Response to “The Promise of Video Games”

by on February 21, 2013

Responses Takes
Illustration by Sally ScopaIllustration by Sally Scopa

When I was a kid, video games meant watching as much as they meant playing. It’s not that I didn’t love to play—and didn’t play plenty—but that, as a youngest brother whose closest friends wereyoungerbrothers,I wanted to see what happened when older, better players beat the levels. We’d all sit around with a game like “Zelda” or “Mega Man” or “Metroid”—or maybe, for the CPU gamers who are as old as my oldest brother, “Alone in the Dark”—and, no matter who was playing, we’d find ourselves engrossed. The action, the discovery, the cut scenes—they all blended into an immersive pseudo-cinematic experience, and one that felt like part of our lives.

Teddy talks about video games in the context of music, but the more relevant medium, to me, is film. Look at the examples Teddy uses: ascending a hill, plunging into a bunker, and exploring the void of space are events; they require not only sound and music, but plot, character, and visuals. This is clearest in the most sophisticated games, the ones whose fans obsess over the stories and concepts as much as the gameplay. “Halo” proved a natural adaptation for novels, comics, and anime; “Gears of War” announced itself with a stunning trailer that has nothing to do with the game and everything to do with the world in which it’s set.

But while these tendencies have become more pronounced as gaming technology has advanced, the basic phenomenon isn’t new: at least since 1981, when Shigeru Miyamoto mixed “Popeye” and “King Kong” to create an archetypal damsel-in-distress skeleton for “Donkey Kong,” most games have been fleshed out around some type ofnarrative,andthis plays a large role in making gamers fall in love with them. Even arcade-style games like “Rogue Squadron,” which I also played as a kid, do this to an extent. (Check out the Wikipedia page: the first section is called “Gameplay,” but the second is “Synopsis.”) As with other forms of narrative, these games provide us—in a way that is collective and shared but connected to the personal and emotional—with an immersive, ordered experience of the ineffable. (If you’re interested, I talked in more depth about video games-as-narratives and the importance of cinematic narratives in “Hours and Days” and my response to “Degree of Life,” both in Issue 1.)

Still, there’s another question to address: do all video games achieve this effect? There is, to me, a pretty clear difference between an RPG, an adventure, or a shooter on the one hand, and something like a sports game or puzzler on the other. “I think we’re pretty much done with the Are Games Art? question,” the gaming critic Tom Bissell recently wrote on Grantland. “How about this one: Are Sports Games Art?” Teddy helpfully contrasts video games with board games, but it’s worth remembering that while the banker playing “Words With Friends” and the kid street-racing on a PSP both attest to the pervasiveness of games in general, their experiences are markedly different; “Words With Friends” is a lot more like the board game that inspired it than “Rogue Squadron.”

It might be helpful, then, to differentiate between what I’ll call Art, Activity, and Socializing. Let’s say that Socializing is direct peer-to-peer interaction, whether in-person(i.e.,anactualface-to-facediscussion) or online (a Facebook message, gchat, etc.). Activity might then be an expanded form of Socializing, where the socialization is mediated by some shared endeavor. I’d put board games and card games in this category, as well as video games like “Madden” (particularly in the multi-player mode). It’s still about peer-to-peer interaction—I am playing euchre with my friends; I am playing “NBA Jam” against my roommate—and the ultimate point is to hang out, grow closer, and enjoy each other’s company, but now it’s occurring through something else. Art seems different: instead of face-to-face, peer-to-peer, we get a side-by-side experience of another world, one often characterized by richness, narrative, or complexity, and especially by an emotional exploration of the broader ideas that constitute human experience.

These three concepts can build on each other—going to a movie (Art) can be an Activity, and it’s also a form of Socializing—but the street runs one way: Facebook messaging will never be Art. Yet if we’re going to figure out what gaming can be in our world—what it can do to combat “the social malaise that accompanies the Facebook era,” in Teddy’s words—we have to grapple with these distinctions. As Teddy and I both suggest, at least some video games provide the benefits of Art. But that doesn’t mean “gaming,” taken as a whole, is always a fuller form of engagement than Facebook.

In fact, a lot of gaming these days takes place on Facebook. Consider “FarmVille,” a Facebook-native simulation game with with 32.5 million daily players at its peak. By creatinganalternateworld in which players inhabit characters’ lives and try to accomplish goals, “FarmVille” can be said to offer an immersive narrative experience (Art). But the context matters: its primary purpose seems to be spurring mediated interactions with your friends (Activity), and it is hosted on the largest social networking site around (Socializing). So does “FarmVille” do the same work as the games Teddy and I played as kids? Or is it a further contributor to the malaise Teddy sees? Most likely, I suspect, it’s a mixed bag.

And it doesn’t stop with “FarmVille,” or with popular MMORPGs like “World of Warcraft.” More and more of our shared experiences are becoming indirect: we increasingly experience the news of Bin Laden’s death, or the drama of the NFL playoffs, or that favorite TV show we stream on Hulu, alone and in our own homes, and we communicate about them via platforms like Twitter. Video games are becoming more sophisticated and cinematic at the same time that we’re more likely to watch actual movies someplace other than the local cinema. We should wonder, then, if there’s not a crucial difference between holding an Xbox controller in your hand as your friend holds one next to you, and meeting him over Xbox Live while you sit on separate couches.

Like Teddy, I think that video games, at their best, offer us a pretty essential way to share, explore, and connect with those around us. But I wonder if those memories I have of watching as much as playing still apply, or if our new hyperdigital context marks some fundamental shift. There are still a lot of messy in-betweens that we need to sort through.