Reality Check: Only Entertainment
Objectivity is pretty fucking boring. I recently wrote a feature entitled “In Defence of Subjectivity”. Some people liked it, while others suggested I had drifted into madness. In hindsight, maybe it was a little hyperbolic: of course there’s a place for distancing ourselves from games in order to properly criticise them.
Yet objective writing is often bland rather than incisive. Mechanical analysis tells us nothing about what it’s really like to play these games: how our emotions intertwine with the story, why you feel a strange dissonance when Max Payne kills all those dudes, the drive to persevere against impossible odds. Subjectivity acknowledges these artistic value of games: what better way to educate people who don’t play games than by describing how those games feel, beyond what we can see in a momentary glance? A game like Nier may seem outwardly crude, but by dipping beneath the surface we can bring its inner strengths to light. I wouldn’t advise my grandmother to play it, but the knowledge is still there for those who seek it.
This week I was lucky enough to read an unpublished feature by Katie Williams (coming soon to an Australian print magazine possibly-near-you) about the Game Masters exhibition at ACMI in Melbourne. Unavoidably, it’s as much about the mainstream legitimisation of gaming as it is an exploration of the exhibit. Williams remarks on the importance of Game Masters: “We’re still at that critical, misunderstood phase in the medium, where video games are blamed for violence and our mothers tell us to find a hobby that doesn’t rot our brains”.
Games are evil. Games rot your brain. (I say: let’s rot!) Games are toys. Games are ‘only entertainment’, with the lofty aim of being taken as seriously as whatever trash Hollywood is promoting this week. No matter how many Journeys we make or how many people are pissed off with Mass Effect 3‘s ending, it seems we’ve barely scratched the surface of games becoming acceptable mainstream art. How many people do you know that own a Wii or love Angry Birds, yet have a real problem identifying themselves as a gamer? An elitist culture surrounds geekdom, where you’re not a ’real geek’ unless you’ve got a Super Mushroom tattooed across your face and speak only in arcane memes. This is where the term ‘newbie’ arises in the gaming lexicon: it’s there to discourage non-geeks from encroaching on ‘our’ turf.
The way the public perceives gaming is not just a trivial thing: it’s what leads the media to blame games for the recent tragedy in Colorado, moving the debate away from more important issues surrounding gun control and mental health care. Whenever someone with a history of mental illness shoots up a cinema, we should be looking at who failed to take care of that person’s well being and not his K/D spread in Modern Warfare. While I believe the tide is turning, and one day blaming video games for a massacre will be as laughable as queuing for a chicken sandwich in support of homophobia, it can’t change fast enough. Every moment wasted discussing the ‘dangers’ of gaming could be better spent fighting actual dangers.
Are games only entertainment? Should journalists tell you if they’re fun or not, slap on a star rating and call it a day? That’s the kind of thing you could do with a Lego set, a board game or even a colouring book. Relegating games to the status of mere entertainment and dismissing their prolific ultra-violence and sexism doesn’t just make it difficult for others to take them seriously: it also immunises the medium from the internal criticism it vitally needs to progress and develop. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier is right when he says we need to talk more about games, but that discussion needs to take place between gamers themselves, not just between developers and fans.
I was on holiday with my family a fortnight ago. As Link steered his magic train through the forests of Hyrule, my dad said: “I worry that all your gaming is going to stop you from meeting someone”. His twenty-five year old son closed his DS, straightened his Sonic t-shirt in quiet indignation, and said nothing. Of course, what I should have said was “if that someone doesn’t like games, then I’m not interested”, but I didn’t want to exacerbate the situation. To me, it was as farcical as telling someone playing sports will make you lonely: obviously, one seeks out people who share the same interests.
Many parents don’t understand and they probably never will, but I’m not writing this for them. It doesn’t matter how many fond memories you have playing games with your family: as far as they’re concerned it was no different to building a police station from plastic or playing a game of Monopoly. A bucket of Lego isn’t art, but my constructions towering until the bucket ran dry certainly were. The adventures we continue to have in the modern fictions of games are no less worthy than the novel, film or even outdoor exploration. Minecraft is modern Lego limited only by your imagination; Skyrim the great outdoors for a rainy day.
I’m sick of apologising for being a gamer. Isn’t it ridiculous that people wear Disney clothing, yet I bought a Shenmue hoodie specifically because it doesn’t look like gaming memorabilia? I’m sick of people treating games like mindless children’s toys, but unfortunately the onus is not on them to see sense. The burden of proof lies with the believer, and if we believe that games are as important as we say they are, then we need to prove it in our words and actions. Exhibits like Game Masters are a hugely positive step forward: as Katie Williams says, “I get the feeling that anyone who walks through this hall – whether gamer or newbie – comes to understand why this is more than just a time-wasting hobby for so many of us.”
The sooner we discuss games like adults instead of titillated adolescents dribbling over explosions and gore, the sooner that can change. We need to be subjective about games rather than objective: personal, passionate, articulate. As well as playing games, we should start making them too. Looking at how our personalities and experiences are reflected in the games we play is never going to weaken the impact of our criticism.
Yet people already do take games very personally: you can tell by how they react to media portrayals of games, like someone has punched their kid brother in the face. So we get angry, send death threats over Twitter and demean ourselves. Even if we form one voice of protest and petition against discrimination, like a high school punk rock band, anger and melody will only get you so far.
People love to talk about how games journalism is ‘broken’, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone. What needs fixing isn’t just the PR propaganda and the regurgitated churnalism: we need to change. We need to stop being afraid of our parents and elders, because really, they are the ones who need to grow up.
And when they do, I’ll find that really entertaining.
Last week, I emailed one of my high school teachers after many years without contact. I received his reply this afternoon. It was great to hear from him, but one sentence stood out and I’d like to share it with you. It highlights my point even further:
“On reflection, I think that you were correct in getting away from the gaming scene because they can be such a complete waste of time for so many youngsters.”