Reality Check: Only Entertainment

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This week I was lucky enough to read an unpublished feature by Katie Williams (coming soon to an Australian print magazine possibly-near-you) about the Game Masters exhibition at ACMI in Melbourne.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.

Epilogue

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.”

50 Comments

  1. Fiohnel

    Ahh, that feel when reading an article that’s written while every shooter game exists to promotes violence and mowing down dehumanized enemies and make you feel like a goddamn hero. That feel when the writer hasn’t played Spec Ops: The Line.

  2. Brauhaus

    I didn’t feel any dissonance with Max Payne – in fact, I have never felt it with any other Max Payne game. The game itself says he isn’t really mourning his wife – whose memory he admits becomes foggier as the the years go by – but mourning the idealized life he believe he could have had.  I did feel that dissonance, however, with Uncharted. Drake’s merry attitude, when juxtaposed to his relentless killing, makes him a particularly disturbing and cold killer.

  3. I really struggle to self-identify as a “gamer” despite the fact that I’ve been playing, talking about and loving games for not far off 25 years now. The label just carries too many negative connotations and seems to be coming more and more inextricably linked with the absolutely lamentable traits you outline in the article above. But I feel the same disconnect with most of the other “gamer” stereotypes you could care to name – the entitled, self-righteous and obsessive NeoGAF dweller and the the slavering fanboys happy to be gouged for sub-par DLC and milked for worthless tat in over-priced Collector’s Editions.
     
    It’s much the same reason that I reject other labels, like “metalhead”, despite listening to an awful lot of heavy metal. They promote sweeping generalisations and lend credence to a single coalescent identity that’s applied to millions of people when the reality is of course is far more nuanced and fragmented.
     
    Call it splitting hairs or accuse me of being pretentious, but I’m not a “gamer”, I’m a “games connoisseur” :) 

    • razikain

       @jodimullen I might have gotten it wrong, but your post gave me the impression that you just want to have a pretty label for gamers that is stigma-free and is well liked by society. If you love/play/are obsessed by games so much, yeah, you’re a gamer. Sorry but that’s currently the label, despite the shit society throws at us and how many rotten people are also gamers like us.

      •  @razikain not so much, though I can see why I gave that impression with the last line. For me playing games is only one part of my identity and I’d just rather not be lumped in with rotten people you mention. I don’t really care if society thinks playing games is immature, stupid or a waste of my time like Alan talks about in his article, but I’d rather people didn’t make all sorts of other assumptions about me just because I’m into gaming. Clearly that’s being naive but I can always hope!

  4. Pingback: The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun

  5. AGBear

    @eddiecameron Some people stood up for me!

    • eddiecameron

      @AGBear I know, I’m just saddened by anyone wanting less thoughtful writing

      • AGBear

        @eddiecameron I think a lot of people got angry about the one paragraph synopsis and didn’t read the whole thing, tbh

  6. rantOclock

    @eddiecameron Are they arguing against objective, subjective or just criticism in general?

    • eddiecameron

      @rantOclock they seemed to be saying all reviews should be objective. Which is impossible, and boring to attempt.

      • rantOclock

        @eddiecameron But I thought people came to RPS for the subjective reviews. Those and the puns.

        • eddiecameron

          @rantOclock yeah, I’m not saying they made much sense

  7. daphaknee

    @AGBear NIGHTMARE MODE MAYBE ILL WRITE FOR THAT SITE

  8. kyceltsfan

    @AGBear @captainkonami a very interesting read thank you for sharing

    • AGBear

      @kyceltsfan @captainkonami No problem. I’m looking forward to the day when ‘gamer’ isn’t a pejorative term

      • kyceltsfan

        @AGBear @captainkonami I am too

  9. pablo_0151

    @AGBear @kyceltsfan @captainkonami I like this article a lot. I’m fine calling myself a football fan, so why not a gamer?? It’s what I love.

    • captainkonami

      @pablo_0151 @AGBear @kyceltsfan Agreed.

      • AGBear

        @captainkonami @pablo_0151 @kyceltsfan My motivation behind my Retrocity series for @1MoreCastle is to show non-gamers why I love old games.

        • captainkonami

          @AGBear @pablo_0151 @kyceltsfan @1MoreCastle Good concept!

        • pablo_0151

          @AGBear @captainkonami @kyceltsfan @1MoreCastle It’s tough to get that over sometimes. People often ask why I like old games because…

        • pablo_0151

          @AGBear @captainkonami @kyceltsfan @1MoreCastle …”aren’t new games better?” Takes a while to explain my thoughts.

        • AGBear

          @pablo_0151 @captainkonami @kyceltsfan @1MoreCastle Is a new Disney film better than an old one? Is a 3D film better than a 2D film?

        • kyceltsfan

          @AGBear @pablo_0151 @captainkonami @1MoreCastle thats up to the content of the film

        • captainkonami

          @AGBear @pablo_0151 @captainkonami @kyceltsfan @1MoreCastle No.

        • pablo_0151

          @AGBear @captainkonami @kyceltsfan @1MoreCastle I know, it’s the age old viewpoint that newer is always better. Again, it’s subjective.

        • pablo_0151

          @AGBear @captainkonami @kyceltsfan @1MoreCastle Though I personally feel, in terms of Disney, the older hand drawn stuff is streets ahead.

        • captainkonami

          @pablo_0151 @AGBear @kyceltsfan @1MoreCastle Its definately not always better (IMO), just look at todays music…

        • AGBear

          @captainkonami @pablo_0151 @kyceltsfan @1MoreCastle See, we all know the answer to this. You can have that argument for free 😉

        • captainkonami

          @AGBear @pablo_0151 @kyceltsfan @1MoreCastle You’re right.

        • kyceltsfan

          @captainkonami @pablo_0151 @AGBear @1MoreCastle Lol don’t even get me started on music

        • pablo_0151

          @kyceltsfan @captainkonami @AGBear @1MoreCastle The music one can go on for hours!!

        • captainkonami

          @kyceltsfan @pablo_0151 @AGBear @1MoreCastle Talking about Drake…

        • captainkonami

          @pablo_0151 @kyceltsfan @AGBear @1MoreCastle It could.

        • kyceltsfan

          @captainkonami @pablo_0151 @AGBear @1MoreCastle as far as drake is concerned I have to believe that 2pac is somewhere in heaven screaming

        • cjhro273

          @kyceltsfan we want extras to be in the upcoming Drake video click on @NewMovieExtras then follow the instructions

        • captainkonami

          @kyceltsfan @pablo_0151 @AGBear @1MoreCastle 2pac waa good. Really good. I believe 2pac, Biggy, E have lost all hope.

        • captainkonami

          @captainkonami @kyceltsfan @pablo_0151 @AGBear @1MoreCastle *was

        • kyceltsfan

          @captainkonami @pablo_0151 @AGBear @1MoreCastle Love him or hate him atleast he was a legitimate artist and stood for something.

        • captainkonami

          @kyceltsfan @pablo_0151 @AGBear @1MoreCastle He had a message.

        • AGBear

          @kyceltsfan @captainkonami @pablo_0151 I feel like we’re opening a can of worms here! I’m not a big rap fan truth be hold

        • captainkonami

          @AGBear @kyceltsfan @pablo_0151 Me neither.

        • pablo_0151

          @AGBear @kyceltsfan @captainkonami Me too. I’m a Brit-Pop boy and an Oasis geek, music died at the end of the 90’s for me.

        • kyceltsfan

          @AGBear @captainkonami @pablo_0151 yeah I understand that I really havent been a big fan either not since 1996 anyway hahah

        • captainkonami

          @pablo_0151 @AGBear @kyceltsfan I always say ‘music died when autotune was born.’

    • kyceltsfan

      @pablo_0151 @AGBear @captainkonami I don’t mind that you call yourself that but to me You are Paul, a good dude who happens to play games

      • pablo_0151

        @kyceltsfan @AGBear @captainkonami Thanks man, gotta say, one thing I really like about Twitter, is there are plenty of good people here.

  10. kyceltsfan

    @AGBear wow your teacher really didn’t get the point at all lol

    • AGBear

      @kyceltsfan To be fair, I wrote that article after I received that letter!