Video games are culturally relevant. Their production and play affects us, and we should pay attention to them. But it is important not to react to their varied content with dogma.
The Church of England's General Synod met in London on the 11th to pass a bill on violent computer games. If you are a UK resident, you can watch BBC Parliament's broadcast of the procedings here.
The bill's contents are the Church of England's business; I have no affiliation with the Church and only care about its theological and ethical "laws" insofar as they are accepted as dogma by any of the Church's followers. That said, I found the rhetoric of many of the representatives who discussed this bill disturbing.
Consider the language and tone of one Thomas Benyon, former Conservative MP for Abingdon, and now a representative of the Diocese of Oxford, who speaks a number of times throughout the debate. Benyon paints a picture for us, of
a bubbling sewer of gratuitously violent and sexual pornography DVD games [which] are washing all - er - around us. (01.29)
Benyon "know[s] that the Devil [...] has the monopoly of violent and pornographic video games." The most important deficiency in Benyon's argument is his characteristic creation of a connection between violence and pornography. It is convenient for Benyon and his intellectual peers to combine the two into a single, coherent, pervasive force determined to destroy "society." I propose a different narrative: one in which we worry about the media's depiction of violence as potentially harmful, and recognise that no representation of sex has ever harmed a responsible adult.
But the debate isn't really about adults. Even when they are not mentioned, it is obvious that the debaters are thinking about children. They are concerned that children are getting their hands on inappropriate material. Their response, given that regulation is unenforceable (and meaningless, as Philip French adds, given that online games cannot be regulated) is to encourage government and the BBFC to increase the quantity of games they censor or ban. (Benyon is outraged that "the [BBFC] see their role as advisory only [...] and are cutting only 3% of material.") French seems to believe, as I do, that this discussion is mostly posturing, and that the only satisfactory solution is to inform parents about the contents of these games.
If parents are concerned about the depictions of violence in video games, then they should play some of the video games their children want to buy. They should be encouraged that, by far, the best-selling games tend to have compulsive collecting, puzzle solving, or human relationships, rather than killing, as their core mechanic. And they should help their children make informed decisions about the kind of games which they want to play.
But this is not the narrative Benyon wishes to construct. He criticises the government's 2008 Byron report, claiming that it
relied on the proposition that parents have a liability or are interested in controlling what their children do. We think, sadly, that that is optimistic and a pious hope. (01.48)
Benyon's ambition in the debate goes beyond undoing the possible influence video games may have on children. He proves himself a windbag with his headfake final revelation:
I suspect one of the problems at the root of all this is our difficulty in our society which now rely on relative values for us to come out firmly and say what is right and what is wrong. (07.45)
Sic, by the way. I suspect that Benyon is referring to the liberalization of laws on marriage, sexual behaviour, etc which began in the UK under the government of Harold Wilson. He seems to be confusing the modern liberal doctrine that the personal lives of citizens are not political issues with kamikaze moral relativism. He even seems to believe that pornography is somehow less than healthy, sexy and fun, when he decries "the degeneracy of this sort of material and Internet porn[.]" It is clear that Benyon does not understand, and has no interest in understanding, video games, young people, or modern British culture.
Benyon makes it very easy to call him an irrelevant reactionary. He struggles with the simplest and most ubiquitous technological jargon, and refers to the curate's egg, "the exotic" Mandy Rice-Davies, and "King Canute's performance with his waves," as though purposefully trying to look out of touch.
Thankfully, it seems that some members of the Synod are less jaded and Mesozoic.
I wish to clarify my position. I do not answer as most "gamers" seem to, by claiming that video games are "just games." Art has a profound influence on the human psyche, which should be respected. I agree with the words of John Pritchard.
[It is claimed by video game manufacturers that] these games don't affect people[...] Of course our minds are changed.
Stimuli literally change the physical make-up of our brains. As you read this article, I am rewiring your neural circuitry. And so violent video games are worth worrying about. But let's get a few things straight: pornography is not violence, censorship solves nothing, Pokemon and The Sims massively outsell their more violent competitors, and the overwhelming majority of children are not being desensitized to violence by a postmodernist plot to separate us from family values.
To the Church of England: you are just theologically liberal enough to still matter. If you wish to attract young people, then you need to cull your crusty, reactionary windbags. Aping Bill O'Reilly will only make them hate you.
A Concerned Citizen.
P.S. I don't know what kind of footage there was on Benyon's DVD, but when he claimed that it contained in-game footage of "football with severed heads," I was reminded of this cheerful victory scene from Banjo-Tooie.
I have no idea if this is the scene to which he was referring. I just wanted to add some context. N
The Ace Attorney series says a lot about video games. For all its insipid mechanics and plot twists, it comments coherently on the medium, and on life.
At their most satisfying, Ace Attorney's mechanics rely on syllogisms. The player is invited to recognize conflicting pieces of information, invent a scenario which reconciles them, and then support their whole cloth with evidence. Unfortunately, these sequences only involve interactivity insofar as they punish the player for pressing the wrong button; they provide no environment for play in a legal setting. As satisfying as it is to present the right evidence at the apposite time, the player is never allowed to formulate their own arguments, or assemble their own cases, discouraging lateral thinking and inviting guesswork. Furthermore, the series necessarily disregards international law to lubricate plot development and provide a stage for complex character plays.
Here, Ace Attorney lets itself down. It could comment on international criminal proceedings, or simulate the trials of real criminals yet to be tried, but it elects to lose itself in teen dramas and heteronormative puns. Why not indict Bush, or condemn conventional jurisprudence? I expect the game to invite me to try contemporary war criminals, or revise the role of the state in reacting to crime. This series has the opportunity to make radical claims about the role of courts, what constitutes a crime, and who the true criminals are in settled cases, even if only allegorically, but the legal setting is merely a backdrop. The series conforms more closely to the traditions of the Japanese teen character drama; in place of empirical data and legal frameworks, the player interacts mostly with spirit mediums and colossal breasts.
Even as a character drama, Ace Attorney is disappointing. Many of the series' characters are disturbing stereotypes. Manfred von Karma is a Social Darwinist; his daughter, Franziska, is tiresomely reminiscent of a thousand 'ball-busting feminist' stereotypes from other media. Dahlia Hawthorne even appears to be a straightforwardly evil human being. I can only interpret Jean Armstrong's presence in the third game as an attempt to encapsulate and condemn male homosexuality. The inclusion of such characters suggests an insulting flippancy on the part of the writers.
Yet there are other forces at work here. Some of the generalizations subvert social norms, and criticize parties in almost culturally relevant ways. Spark Bruschel is an insincere self-publicist constantly spouting catchy headlines, and a pertinent criticism of tabloid journalism. At times, the incompetence of the Los Angeles police force stops being slapstick and becomes inherent failure based on confused values and institutionalized corruption. Patriarchy and traditional family structures become frameworks of manipulation and scandal.
The series refines its mantra over time. Romantically, the first game declares that all parties work together in a court of law only to uncover the truth. The second eventually denounces the circumstantially Good in favour of the morally Right, with the protagonist deciding to argue the truth, even if it endangers his career, and a character's life. The third, somewhat hamfistedly, insists that defence attorneys believe in their clients on faith. In its understated finale, the fourth reconciles all of these messages.
It is not until Apollo Justice's denouement that the series plays its hand. The player spends the better half of the game building a case against a mastermind, only to arrive at an impasse without decisive evidence. In the previous three games, this situation would be resolved by re-examining some previously overlooked data, but in Apollo Justice, with every avenue explored, the player must make their case without concrete proof. For the first time, in a new, experimental system, the verdict is left to a jury. Outraged, the accused - an attorney himself - demands a showdown with the law. The player becomes a juror and makes a free, subjective decision, in order to demonstrate the game's message that such choices should come down to interpretation.
Phoenix Wright's ignorance of the law, first a gag, becomes intrinsic to his message. In Apollo Justice, Wright, stripped of his attorney's badge, is depicted as a vagabond. But it's not true. After all, he was never practicing law to begin with. Not really. The law, admits the series, is incidental. Wright, and by extension, the player, was in the courtroom to believe in the defendant.
Ultimately, it is Wright's conviction in the virtues of most people that makes the series interesting. Beneath the tired, decades-old Japanese caricatures, the frustratingly Onanistic logic, and the occasional disregard for the game world's own rules, the series has the stones to make a simple, political point: people are worth believing in. N
Video games is art. The conversation may be tiresome, but it must be had, and we must qualify our claims.
The term high art is prescriptive and insulting. In my previous article, The Art of Assumption, I attempted to castrate its power by defining it into a corner, causing much consternation. Now, I prefer to abandon it altogether, because I have no conception of it as a useful term.
I previously used a straw man. I am not alone in this; it is easy to erect a Roger Ebert as a phantom opponent for video game critics to bash with eschatological rhetoric whenever they have an opinion. I apologize. I want to move away from this kind of lazy writing.
I use the term art to describe anything created by a conscious being. Individual video games are art, because they are created by humans, which are conscious beings. So, too, are soap operas and turds art.
Now let us stop using jargon as a shortcut to legitimacy and just talk about the things we care about. N
Last year, on the Gamasutra podcast (presented by Tom Kim), Iain Simons declared that it was "just obvious" that games are interesting.
He asserted what others have intimated - that we don't need to justify the statement that "games are art." His comment seemed to be part of a wider argument that we don't need to justify calling games art, interesting, or worthy of study. For the sake of the podcast, that was fine. Simons has done a lot for the public profile of games (at least in the UK), and he and Kim were hardly recording a podcast to discuss whether or not games were art. They could assume, for the sake of their conversation, that games were all of these things.
But the conversation has ended now, and we no longer have that luxury. We have to justify what we're doing here, even if it seems obvious to us. You can't just call the game an art form and hope to get away with it.
So when Roger Ebert claims that games aren't high art, we shouldn't react negatively. We should think about what that means. When he made the now-famous claim, months ago, bloggers rolled their eyes and angry gamers flamed. This was the wrong response for a number of reasons. Firstly, that's not how we do things around here. Secondly, he had a point. From his own blog:
Anything can be art. Even a can of Campbell's soup. What I should have said is that games could not be high art, as I understand it.
The term "high art" may engender elitism, but I feel that - at least, as I define it - it is elitism of a linguistic nature and not a broader one. The concept, I suggest, is a valid one, even if the wording of its name embodies snobbery. (NB: high art, by my definition, is not the same as high culture. I would probably condemn the idea of there being a "high culture.")
High art, as I understand it, is art (art here being "a created thing") which exists for no purpose other than the immediate; the aesthetic. That is, high art is invention without utility. Can we say that games have no purpose? Compare the game to the painting. The painting exists for its own sake more obviously than the game does. After all, games, by their nature, have utility. By the very fact of their involving interactive mechanics, they necessitate internal utility. Externally, we're already talking about what games can teach us, or where they can take us, or what they can do for us: they could teach us about a past war or civilization, simulate flying a plane, or even - somehow - visualise the development of a scientific theory. What do paintings do for us? Some of them look nice, but that's rarely the purpose for the best paintings. It is in the nature of paintings to be; their utility as an ornament is usually peripheral. Games have obvious utilities. These utilities can be just as expressive and educational as anything else, but they are not representative of a medium which can call itself fine art. (Both of these media, by the way, are open to the criticism my father makes when he claims that games are not art: that they are designed for a very explicit purpose, and that that is to make money.)
I want to clarify my position, a little. I do disagree with what I understand Ebert to be saying when he asks,
If you can go through "every emotional journey available," doesn't that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.
Perhaps Ebert means to say that art forms may only express themselves along a linear plane. If he does, then I feel that he might have the makings of a coherent argument which excluded games from being considered high art. As it stands, he seems to be claiming that nothing which is open to different interpretations can be called art. I really hope that he's not claiming that, because Roger Ebert is very articulate, and a pre-eminent film critic. I would hate him to be a madman.
I might suggest that gamers have a prejudiced view of their medium, and particularly what it can be. Games may not be Shakespeare quite yet, but I have the prejudice that they never will be, and some gamers are prejudiced that they will.
If we take "prejudiced" to mean "subjective," then I wouldn't want to put myself in the camp which claims that games cannot be Shakespeare. I'm not really sure what to do with that particular phrase, but I wouldn't want to say that games aren't worthy of study, or that they aren't moving. My purpose in starting this blog in September was to attempt to study games, and to explain why I found them moving. At the same time, though, I'm not sure that we can responsibly call them high art.
A lot of the trouble here stems from our definition of high art. Ebert has this to say:
Many experiences that move me in some way or another are not art. A year ago I lost the ability (temporarily, I hope) to speak. I was deeply moved by the experience. It was not art.
High art is not "what moves us." Even art does not mean that. I think that we've proven that games can move us, and Shakespeare's work has moved a few hearts by now, but that does not make either of these things art.
I'm not so sure that this matters. When I first declared that I planned to write this post, Michael Abbott responded, asking why we'd want games to be high art anyway. Would it make us play our games any differently, or make us enjoy them any more? No. Would it make them less worthy of study? Of course not. So what does it matter? It's like arguing over whether pineapple is a fruit. (It's not.) We might be interested in the answer, but it shouldn't keep us up at night. When, as I brushed my teeth one morning, I came up with the idea for this post, I didn't think "and that'll be my last post, because if games aren't high art, then why write about them?"
Furthermore, "high art," as many of my Twitleagues appear to have noted, is a problematic term. No-one seems to be able to agree on what it means. In order to avoid the vagaries my blog has been accused of in the past, I have given it a definition I could refer back to. Perhaps this strikes you as artificial, but I had no choice. In any case, my definition of "high art" is certainly different from Roger Ebert's. Make of that what you will.
What's important to note is that being art isn't the same thing as being worthy of study, or relevant. I can't agree with Chris Hyde when he comments that "if games aren't high art or don't aim for that, then I'm spending a lot of time on something with a low return on investment." Why should games have to be high art for us to enjoy them? N
So tell me how GTA IV is social commentary, precisely.
Well, Mr. Elrod, that's not exactly a simple task.
It illustrates parts of Western society which make many of us uncomfortable, and, in a lot of ways, it seems to celebrate them, or at least tolerate them. I know that many of my friends and contacts are disgusted by the game's treatment of prostitution, organised crime and racial and sexual stereotypes. While I'm wary of both flogging a dead horse and digging up a freshly buried hatchet in talking about this game at the year's end, I believe that GTA IV is laudable enough to merit abusing a few more metaphors.
All things considered, the non-specialist mechanics bring us closer to Niko's identity. He's not quite the everyman, but there's a great sense of there but for the grace of God with Niko. He isn't a Mafia member, and he isn't CJ. He's an immigrant who's fallen on hard times, and if it wasn't for Rockstar's dubious attempt at providing an engaging backstory for Niko, then his story would be a wonderfully nauseating antidote to the hubris inherent in modern American patriotism. He can drive a car, but not like your Burnout avatar. He can shoot a gun, but he's no Master Chief. He's no fitness fanatic, either. On an early mission, when Niko is forced to climb a lot of ladders and run a great distance, he can be heard to shout "fuck!" repeatedly. He is not as otherworldly as past GTA protagonists.
The game is at its strongest when discussing the American dream. In that sense, Niko's interactions with his cousin Roman are among the best moments in the game, and much of the rest of the narrative and play seems incongruent with these crucial points. Roman is a true believer. If nothing else, the titties have made him fall in love with The Land of Opportunity. Niko, on the other hand, is more skeptical:
Everything is just advertising with nothing to back it up!
It's an attitude which pervades Liberty City. Packie, who quickly develops a rapport with Niko, has this to say:
Tell you what, I'm going to do a ton of lines, bang a lot of college girls, then die young leaving a bloated corpse. That sound like the kind of life worth saving?
When Niko responds, you can hear the venom in his voice. When, as the player guns down a rival gang, Niko can be heard to shout, "I LOVE THIS COUNTRY," this is not a celebration of violence or the ease with which it is possible to buy a gun in New York City. It is Rockstar accusing the American dream of "leaving a bloated corpse." When Niko pays a prostitute to have sex with him and then runs her over to collect his cash, it is not without context. Has Manifest Destiny been reduced to measuring a person's worth by the relative size of their titties? Is this what society has come to?
I was disappointed to learn that Niko's skepticism ultimately comes from a very sociopathic place, and not an intelligent and concerned one. I really can't understand how or why Rockstar slipped up on this one. When the game starts, Niko worries to no end over every crime he's committing. It doesn't slowly ease him into a freer conscience. It just decides at a certain point that Niko no longer cares about his actions. It's alienating.
If Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas made us part of the American dream RockStar so loves to mock, then GTA IV has us take on the role of an outsider looking in. This makes the satire that much more potent. When we drive Manny's corpse to a streetside "doctor," we are left with a sour taste in our mouths. A similar scene with CJ at the wheel would seem comical, or even pimpin'. Niko's commentary is vital to the message of GTA IV, as it gives us a perspective we might otherwise lack. In previous GTA titles, it was possible to turn off the radio, avoid RockStar's parody of American culture and focus on the bloodthirsty descent into crime the games offered the player. In GTA IV, it is impossible to turn off Niko. His bitter critique of the society he has been thrust into incontrovertibly affects the player's perception of Liberty City. Grand Theft Auto is no longer all a big joke. It's a comment on crime. We're no longer going to bust a cap in someone's ass in order to get revenge for some trivial gang slight. Instead, we're forced into the criminal underworld by adverse circumstances. Niko wants nothing more than to move on with his life and start afresh, but, unlike Roman, he's also a man who does what needs doing. When it becomes obvious that what needs doing involves criminal activity, he comes to terms with that fact very quickly.
There is a sense in which Niko's feelings and the game's narrative come into conflict. I've argued against the conventional wisdom on this point, but I'm coming round to the accepted view. In fact, in the last few weeks, I have become disillusioned with GTA IV. Like many games this year (Braid, Fallout 3, Mirror's Edge and Fable II included), it is not everything I wanted it to be, or even everything it told me it was when I first started playing it. Once, I would have attempted to rebut Elrod utterly when he said this:
I'm seeing it bandied about that you can play through GTA IV without ever once being a criminal thug. Seriously? Not a single core mission needed to complete the narrative of GTA IV requires you to kill? Steal? Maim?
And it's not true. I had been playing Niko as a highly intelligent (if uneducated), slightly cynical but not overly cold or violent man of mildly conservative values (as I believed I was being prompted to play by the game's narrative), and that worked well for the first twenty hours of play, but, as Niko became more involved with more hardcore gangsters, he started wearing balaclavas and shooting down cops by the bucketload. Slowly, I felt my heart break. Niko wasn't the honest man pulled down I so wanted Rockstar to make him. He was a killer. Worse: he was reckless. In one mission, when working with a group of others, Niko insists on more unnecessary violence while his peers recommend running. His bloodlust was very disappointing to me.
So, in more ways than one, this is the game which, to my mind, best captures the spirit of 2008 for the video games industry. It showed us just where we can go, and how beautiful that can be - how transcendent, how moving, how illustrative, how engaging, how involving, how visceral, how hands-on - and it promised to be all of these things. And, yes, in the end, it failed to deliver. But in a year wherein the issue of games - and game writing - "growing up" seems to have been at the forefront of everyone's minds and on the tip of everyone's tongues, just showing that we have the guts to stick a flag in the ground and proclaim that we can be this emotional and thought-changing medium is a huge achievement. N
Braid is a curious game. It has divided critics, it's difficult to read, and playing it is something of a conflicting experience. It perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise to me, then, that it has met with both opprobrium and acclaim from my friends.
Taking advantage of the spirit of the season, I recently forced four of my friends to play Braid. I did this for a number of reasons. Part of me wanted Braid to be some kind of ultra-accessible, artsy wunderkind. Mostly, though, I think it's just the most interesting game of 2008. It's short, too, meaning that I could watch over my friends' progress without tiring. Whatever my reasons were, I'm glad I engaged in this little experiment, because my friends' reactions have been very interesting. I want to talk to you about the reactions of three of them to the game, and then give some thoughts on why they are important.
Of these four friends, only one regularly plays games. This friend skipped the written exposition of every chapter and seemed determined to play the game as though it was a conventional platforming game. Presented with puzzle pieces which he couldn't jump to, he would ask me when he could expect to get the double-jump power up. He didn't look at the game in terms of expanding his mind. In fact, he didn't give deep thought a single thought. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was not charmed by Braid. He seemed to feel that playing was an unrewarding experience.
The second friend owns a Wii, but doesn't really take games seriously. I'd shown her Beautiful Katamari, and she'd liked it, so she was open to playing Braid if it was going to be as colourful and anywhere near as enjoyable. I was shocked to find how much she enjoyed Braid and how she stuck with it. She, too, skipped the exposition in every chapter, but she worked hard at the puzzles and seemed to come to recognise the hints Braid flashes the player, which none of my other friends did. For all of the others, I had to point out that some objects flashed green or pink. This girl methodically worked out the limits of the mechanics which had been granted her. I was pleased. It seemed that Braid was managing to communicate its system of rules effectively, by promoting trial and error.
The friend I had over yesterday is particularly receptive to the idea of games as art. More literary than any of the others, he was eager to stop and think about each chapter's exposition. He thought carefully about the puzzles, and tried to stay on top of the games' mechanics. Even after all of this, though, Braid remained a struggle for him. He needed some help identifying the game's highlighted objects, and stumbled with the game's requirement that the player plan ahead. He quickly made the connection between the game's philosophical treatise and its introduction of new mechanics, but, for all that he enjoyed playing it, Braid remained very frustrating for him.
There are a few thoughts which I want to take away from the experience of my friends playing Braid:
Written text should be seen as a last-resort method of communication in games. No-one wants to sit and read a text about what they're about to play. They want to play! Isn't that the point of these games? To dive in, to test the waters and maybe look for some fish?
Braid, in general, is just not a user-friendly experience. I understand that thinking hard is important, and that it's central in Braid, but the game just isn't intuitive. The game doesn't speed the player on their way. Instead, it blindfolds them and locks them in a room with a key in the corner. They're forced to stumble around either until they throw in the towel or found out what they're meant to do by simply brute forcing the solution. In my mind, this inaccessibility is a stain on Braid's record.
The problem is, I feel, that Braid takes itself too seriously. I believe that it was Iroquois Pliskin who called Blow truly avant-garde, in that he was doing something entirely different to everyone else in the industry. I think that there's some truth in that, and, personally and intellectually, I have a lot of time for Blow's ideas. The problem is that Braid really seems to rub them in your face. Braid knows that players start with all of these expectations for a game, and it belittles you for trying to apply them to it. It doesn't ease the player into a new way of thinking. Instead, it shows the player their goal, and laughs sarcastically when they fail to reach it by conventional means.
I think that this last point is why my first player lost interest. The game did not respond well to the way he was used to playing, but neither did it stop and say, "that's not how we do it here." When Richard Dawkins compares creationism to evolution, he frequently compares the idea of leaping up to the top of a sheer cliff and that of crawling up a much easier incline in order to reach the summit more slowly and deliberately. Braid makes a lot of challenging claims about games, and that's wonderful. But it demeans the player for not having thought of them themselves, and ritually humiliates them in order to initiate them into a new mindset. N