it gives the impression that the only way for something to be worth one's time is if one can wax lyrical about it. Which leads me nicely onto the related subject of whether games are art.

The whole "are games art" issue came up famously with Roger Ebert's slight against gaming, and I did mention it before on the blog. Briefly, these are my updated thoughts. I think a lot of times, art becomes synonymous with something that is worthwhile; sometime that isn't a waste of time. People who play games are used to having to defend against stereotypes about the medium, and the ones who care about the issue of whether games are art are likely the type of gamers who derive more than immediate gratification from them; a Planescape lover can think about it long after the game is over, and reflect on some of the thoughtful settings in the game much like one would do with a book. Therefore, I understand their frustration when a learned critic comes along and says something that sounds like it means "You're all just wasting your time". But I'd say that gamers should be willing to admit that there in general, there isn't the same level of depth and complexity in a game compared to what is designated high-art, because this doesn't matter. The example I brought up the last time I discussed this issue still seems apt; I have no idea if The Simpsons is art, but I certainly don't believe the years pleasure I have derived from it are somehow "not good enough", or "irrelevant" compared to the pleasures of high-art. High-art might be transcendent and contain truths that we have to strive and struggle to understand, and which can genuinely warp the way we view the world and life. But high-art is not everything. Things can absolutely be instructive and valuable without needing to be art. I suspect that good video games fall in this set for the strand of "thoughtful" gamers (like me ;-)), and I think we'd be better off not really worrying whether one day Planescape will be studied in schools around the world; instead, let us hope that designers continue trying to tighten up the aspects of a game, and create something that is truly fulfilling rather than just flashy.

Those are my personal views at the moment. I might be a bit hard on the new style of gaming writers, and in part I'm willing to admit that maybe my misgivings are because I'm out of touch with many of the supposed modern classics. I genuinely think that bringing a more serious and critical discourse to gaming is a good thing. I just think we need to be careful not to make it overly academic, and not get too excited about them being the next great art-form. At some level, games are meant to be fun (though the word can be used loosely), and that can get forgotten if we try to convince ourselves that they deserve to be treated like films and books. If they do deserve such a place, and if quality games continue to be made, it will become apparent to anyone who cares to scratch below the surface.

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