A lot of videogames really are dumb, but not all of them have to be
Taylor Clark doesn’t think there are many intelligent videogames. Or, as he put it in his recent profile of Jonathan Blow,
“Video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb.”
Here we go again. Another “respected” media outlet taking shots at a medium it doesn’t understand, and probably never even tried to.
This was not taken well by some readers. Many gamers especially, felt as if their hobby, passion, and in some instances livelihood, was being derided by some “mainstream” rag that didn’t know the first thing about videogames.
Those feelings are understandable, to be expected even, but nevertheless completely toxic. If you, dear reader, have similar ones, please unload them now. At least for the time being. Upon further, deeper reflection you may take them back up again, at which time and with any luck they will be more measured and less motivated by primal territorial instincts.
Because the negative reactions to Clark’s May 2012 cover story in the Atlantic are mostly defensive. If the profile of Jonathan Blow had been published, word for word, by any gaming-centric outlet, I very much doubt the responses would have been so dismissive. Instead, it might have been an invitation to discuss further what video games should try to do and how consumer expectations might be managed in order to open up the market to greater diversity. Perhaps, rather than decrying all of the “great” games Clark failed to mention, more people would have listed such titles and put them forth for critical scrutiny.
But because a seemingly non-hardcore gamer who is writing for a general issues magazine is being extremely (and I would say dutifully) critical of what we feel are our games (our hobby, our love, our obsession), some of us are inherently resistant to the arguments being made, no matter how valid or worthwhile they might actually be.
It is important to remember then that at the end of the day it’s not “videogames” that Clark or Blow is commenting on: it’s the incredible lack of diversity among their mainstream iterations. Why should games that strive to do something more than just excite and delight us be relegated to a small “indie” scene? The market drives videogame creation, but we, consumers, players, and writers, drive the market. If we don’t expect more videogames that seek to elevate and engages us, and challenge our assumptions and values, then we won’t get them.
In no uncertain terms, the creator of Braid explained his current frustrations with the medium as follows, “I think the mainstream game industry is a fucked-up den of mediocrity. There are some smart people wallowing in there, but the environment discourages creativity and strength and rigor, so what you get is mostly atrophy.”
Harsh, yes. But certainly there is at least a grain of truth in what he says. But I would go even further, and defend Clark when he much more antagonistically claims that
“It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated.”
Whatever you’re feelings about the tone of Clark’s article, the above statement is hard to refute. Take the most “artistic or intellectually sophisticated” video games and compare them with their counterparts in film, theater, or literature. I’m not sure any figurative scale could accommodate that level of discrepancy.
That doesn’t mean that videogames can’t achieve similar cultural merit, artistic achievement, and philosophical value one day. It just means that day is far off, and, if Clark and Blow are right, may not arrive for some time as long as the majority of developers continue to mine the depths of what can only be referred to as the “figuring out ways to kill things with guns (and sometimes swords)” experience.
Braid is but one member of a small group of games that tries to do something more. It is wonderfully crafted, aesthetically delightful, and severely intelligent. Most importantly, the game makes a statement that is open to interpretation, but not one so broad that it becomes vague and uninteresting. Plenty of games tell stories, but that’s not the same thing as having a message, as making a critique: as thoughtfully reflecting on the human condition.
Attempting to do these things, and then doing them well, sometimes amazingly so, is not what makes a video game art. Most videogames could be called art. Rather it’s what takes a video game from just being art, to being great art. It’s not a matter of a videogame expressing something, of making players feel something. I can take a hike through the wilderness and feel something, but that doesn’t make the wilderness art. At least, not until I or someone else takes that aesthetic experience, mediates it, and displays it for a potential audience to reflect on.
Of course, few want to engage with this aspect of Clark’s piece. In fact, some writers find the “games as art” discourse “tired.” Besides, say they, video games are a multi-billion dollar industry and extremely popular. Well so is porn.
But the profile of Blow isn’t simply re-asking the question, “Are games art?” It’s asking us to confront the reality that most videogames, even the intoxicatingly fun and addicting ones, are at best extremely bad art. Too often they don’t have a deeper meaning or message, and even when they do it is obscured and undermined by extraneous or artlessly employed tropes like fetch questing, loot collecting, point scoring, and boss fighting.
Now people don’t like hierarchies of this sort. Indeed, the last decade especially has seen the rise of popular art like comic books, video games, and genre fiction to staggering new heights. Reading and loving Harry Potter isn’t just accepted, it’s cool. We celebrate it. None of this is to say that any of these things are unimportant or unworthy of our attention. I spend more money going to the theater to see movies like Real Steel, reading comic books about a man who dresses like a bat, and playing ungodly amounts of Call of Duty multiplayer than on anything we might traditionally think of as high art.
But at least in other mediums such options exist. I can go to the library and pick up Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky whenever I like. Tree of Life is streaming on Netflix. And museums are one of the most affordable places for a first date.
With videogames however, I’m left with very few options. Mass Effect’s potentially complex NPC gameplay is most developed when it comes to getting laid, and those themes which the traditional narrative gestures toward have been more elegantly and extensively explored elsewhere. Braid on the other hand utilizes the novel opportunities afforded by modern digital game design to comment on time, causality, and revelation. I could read Hume or Whitehead instead, but their writings would be incapable of offering me the unique perspective on these subjects that Blow’s game makes available. Too few games achieve or even attempt to do this, which for Blow and Clark is a problem.
Whether developers should devote most of their time to making high brow art rather than annualizing franchises isn’t the issue. Whether a share of the development scene should try more vigorously to explore the boundaries of the medium, and whether videogame lovers should be more open to and supportive of these endeavors, is question. And it is one I answer with a resounding, “Yes!”
There is already plenty of room for highly commercialized art. It’s what we often speak of “consuming” rather than engaging with or reflecting on. Entertainment is wonderful. And if it gives way to a feeling of something profound, that’s even better. But at the end of the day it’s still just that: entertainment. Entertainment is fun, often addicting, and sometimes overwhelmingly so. And people are free to spend, waste, or “kill” their time however they wish.
But if we are to justify videogames as something more than just entertainment, we need more of them that go beyond just being fun. We need to invite more people to try and do what Jonathan Blow is doing rather than smearing them as “pretentious.” Clark’s critical take on videogames as a whole is brutal but informative. And it should be taken as an invitation to hold the medium to higher standards; to expect something more than glorified paint-balling or medieval fantasy wish-fulfillment emerge from it.
We can have cake, eat it, and do whatever the hell else we want with it too. In other words, we need not choose between popular games and artistic ones; between fun games and intellectually provocative ones. We can support both, and call on others to do so as well, rather than let the discussion devolve into a series of petty fights motivated by in-group/out-group tribalism. Part of taking videogames seriously is taking valid criticism of them seriously as well. The gaming community has become masterful at the first, but there is apparently still a lot of work to be done when it comes to the second.