At the risk of angering those who, like me, wish that games were taken more seriously by the culture at large, I find the whole “games as Art” debate tedious. Nothing seems quite so desperate to me as the avid attempts to convince someone else of the objective validity of a purely subjective experience. In a way, it almost seems like those gamers who get the most passionate about defending games as art are the most insecure and are merely searching for some sort of external justification of their own interests. Quite probably that generalization is unfair to specific individuals, and I apologize to any of you who are motivated purely by high-minded generosity to the industry we love.
Moving for a moment from the general level to the specific, how many of us routinely seek out reviews of movies, books or games that we have already watched, read or played? Our individual points of view are essential to our humanity, so the desire to seek out other opinions that support, challenge or enlarge our own points of view is part of what makes us human. This is why I find it ridiculous when people avoid the opinions of game reviewers (or news pundits or whoever) they don’t agree with. While it’s desirable to evaluate the credibility of your sources of information, whether you agree with their opinions or not is an entirely separate consideration. They may be able to see or express a judgment that you can’t comprehend from your own point of view. In this they are more valuable to you than people who merely reflect your own views back at you.
I find this in my own outlook. Whether it’s my spiritual beliefs, my role as a husband and father, or even just my participation in various hobbies, people on the outside of any of those experiences often form impressions that reject or even contradict the reality understood by those on the inside. It’s like group of aliens landing on earth and studying humans by only observing our actions and never penetrating our inner emotional or intellectual lives. It would lead the observers to mistake as mere habit those human actions that are driven by inner motives of morality or aesthetics. Those are, in my opinion, the qualities that make our life distinct, but they can’t be understood except as a participant. In short, you need to be a human to understand humanity.
Maybe that’s getting a little overly philosophical, but I think the same is true of gamers.
Why are we so desperate for the approval (or at least informed respect) of people who don’t share our interest and, by extension, only experience it whenever the visibility of a game rises enough to pierce the mainstream consciousness? As bystanders, they have a secondhand knowledge of gaming and take interest only to the extent that the controversies or intersections that bring gaming to their attention reinforce their own beliefs. At best, many of these people see gaming as merely wasteful or childish. At worst, they see it as dangerous and perverse. News stories that fulfill those expectations just widen the gulf of misunderstanding.
So let me just freak everyone out by offering a mea culpa for the entire industry: We do a lot to encourage this viewpoint. The subtext of most videogames has barely risen above our boyhood games of imagination. I recently received a press release for a game — I won’t mention it by name, for fear of rewarding the outlook it represents — that made the subtext of male power fantasy disturbingly explicit. This game is fun, it read, because it lets players “live out the male dream,” which, according to this game at least, is defined by crazy sex, drugs, and acting like a raging, violent jerk. I was a little bothered by the definition at first, but really, was it just because the release was admitting something that 99% of other games try to hide? When you get down to it, games like GTA IV, Mafia and God of War are presenting the same fantasy. Was I just acting like a man who gets mad at his friend for pointing out the man’s failings?
Of course, we on the inside can distinguish between games that use anti-social violence and hyper-sexuality in the service of a greater goal and those that use those same elements merely to get attention or hide poor design, the same way that a weak writer will use profanity as a substitute for emotional intensity. But here’s the rub: Those distinctions aren’t apparent when you’re looking in from the outside. We wrongly blame people like Roger Ebert and Jack Thompson for not seeing a difference of which they have no relevant personal experience. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not defending small-mindedness or prejudice. All I’m suggesting is that we’re blaming them for not understanding something that they have had no opportunity to understand. The mass media can look at all the layers of mature interactivity and story in a game like Mass Effect and see only the side of an alien’s boob, from which they extrapolate the end of civilization as we know it. These guardians of public decency step beyond their usefulness when their zeal leads them to capitalize on and reinforce the public’s uninformed assumptions.
They say the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I think that statement should be the beginning of any discussion of gaming’s larger cultural relevance, either as the destroyer of worlds or the sublime synthesis of all our culture’s many arts. If a person wants to offer a relevant opinion on the value of videogames, they need to have a relevant experience of them. This is why I couldn’t care less whether people who don’t play videogames think they can or can’t be Art. This is why I also couldn’t care less whether someone claims a game is pornographic based on a 40-second YouTube clip.
Yes, we absolutely need to be concerned about what is being said about videogames in the mainstream media but instead of just shouting ad hominem attacks at each other, we need to foster a greater understanding of each other’s points of view.
Steve Butts thought a degree in Latin would be more useful than it has been.