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Almost everyone is wrong about video games

There’s been quite a bit of noise on the intertubes lately about the nature of video games. What are they, exactly? Are they art (yes, idiots, JESUS)? What do they do to us as animals and people?

First, they are big. How big? Bigger than both the music industry and Hollywood.

just kids huh

That didn’t answer any real question about the nature of video games, but it does give you a sense of scale. Regardless of how you feel about them, video games are an essential part of modern society.

However, mainstream society dismisses them as a juvenile waste of time, in some ineffable but furious way a graver vice than other isolated, passive forms of entertainment like television, film, or reading (not that anyone reads, just saying). I recently found the following pseudo-anonymous screed:

The average video-game player is thirty-fucking-four years old. Every other generation had a career and a family by then. Get your shit together, us! We’re basically the explosive diarrhea generation.

This kind of critique is easily dismissed, and should be, as the self-hating whining of an underachiever trying to scapegoat their failure. I guess when you lack even a basic understanding of the topic you’re criticizing, it’s not hard to be this wrong. Yes, the average gamer is 34. My older brother is, in fact, the average 34-year-old gamer. He has a solid career and 3 children. He and his kind (and mine, for that matter) are quickly entering the mainstream, although you wouldn’t know it to listen to the dang liberal media*. An entire generation is playing video games, but the mainstream is content to treat gaming, the most ascendant and important cultural trend since the television itself, with a slack-jawed mixture of condescension, befuddlement, and fear. You might be surprised how often they hit the trifecta in a single story, actually — pretty much happens whenever a white teenager shoots someone.

With only mad jibbering coming out of the mainstream on the topic, people who care about this kind of thing look inward for insight. Jesse Schell recently gave a talk at a gaming expo, worth a watch even if you don’t have any interest in gaming as a hobby. He gets the importance of gaming, really gets it, on a level that most people don’t. He sees gaming-like activities permeating every aspect of our society within a decade, and from where I’m sitting it looks like he’s right.

The aspect of gaming that Jesse Schell thinks is migrating to the real world is the same one we exploit when we wire up a rat’s reward center in its brain to a switch on the floor of its cage, and it steps on that switch over and over until it keels over from exhaustion. We know from scanning live brains that this region lights up equally readily in response to getting fed for a hungry person, looking at porn for a man, hitting a jackpot for a gambler, and incrementing the Xbox Live gamer score for a gamer. The neural mechanism that is ultimately responsible for all addiction literally cannot tell the difference between biting into a cheeseburger when ravenous and getting a sweet frag on Live. Almost all successful games exploit this mechanism to some extent, and some of the most successful ones effectively wire into the brain directly, just like we do to those poor (but happy) lab rats.

A few months ago I poured about twelve hours into an indie game called Miner Dig Deep. There’s no reason anyone should call the activity in this game, which involves tediously digging thousands of feet underground and then riding elevators back to the surface, “fun.” But it is fun. It’s so fun it’s hard to put down. It’s fun because it randomly but consistently rewards you with ever more valuable gems as you delve deeper underground. You can sell the gems for money, which you can use to buy better equipment, which lets you dig deeper or faster or longer, which is how you recover even more valuable gems, completing the cycle. I found this pointless cycle so incredibly rewarding that I always, always had to make an effort to put the game down, to not head back down to the bottom of the mine for one last haul before bed. In the game’s defense, it’s a charming piece of cottage art, complete with an original guitar score. But to call its gameplay mechanics Pavlovian would be generous.

As Schell mentions, the largest part of the Zeitgeist is harvesting virtual tomatoes in Farmville. I haven’t gotten on board; not because I wouldn’t like it, but because due to experiences like Miner Dig Deep I know I would, and I don’t have the spare time to get involved with it. There’s quite a lot of scholarship on Farmville being written, such as this one out of SUNY. It’s interesting because it accurately assesses the role that social obligation plays in Farmville’s success, and then absurdly concludes that this obligation is the only reason anyone plays. I love picking apart this kind of academic drivel, because it sounds so plausible to read if you’re willing to settle for appeal to authority over actual observation; for semantic niggling over real debate.

Farmville is not a good game. While Caillois tells us that games offer a break from responsibility and routine, Farmville is defined by responsibility and routine. Users advance through the game by harvesting crops at scheduled intervals; if you plant a field of pumpkins at noon, for example, you must return to harvest at eight o’clock that evening or risk losing the crop. Each pumpkin costs thirty coins and occupies one square of your farm, so if you own a fourteen by fourteen farm a field of pumpkins costs nearly six thousand coins to plant. Planting requires the user to click on each square three times: once to harvest the previous crop, once to re-plow the square of land, and once to plant the new seeds. This means that a fourteen by fourteen plot of land—which is relatively small for Farmville—takes almost six hundred mouse-clicks to farm, and obligates you to return in a few hours to do it again. This doesn’t sound like much fun, Mr. Caillois. Why would anyone do this?

True, I did produce this kind of sophistry on demand when I was earning my own liberal arts degree, but that doesn’t mean I can’t call out egregious bullshit when I see it. I don’t have to; Farmville players get it, and this guy doesn’t. Every one of those pumpkins is a bump of coke. The activity is its own reward. If you don’t understand this about the medium, you shouldn’t attempt to form an opinion.

Successful writer Tom Bissell recently spent three entire years doing nothing but snorting coke and playing Grand Theft Auto 4, which is about as perfect a complementary activity as I can imagine.

The coke sailed up my nasal passage, leaving behind the delicious smell of a hot leather car seat on the way back from the beach. My previous coke experience had made feeling good an emergency, but this was something else, softer and almost relaxing. This coke, my friend told me, had not been “stepped on” with any amphetamine, and I pretended to know what that meant. I felt as intensely focused as a diamond-cutting laser; Grand Theft Auto IV was ready to go. My friend and I played it for the next 30 hours straight.

There are times when I think GTA IV is the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years, times when I think of it as an unsurpassable example of what games can do, and times when I think of it as misguided and a failure. No matter what I think about GTA IV, or however I am currently regarding it, my throat gets a little drier, my head a little heavier, and I know I am also thinking about cocaine.

Last week Roger Ebert returned to a statement he made years ago: that video games can never be art. Again, it’s possible to imagine a way for a person to be this wrong; I think in Ebert’s case it’s a combination of advanced age and a profound misunderstanding of the medium he tries to critique. For example, he believes he can experience a game without playing it. For a better, more nuanced rebuttal to this absurd position than I could write, see Mike Thomsen’s at IGN.

The reason football is not art is because its rules were designed with the primary goal of competition. Competition is only one of a great many different experiences that a videogame can create. Games can also be about losing, and not competing at all. They can be about love, the impossibility of relationships, the beautiful indifference to our individual life choices, urgent intimacy in the shadow of death, sexual anxiety, and confrontation with life choices to which there are no right answers. There are games that, using the language of authored interaction, invoke all of these ideas, and many more beyond.

For myself, I simply know they’re art. I can’t feel otherwise; too many gaming experiences have affected me deeply, too many to count, in ways that only the finest non-electronic art ever has. And so I know they’re art the same way I know I love looking at naked ladies. The fact that they’re also a lot like a slot machine doesn’t change that in the least.

*The term “liberal media” is used here ironically and is not meant to imply the existence even of a centrist media.

Posted in Games.

10 Responses

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  1. Zach Musgrave says

    Also see Penny Arcade’s rebuttal to the “games can never be art” kerfuffle:

    As well as this pre-buttal from 2000:

  2. Anonymous says

    Whatever makes you happy, just leave me out!

  3. Girlfriend says

    Sometimes the fact that we date eludes me. I suppose I feel the same affinity for traveling that you hold for video games. ‘Agree to disagree’ seems to be the name of the game.

  4. Bryan says

    The phrase “[fill in the blank] can never be an art” has made a lot of people look doofy in hindsight. I imagine those people still judge art by its proximity to the work of a bunch of 2000-year-dead Greek guys. Nothing wrong with that. But it’s the aesthetic equivalent of judging food by its proximity to the taste of boiled cabbage. Blech.

    I like your characterization of video games in terms of their clear, consistent, psychological-coke-hit-like rewards for your efforts — that’s insightful. But I wonder if it’s really the unifying feature of video games. Historically, it seems to be. But do games like Second Life challenge this characterization? Or is that really even a video game?

  5. Zach Musgrave says

    Let’s not get too hung up on semantics — that’s Ebert’s mistake. Broadly, I would say that video games belong to a larger genre of art I’ll call “interactive electronic media.” Second life kind of straddles the border of being a game v. being an interactive, electronic, social space, like a message board with 3d graphics.

    It’s definitely game-like in much of its execution. Take this with a grain of salt, because I’ve never played it personally. But I do know you can get your avatar a job to earn virtual money, which you can use to buy virtual t shirts and coffee tables and stuff. Alternately, you can just short-circuit this process and pay real money to get virtual money, just like in Farmville.

  6. Bryan says

    Ok, maybe Second Life isn’t the right example of a reward-less activity.

    Say I invent a new interactive electronic medium in which no matter what you do, you remain a thoroughly average bozo stuck in middle-management and a loveless marriage, whose youthful aspirations disappear with the pension plan from your tanking company.

    And lets say you can jump and break blocks with your head.

    Is it a video game?

    • Zach Musgrave says

      There are many examples of un-game-like games, most of which are little art pieces to inspect the nature of games as an art form. You Have To Burn The Rope generated quite a bit of discussion when it came out, as I recall.

      But you’ll paint yourself in a corner with this exercise. If your medium is dynamic and interactive, it’s probably a game! No matter what you do, there are going to be some rewards for the players’ actions — if there aren’t, if the in-game actions really don’t make any difference (even at the level of making blocks break when you hit them, or moving the player from one screen to the next), then no, you haven’t made a video game. But there are lots of poignant player experiences that revolve around just the kind of set-up you’re talking about: despite the player’s best efforts to win, they fail. That, too, can be a game.

  7. Bryan says

    If your medium is dynamic and interactive, it’s probably a game!

    But this definition seems to include almost everything. Certainly there must be some things that aren’t games. Where do we draw the line?

    • Zach Musgrave says

      I don’t think I’ve ever been so thoroughly discredited by a youtube link!

      Critics love drawing lines and stuffing things into labeled holes, but artists themselves don’t typically give a shit. But if you need that line to be drawn, I think my original notion of progress and reward is what you’re looking for. But those terms can take almost infinitely many forms, which is why, yes, almost everything can be considered a game.

  8. Sanctimonia says

    The deliberate creation of anything for your and/or others’ use is both a work of art and an art form in its own right. This includes everything from controlling an audio board to fermenting grapes or programming. The art is in the care put into it by its creator and the introspection and imagination induced in the user. How the player sorts these things out is the final touch on the masterpiece of a game, film, or glass pipe.

    To say even the simplest of games is not art (including football) is embarrassingly elitist and disconnected. If you have a vision, strive toward it, and render results that everyone can see, you have created art (for better or for worse).

    Good article and comments here. What’s really dreadful are predatory gameplay mechanics (targeting the user) which prey upon base “random reward” reflexes in people. We need an article titled “Vampiric Developers” to discuss the study of metrics and the subsequent gameplay modifications to further encourage microtransactions.

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