If gamers are the "educated elite," then….
Good morning. I’d like to begin this article with a short exercise. Accompanying this paragraph is a picture of Magdalen College, one of the largest and most prestigious colleges of Oxford University. It is so big and so rich that its grounds contain a deer park.
Please take a moment to say the name of Magdalen College out loud.
If you pronounced it ‘mag-dal-en’, then I’m afraid you’re quite wrong. But if you pronounced it ‘Maudlin’, congratulations – you have a familiarity with the obscure mores of Oxford that separates you from the mere proles who never heard their parents or their teacher or their older sibling pronounce those words out loud. And now we all know it, you posh twat.
This was the test that sprang to mind when I first read Jim Rossignol’s piece on games and ‘high culture’ back in October. Games, he argued, require a great deal of education to engage with, let alone appreciate; they’re packed full of obscure conventions and assume hours of practice. We shouldn’t worry about what non-gamers think of games, because “in this instance,” he wrote, “we are the highly educated elite.”
It’s a good point. It arouses in me the instant desire to defend the fruits of the traditional education I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy (a word I choose advisedly) in both games and ‘real life’. Complexity of the kind impenetrable without years of copious and counter-intuitive study is valuable and beautiful for those who want to dance with it and I will defend it forever and always on those terms. Not everyone, however, gets invited to that party – and others are denigrated simply for not wanting to go.
This article is about how if the comparison of games to education is taken seriously and to its logical extent, it gives context and clarity to some of our loudest critical debates. But it’s also about how that comparison has cultural and political cultural dimensions we can’t avoid, because if gamers are an ‘educated elite’ they also act like one: valuing some kinds of game literacy over others, and restricting the provision of the higher forms.
SCHOOLING AND ITS PRICE
This begins, of course, with one of those articles. Last week, it was troll-faced Jonathan Jones at the Guardian; before that, it was Lucy Kellaway at the Financial Times. Okay, says some high-falutin’ artsy-fartsy type, so Frog Factions is pretty fun – but it’s hardly Joyce (actually, it blatantly is). The genre is now so familiar that it’s usually more interesting to see how gamers respond than to read the tired original.
For example, Rossignol starts his article by (skeptically) paraphrasing the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who wrote that there are two kinds of culture:
“High culture”, which is best appreciated with some formal education about what is going on with it (difficult literature, opera) and “Low Culture”, which is basically everything in folk, primitive, and pop culture, for which education is not required.
But Scruton is wrong. The difference between high culture and low culture is not the level of education they require (because they both require plenty). The difference is that one kind of education is available to everybody, and the other is restricted to a relatively small group; one esteemed by society as being of the highest importance, the other just a waste of time. Exercise 2: match the pairs.
Before we go on I’d like to relate two incidents occurring in the 20th century which together contain the two most important things we need to understand about education. In 1971 an English professor called Stanley Fish left a reading list from a previous class on his blackboard and told the next batch to analyse it as a poem; he found that it was mainly his students’ goals and preconceptions which determined how it was read. In the 1960s a psychologist called Robert Cole gave American intelligence tests to Liberian tribesmen regarded as intellectually deficient by local development workers and found that they were easily capable of getting the correct answers – but only when asked “how would a fool do it?”
The first incident was the springboard for Fish’s masterful, witty essay ‘How to Recognise a Poem When You See One’, which shows that even the simplest or most obvious facets of ‘common sense’ are only simple and obvious because our whole lives have been training us to see them that way. The second is related in Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker profile of the social scientist James Flynn in the New Yorker, and shows how IQ tests don’t really test intelligence but at best “modernity” and at worst merely the ability to perform an IQ test. Upshots: one, ‘ordinary knowledge’ is in fact highly educated knowledge; two, valued forms of education are not the only form of education.
So I don’t think that games average a greater complexity than rap music, or lace-making, or advertising, or fishing, or reality TV, but they do involve plenty of knowledge. This is even true of the titles dismissed by Alan Williamson in another response to Kellaway as “superficial junk food for the brain”: Call of Duty and FIFA. Despite its infantilizing compulsion loops, modern CoD requires great dexterity and special awareness, and assumes learned familiarity with trope upon complex trope. As for FIFA, what praises cannot be sung of this subtle and beautiful game? What other title more perfectly balances the cold and tactical calculation of the sporting mind with the instinctive muscular rhythm of the sporting body – or tempers them both with the daring, courage, caution and cowardice of the sporting soul? Not even fighting games punish uninformed button-mashing like FIFA does.
But, as Gladwell’s example suggests, society values some types of education very differently. The word very ‘educated’, standing alone, literally means ‘allowed access to a particular narrow and historically exclusive form of knowledge’. In America, this knowledge is valued at tens of thousands of dollars per year, its cultural capital enforced and maintained by colleges which once officially excluded women or blacks but now just charge a fucking fortune to get in (to say nothing of unofficial discrimination). They are supported by a culture which sells this bargain as desirable and denigrates those unable or unwilling to make it – which fills our conversations with Magdalen College traps designed to identify and punish the ‘uneducated’. And they are of course synergetic with a society which destroys free time and chokes people of opportunities to do anything but scramble for their immediate survival.
These are just some extreme examples. If you don’t share my anti-capitalist soapbox, I’m certain you can find your own (call it Exercise 3). But did you know that in 1989, the year I was born, the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defined “whom” (based exhaustive study of written and spoken English) as a word that has passed out of the grammar of ordinary speech? It is now part of what linguists call a prestige dialect, which means it has no functional purpose except to tell everyone else around you that you’re more educated than they are.
VIDEOGAMES: A PROXY WAR
In this analysis, Kellaway’s article was a clash between a highy-valued kind of education and another existing lower on the scale. Indeed, it came about through a prize specifically designed to produce such a meeting. Kellaway was chosen to try and “start a national conversation about games” because she is a published author, a successful journalist and a cultural arbiter – and while she was ultimately ill-equipped to judge the games she played, she went about the task with wit and self-depreciating humour. This is one reason her article transcends the genre that Roger Ebert founded, and is readable as more than just another pompous wank.
Another is that, unlike the spectacularly oblivious Jones, Kellaway recognises the truth of Sophie Houlden’s ‘Can Art Be Games’? She realises that knowing how to enjoy games is in itself a skill and admits that she lacks key forms of game literacy like the ability to make Commander Shepherd walk in a straight line. Moreover, she explicitly understands that skill as an education and not the absence of one (she compares her failure to play with her son’s failure to learn French). Ultimately, however, she sticks to her habitual valuation, concluding that if there is any kind of value or complexity in the games she plays, her high-culture education (Oxford, as it happens) is not designed to appreciate it, and she has better things to do. Fair enough. Cartoonist Gary Larson expresses the central irony of our luderacy: the ‘work’ and education it takes for us to enjoy videogames is not valued by employers, cultural arbiters, and parents as anything except a waste of time.
Some gamers dismissed Kellaway’s importance: for Jim Rossignol, she lacked an “education in the school of games”, so who cares? To each their own. Others championed her: Mattie Brice wrote that education consisted mainly of “inbred conventions” – “superficial, unexplained, and frankly discriminatory barriers to entry.” Others, like Williamson, came down in the middle, admitting that there was a grain of truth to what she said. The crux of the argument is about how we as a medium respond to outside valuation.
Do games need to make themselves readable to a high culture education, or is it enough that nerds understand them (we see games like Dwarf Fortress as most ‘geeky’ precisely because they are the most impenetrable without a geek’s education)? When Rossignol wonders why people “get caught up on games not having anything to say,” it is a crystallisation of this conflict. They mean ‘say’ to high culture, speak in a manner intelligible to outsiders, through ‘messages’, morals, meanings, and so forth.
Like in some local war fought in the shadow of rival superpowers, this context patterns our most persistent critical disputes. Is it unfair to see Brendan Keogh’s Killing is Harmless as an attempt to show the disapproving dad of high culture that games really can be worth something? I think many game critics see that as their job description. On the other hand are the Keith Burguns, the Tadgh Kellies, even the Alex Kierkegaards, for whom games have sufficient value on their own terms and for whom any attempt at holding them to other value sets is an alien imposition to be fought off (back in the war, ‘ludologists’ claimed ‘narratologists’ were trying to annex games for the Humanities). Then there are those, like Liz Ryerson and J. Chastain, who reject the shared premise that videogames are already good enough, and shout at gamers: wake up! Demand better! This Stockholm Syndrome bullshit you’ve given half your life to has never loved you back! It is a struggle to claim or reclaim the soul of a medium for or from the devils that are bidding for it.
But it would be ludicrous to say that gamers are treated anywhere near as badly as the ‘uneducated’ poor, and the videogame education is by no means among the least valuable. Games are at MOMA, games are in the Library of Congress, games are getting all up in Lucy Kellaway’s face when all she wants to do is curl up with her readbooks. Hell, it’s possible the long-awaited third edition OED might have dialogue from games among its millions of usage citations (I know it’s got Dylan lyrics in there). Games academia is a burgeoning field and games writing is more common than ever – though it pays a pittance, for reasons that have more to do with the decline of print journalism and thirty years of plutocratic wage suppression. We only take umbrage at Ebert or Jones because we’ve gotten to the point where we reckon we can take them.
Perhaps more importantly, as we all know, games are a multi-billion dollar industry blah blah blah $$$$$$$$ bigger than Hollywood movies blah blah misleading PR claims uncritically repeated. The converse of that is that your videogame education makes you highly valuable as a consumer: £40 for a game, £100 for a special edition £200 for a console, £800 for a computer, and then there’s the DLC (not to mention Kickstarter). Let’s not forget real, massive time cost of a real thoroughgoing videogame habit: hour upon kilohour of harmless, healthy pastime or pathological self-abuse, depending on the time and place and person (I’ve done both).
In terms of knowledge value, that’s not quite the price of college, but the comparison is indicative. We sink a lot of ourselves into games, and maybe that’s why some people think they have the right to decide who gets to join in. Forget the rest of the world: the real problem is what kind of education we value, and who we exclude.
THE ENEMY WITHIN
Spacewar! is one of the first videogames ever made, and it ran on a computer that would cost a million dollars today. That cost has come down (incidentally changing the world, nbd), but the wider point is that computer gaming is historically linked with an economically and culturally privileged form of knowledge. Yes, we nerds are often denigrated, but come on: Silicon Valley? Financial industry quants? Regular access to computers and free time to use them? Even in the 1960s, MIT university departments were not a very wide demographic pool. Besides pricing on the consumer end, there is the human cost of producing games consoles and smartphones: the child miners, the torture squads, the suicide nets, to say nothing of the power plants, the greenhouse gases and the global banking networks that surround and license them. Gamers are by definition a privileged group.
They act it, too. Exercise 4 comes with a trigger warning. Please read about or bring to memory the following three examples of gaming misogyny: Maddy Myers’ account of being mocked, belittled, and tacitly excluded on the fighting game circuit, Miranda Pakozdi’s forced forfeit in the face of sexual harassment, and Ryan Perez’ drunken attack on Felicia Day.
These are well-covered issues, but I would like to place them in their educational context. All three involved subtypes of videogame literacy which are highly specialised and take extreme devotion to achieve. The best fighting games do demand the psychological brinksmanship of poker and the motor skill of a musical instrument, no matter how foul this fact is made is in the mouths of fans who enlist it to defend their misogyny. Likewise, high-level raiding in World of Warcraft requires intricate knowledge of its fighting systems and levels of team coordination to make management trainers envious (plus, let’s face it, weeks of bullshit grinding).
But for Perez, who called Day “a glorified booth babe”, or Aris Bakhtanians, who said the fighting game community and rape threats were “one and the same”, it is not enough that these women fulfil the ostensible requirements of these advanced forms of education. Maddy Myers says repeatedly that all she wants to do is learn the game and get better, but the community will not allow her to do so on the same level as a man. Pakozdi cannot compete fairly with men but must also suffer abuse that is specific to her gender and whose direct equivalent, if any exists, is not imposed on her opponents. And what Perez is really ‘asking’ Day is whether her educational credentials are real; like Donald Trump on his quixotic quest to debunk Barrack Obama’s academic achievements, he just can’t believe that a woman, of all things, can possibly be qualified.
There are a hundred more examples, large and small, every day. This is a culture of exclusion. It functions to dismiss and deny the luderacy of women, and dissuade other women from trying to achieve it even if it interests them. Day’s experience, for example, should be seen in light of the ‘fake geek girl’ meme that recently blew up in the world of comics – another geeky subculture where prominent individuals apparently fear infiltration by man-eating shape shifters dressed as Sexy John Constantine or whatever. The discourse is all about ‘posing’, ‘really’ knowing, the true believers and the pretenders, and extra tests are introduced in order to distinguish them. Can you name every Green Lantern ever? Come on, it’s just trash talking. Hey, get on mic so we can scrutinise your voice. Hope you’re ready for a literacy test if you want to vote. Can you say ‘Magdalen College’?
As in real-world education debates, nobody is claiming that no tests and no standards are ever legitimate. In a fighting game tournament we accept that some people will have to lose and drop out, just as others must win; likewise, I wouldn’t let you join my WoW raiding guild if I didn’t think you could cut the mustard. The problem is of dishonest requirements. Whatever test gets set up, it somehow always seems to apply differently to women, or blacks, or gays, or whoever. Sometimes, as in Gladwell’s example of the Liberian IQ test, it starts as an accident; a test designed for one culture doesn’t work in another. But when people defend the test as ‘objective’, denigrate those who it excludes and wilfully blind themselves to its bias, the effect is exactly the same. Just look at the BritRuby scandal in the programming world, where some people couldn’t stand the idea that privilege might exist and play a part in their success. Or see the case of Rebecca ‘Skepchick’ Watson, whose right to speak about science was questioned (but not that of her equivalently-educated male peers) once she wrote about sexism at skeptic conferences. In his book Outliers, Gladwell compiles many striking examples of false requirements in sport, business and politics. He did so not out of pure curiosity but because he didn’t like living a culture which constantly tells itself that all its tests are fair.
One way to phrase this is that education is itself a game in which players are rewarded for learning certain skills and having certain abilities and that our culture thinks some of these games are more hardcore than others. In his book Half-Real, Jesper Juul defines games as having “negotiable consequences” and illustrates by contrasting ‘games’ with ‘elections’. But elections are negotiable too; their consequences have already been negotiated by power elites and their inherent negotiability is obscured by the respect or even pseudo-biblical reverence we give to constitutional authorities. Accordingly, some of these games are broken. Just as elections don’t always elect the best (or even the most popular), the rules of the fighting game tournament covertly slant away from their ostensible purpose of ‘finding the most skilled player’ and towards the purpose of excluding women from the definition of ‘skilled’. That is to say that videogames, along with education, NHS privatisation, always-on DRM and most of contemporary capitalism, suffers from a grand form of ludonarrative dissonance. The fiction doesn’t match the rules.
Meanwhile, the gaming world practices its own matryoshka valuation of different kinds of luderacy. Casual is bad and hardcore is good, even though nobody agrees on how those terms are defined. Games that don’t require hours of devotion and white-knuckle skill are for pussies and women (and notice that those striking examples of exclusion are from these highly valued luderacy subtypes). A woman who finds the stories of Bioware games more interesting than their gameplay is ruining everything. And hey, if you’re not a straight white dude and you still want to gain or demonstrate a videogame education, add to your list Exercise 5: endure and brush off a brand-new scandal like the monstering of Jennifer Hepler pretty much every day.
This is not to mention the persistently juvenile and frequently misogynist aesthetics of the medium (something Kellaway complains about). You must volunteer to try and learn about videogames even though sometimes it seems like their every pixel berates you for not being part of that small section of humanity. And no, this is not the result of ‘market forces’. Latinos drive videogame sales but are poorly represented in the medium. Black and hispanic people play more videogames but don’t get to make them (or be in them). Games with woman protagonists have marketing budgets 40% lower or less than man-games. The straight, white, male, young ‘target audience’ is a fiction and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Somewhere out there, growing up quiet and nerdy is traumatic enough – and it can be tough – that some kid will deal with it by making ‘gamer’ or ‘nerd’ a big part of his identity. Maybe he goes further and buys into the myth that girls are oppressing him by invading his hobby; maybe, just maybe, there is some kind of real hurt behind that psychological shift. But if you feel persecuted you don’t get to take it out on the people that society has conveniently placed below you as a sacrificial class to divert your anger from your actual enemies. Fucked doesn’t have to mean fucked up, kid, and this is fucked up.
Everyone is right about Kellaway. Gaming is a complex field and it would be churlish to expect her to magically ‘get’ everything worth getting about it. And as far as our interaction with external valuation goes, we don’t need to bring Mohammed to the mountain; we can call the mountain right the fuck here. We are getting better at wielding our own kinds of education and complexity for a rainbow of reasons, and for every model of what games should be and do there is a polemical counterattack (although some are more prominent and powerful than others). The most vital, radiant and penetrating critics of videogames are bilingual, with one foot inside the magic circle. They have this education in their bones – even though in some cases they have had to seize it from between the teeth of the whole exclusionary arsenal.
But Kellaway’s lesson is valuable because some of the things that dissuaded her are the same things that form this arsenal. Fighting false exclusion everywhere it appears with every available fibre is an obvious step to prevent this. But perhaps we also need to make it a mythic and foundational ideal that our medium and all the forms of education it involves should be open to everyone without scruple or exception. Everybody gets to play and everybody gets to learn.
We see this kind of sustaining ideal operate in the sporting world, where the UK has a publically funded scouting body (Sport England) modelled on the Soviet Union’s and designed to find Olympic talent anywhere, while the US allows talented athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds to be offered scholarships to excel in college. This myth does not function perfectly: a high proportion of British medal-winners were privately educated, and nerds at college like to rage against sport scholarships because it devalues the exclusivity (not the utility) of their own extortionately-priced education. Meanwhile, male footballers sell on the international market while female ones are ignored. But the ideal informed every level of discussion and coverage about the 2012 Olympics, and was central to the most successful Paralympics ever. If it isn’t working, it’s valuable enough to be worth working towards.
Even where there are explicit, rigid criteria for participation or success, as in sport or fighting games tournaments (but not in ‘having fun with videogames’ or ‘being allowed to talk about videogames’), it’s bullshit to dismiss access measures. You wouldn’t object to a pop science book that distilled the work of specialists for uneducated appreciation, or to an introductory text that aimed to give aspiring specialists a first step.
In reality this is also a method of bringing the mountain to us. Invite everyone in, exclude nobody. Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters declares exactly this ideal, with its call for a demotic revolution in game production and its pixel art cover with 192 different faces given equal prominence in a hue mosaic. Posters sold at launch twinned a blow-up of that cover with the word: ‘EVERYONE’. And if the status quo should at some point co-opt that beautiful ideal as a fig leaf for ongoing exclusion, as has arguably happened in sport and blatantly happened with democracy, that just means that it is up to everyone to take back that system and, like the rebelling Haitian slaves who stood against Napoleonic soldiers by singing the French revolutionary anthem back at them, reclaim and unleash its unfinished potential.
Because I believe in the school of games, just like I believe in the education I got – but I also that it should be open and deliberately welcoming to everyone, just like I believe that everyone should have the chance to spend three years in a library learning how to look at things which are blossoming and bursting and exploding into life at this very moment, and put them all into an article as long, and ponderous, and irrelevant as this one.
Hey! Sit down! The bell doesn’t ring for another fi –