Image of Solitude
“Solitudes” by ArTeTeTrA. (Creative Commons License)

Go Outside and Smell the (Paper) Roses!

It is no secret that videogames are blamed for a lot of the world’s ills.  Simplistic associations between videogames and societal violence persist despite the ambiguous and often downright flawed research in this area.  I suspect this particular gaming albatross is never going to disappear, but just in case that it does, the forces of reaction are lining up new evils to associate with interactive entertainment, chiefly childhood obesity and addiction.  This of course is nothing new.  Governments have routinely targeted the new media of the day in order to try and expand their control over information; parents have regularly lambasted the media du jour in order to dodge responsibility for their own parenting decisions.  I am, however, routinely shocked at how effective the level of societal brainwashing has been.  Many of my students have absorbed the “evil influence” argument to some degree.  This is perhaps not so surprising in those who don’t consider themselves gamers (although many of them are; they just don’t play “those games,” you know, the bad ones; playing Candy Crush obsessively doesn’t make you a gamer but playing Call of Duty does, in their minds).  Yet even people who have been playing and enjoying all manner of games for years, who think of “gamer” as part of their identity, have absorbed some of these negative stereotypes.

Yet behind all of this there is often a much more basic dismissal directed at games, a snooty high-mindedness that declares that those who play videogames are simply “missing out.”  What they are missing out on is sometimes unspecified; the proposition is left hanging, a vague assertion that gamers are missing out on “life” in some unspecified way.  Sometimes the criteria are established: they are missing out on “social interaction” or “the great outdoors” or “creative play.”  Such charges are, of course, usually based on hopelessly romantic notions of what each of those entails.  Anyone who has stood in line to get coffee at Starbucks with a group of people who can barely look up from their phones long enough to voice their order (and in fact usually continue texting, etc. without even offering the person serving you your drink the courtesy of eye contact) should know better than to offer platitudes about the vast and exciting world of stimulating social interaction that is waiting for people just outside their front door.  Moreover, it is worthy of note, isn’t it, that this “gamer generation” of “millennials” (and I honestly have no idea what that word means anymore, if it was ever supposed to be anything more than a term of abuse ready-packaged for deployment by grumpy curmudgeons like me) are actually those who are seeking out experience, the extraordinary and the extreme, in unprecedented numbers.

With all of this as background, it occurred to me recently, that the real hidden tragedy associated with videogames is that it is the people who don’t play them who are missing out.

Sounding the Retreat

During summer I was lucky enough to go on a weekend writing retreat.  This wasn’t one of those fancy schmancy writers’s retreats with a steady supply of free mimosas and backrubs.  There were no backrubs and in place of the mimosas there was some kind of strange cocktail made with something called “Shrub.”  This was a casual weekend where a group of friends, all of whom had hefty writing projects they were working on, rented a cabin in the woods (well, if in the woods means “surrounded by trees but within easy driving distance of a liquor store and supermarket”) to get some serious work done.  And work we did.  On the longest day I think I wrote, with short breaks, for about 11 hours.  That is about ten and a half hours longer than the amount of writing I usually get done in a day.  For someone who had been sitting in chairs most of the day I slept long and soundly every night.

We worked like machines but even machines need regular maintenance.  And it was during one of these breaks that we began talking about books we’d read, a conversation that quickly spiraled out of control–but in a good way–as someone’s suggestion made someone else think of another book, as one person asked for a specific recommendation (for a class, for a friend, for a project).  And throughout it all much lively and illuminating conversation about books that had moved us (to tears, to laughter, to the bathroom), a delirious celebration of all things bookish.  It was the kind of conversation you’d expect from a bunch of educated people who have built their lives around the importance of reading, writing, and thinking about what we (as individuals and as a society) value in those things and what they have been good for and may still be good for.

I certainly read no shortage of amazing books over the summer; due to lots of traveling I read for pleasure and instruction way more than I usually do.  Yet some of the most profound intellectual experiences I had this summer were not with books, they were with videogames.

And there was no way I could have that conversation with any of my friends.

Educated, literate, and literary they all are, but none of them play videogames.  Now I have been able to suck a couple of them into the world of board games and turned them into afficianados of the fabulous Battlestar Galactica board game.  And I’m sure that a couple of them dabble in casual games on their phones from time to time, or play Words with Friends and the like.  But none of them play videogames that are designed for non-casual play. This is true, in fact of my larger circle of colleagues in the program where I teach, with only a couple of exceptions.  This could possibly be an age thing, and one might reasonably suppose that the “younger generation” nipping at our heels will be different.  But I haven’t seen that so far.  There are, of course, legions of older gamers out there; demographic data tells us pretty definitively that many people who grew up with games keep playing them.  Of course, Jesper Juul’s work in A Casual Revolution also tells us that the ranks of casual gamers are filled with many middle-aged ex-traditional gamers who simply don’t have time for longer more complex games.  And that in turn may explain why I see a fair number of self-identified post-retirement gamers playing MMORPGs these days.

It could be that the amount of work involved in getting a Ph.D. drives you away from playing traditional games and you never go back.  (For me, it was the opposite: it was during my Ph.D. years that I actually became an avid gamer: make of that what you will.)  And sure, getting a doctorate requires you to put your life on hold and then if you wanted kids etc., you have to make up for lost time.  But that doesn’t quite explain it.  Academics, after all, are routinely attracted to fields of study and–more important for this discussion–fields of recreation that involve extended engagement with complex objects.  Surprisingly, I have been able to find virtually no studies of college professors playing videogames.  College students playing games have been studied up the wazoo; they are in fact the main research group for most studies of violence, which is one of the things that makes the studies of limited value.  And when videogames and professors are coupled in the research literature, it is usually only to talk about how professors might use games in their classes.

But I suspect my intuition is valid: among college professors, the proportion who play traditional videogames is much lower than for the general population.  What are the implications of this?

The term “Ivory Tower” is usually bandied about as a term of abuse or ironic self-deprecation.  But I am all in favor of it as a positive descriptor, and I’ve become more so as I have grown older and the technologies and social expectations that increasingly clutter our lives afford fewer opportunities to step aside from life itself.  Societies, and especially those with some pretension to democracy, need groups that are able to work and think outside the commercial and intellectual pressures of the marketplace.  US culture is deeply in love with the idea of business as a driver of innovation, but this happens more rarely than you might think because business practices are inherently risk-averse; they have to be so.  It is also the case that many “business” innovations are, when you trace them fully, built atop various types of research being conducted by colleges, foundations, and institutes.  The same is true also for intellectual developments, perhaps even more so; people immersed in the daily flow of their lives are deeply conservative in their habits of thought.

So universities, at their best, can be an environment where being set apart from the culture as a whole can produce significant innovation and offer necessary goads and checks to their culture as a whole.  But the insularity that goes with that can often produce a concentration of some of the worst traits that professors and staff bring into the building with them.  For example, to my friends who bewail the increasing corporatization of the university, I often argue that the real problem isn’t that people are trying to operate colleges as a business, it is that they unfailingly try to operate them as badly run businesses.  I suspect, therefore, that the non-gaming professor issue is part and parcel of the same tendency.  As I’ve pointed out, many professors do engage with complex intellectual past-times even in their off hours. . .but they don’t consider videogames to be a complex intellectual past-time.  They have, in other words, absorbed and concentrated a cultural zeitgeist that treats games as a mere fun, a light hobby, a form of recreation only–a mode of thinking that my literature professor friends could of course also apply to reading, but they never would dream of limiting reading in such a way.

This has some obvious implications for my own discipline of writing studies.  One of the things that makes my current program a good one–and I believe we are–is that most of us see writing as a moving target.  There is no fixed Platonic Ideal of “good writing” out there that has remained and will remain true for all time, however devoutly many students and people out in the world at large wish it were so.  It is a moving target because our students as writers are constantly changing as a result of new experiences and their immersion in a changing world of communication practices; it is a moving target because the world for which they are writing is constantly changing.  So what does it mean to be a writing program, where virtually no one has any familiarity with the lens through which a good number of your students are viewing the world?  What does it mean to be a college where that kind of ignorance prevails?  This would be as if, in a former age, you were trying to teach students how to write but you yourself did not read books.

Looking in the Mirror

Many college faculty, I suspect, would feel that they have a common sense response to this.  Videogames may be powerfully immersive, they would concede, and maybe even occasionally rise to the level of a good B movie, but it’s not fucking Tolstoy for chrissake!  Sadly, all too many, game studies scholars and even players would tacitly agree.  But this summer has, I think, taught me definitively that it is fucking Tolstoy.

My gameplaying is shaped by two predominant factors

  1. I have a job.  Part of that job often involves writing about games.  The more time you spend writing about games the less time you have to actually play them.
  2. I try never to play games when they are first released.  In fact I try to play them after a good amount of time has passed.  While I have written a few game reviews for academic publications I am not a game reviewer.  Those “reviews” have been pieces of criticism, usually dealing with games that have been out for some time (especially if you factor in the long academic lead time).
    1. Part of the reason is that I refuse to pay full price for games; you are a mug if you do.  Because publishers and distributors treat all games as disposable, replaceable products, prices on these drop quickly if you have a modicum of patience.
    2. Most gamers do not, however, have a modicum of patience, and that is because the hype machine for videogames is extraordinary. It is in fact much more powerful than even the apparently more pervasive and well-funded hype machine for Hollywood’s products.  A forthcoming game isn’t just a tantalizing promise of something you can watch and listen to for a couple of hours, it is the promise of a world in which you can invest a large amount of time and a significant portion of yourself.  Videogame players are the absolute worst when it comes to having massively unrealistic expectations for upcoming games; and when those are not met, they don’t blame themselves, they turn on those games with an unmatched fury.  Witness the extraordinary level of hate directed recently at No Man’s Sky, which currently has a lower player Metacritic rating than Osama Bin Laden, much of it because the game did not live up to player expectations, expectations that were always massively unrealistic, right from the start of this project.  For that reason, anyone who is really serious about being a videogame critic, as opposed to a consumer reviewer, needs to do everything they can to resist that hype.

My standard approach therefore is to pick a few games from the last few years that I can try and dip into during the summer without a) significantly impacting my involvement with my current recreational games, and b) all the other work I have to get done during the summer.  The time lag is a useful filtering mechanism as well because it enables me to apply the only really useful criteria applicable to any critical enterprise: what games have stood the test of Time (and yes, in the gaming world Time=a couple of years)?  What games are people still talking about and still regard as being significant?  And of those, which have still retained my interest?

And this summer, I played through an amazing collection of games.  I had played the now legendary Bioshock before but thanks to a Steam sale I downloaded and played through the entire trilogy (with Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite).  I played Dishonored (although not as yet the two DLC expansions, which people seem to regard as excellent).  Question’s The Magic Circle had been on my list for a while; the premise where you are trapped in an unfinished videogame littered with the relics of the development teams’ many disagreements, in which you have to use the available game assets to re-program the game from the inside. . .all that sounded as if it could be an unbearable exercise in meta preciousness or something really amazing.  Fortunately it was the latter.  I finally got around to playing The Talos Principle.  And I played Soma.

For years, now, I have just accepted that games were my thing, something that I did both as a hobby and as part of my academic work.  Other people did different stuff, and that was fine.  Last year, however, when I played Wolfenstein: The New Order I was for the first time hit with the suspicion that it wasn’t just the case that we were all doing our own thing.  For the first time I felt that both my friends and colleagues might be missing out on something.  And that that “something” was significant.  Wolfenstein is an appallingly bloodthirsty game; the level of carnage and splatter almost defies belief.  It is also one of the most profound, moving, and thought-provoking games I have ever played.  It is the first game where I would have tried to sit all my non-gaming friends down, put the game on its easiest setting (called, in homage to the original Wolfenstein 3D “Don’t Hurt Me, Daddy!”) and asked them to just play it through.

Dishonored was very good, although not great in the way of the original Thief trilogy to which it is so clearly indebted.  Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand: great.  And I don’t mean just great fun.  I mean great in the sense where we say a painting or a novel is great.  You can, for starters, count on the fingers of one finger the number of games that have dealt squarely with the central role of both racism and exceptionalism in US culture.  But to then layer on theories of probabalistic multiverses?  And remain a moving interpersonal story?  Hell, the number of the pieces of art that could pull that off in any medium is small.

But it was The Talos Principle and, especially, Soma that both blew me away, and made me sad (because the games were sad) and then made me sad all over again from the realization that I could never, ever, share that experience with anyone who wasn’t a gamer.

As I thought back to my group of friends, laughing and impassionate over books, I realized that The Talos Principle is the kind of thing that on one level they (and a lot of other academics) would love.  The game is a surprisingly deep philosophical reflection on human identity, artificial intelligence, personhood and environmental stewardship, framed by a fascinating recasting of Milton’s Paradise Lost and embedded in original and fiendishly difficult spatio-logical puzzles (several times I felt as if I ought to give my degree back).  It is a deep game.  But you can’t get to the depth except by playing it.  Now I could recount portions of it to my friends but that is a pale shadow, and moreover there are so many fundamental aspects of the game that are about the emotional resonance of a moment that you actually experience in the game.  For example, when you come across the “termination” message scrawled on a wall, the dying words of a fellow AI program whose messages you have been reading throughout the game but there, at that moment, was terminated for not living up to expectations.  Even my telling of it here sounds thin.  Much as the way our lives are considerably different when we experience them from the inside as part of a flow of time and decision, so the inherent limitation with a lot of the most powerful elements in very good games is: you had to be there.

All of this was even more true of Soma, a game that continues to haunt me.  And that word choice is even more appropriate given that this game terrified the living crap out of me.  Me.  A die-hard horror movie fan.  There I was, actually exiting the game at times because I just couldn’t take the tension and suspense any more and needed a break.  And for the most part it wasn’t what the kids of today are apparently calling “jump scares.”  Soma is one of the most atmospheric games you will ever play, and that atmosphere is a saturating, suffocating sense of dread and imminent danger which never lets up.  Mostly, bad things don’t happen.  But when they do, they are really bad.  And I don’t mean bad as in a severed-body-parts kind of way.  I mean bad as in a psychologically distressing way. I’d read about a couple of these moments online and they were still bad.  The obvious question at this point is: why in the name of all that is holy would you subject yourself to this?

Because, my timid little friend, Soma is also a profound, beautiful, melancholy, deeply reflective exploration of consciousness and personhood.  Moreover, to get that depth, you have to do what the game asks you to do.  It is, for example, no spoiler (not that I believe in spoiler alerts in any case) to say that in Soma you are playing as a human consciousness trapped in a machine body.  As a player (and as the character) you don’t know this at the beginning of the game for certain. . .but you kinda do.  The game sets you up for this right at the beginning when you awake in a strange environment and you encounter a mirror but it is broken.  That, however, is another layer the game is exploring: denial as a fundamental element of personhood.  You look down at yourself and you see you have hands, and feet and you are reassured.  But then you come across a severely damaged machine begging you to get medical help and insisting stridently, against all your attempts to point out the obvious, that it is in fact human because it can see its hands and legs.  And then there is, finally, the moment where you find a mirror that isn’t broken and see what your face looks like.  Your appearance isn’t horrifying in the conventional sense, but I physically leaped back.  Because it very definitely isn’t human.  And that is just a small part of what the game has in store for you; some of its finest and most disturbing moments involve expanding upon the basic metaphorical conceit of looking at yourself, and physicalizing that by placing it in the context of gameplay action.

The game has a profoundly sad ending.  If you stay all the way through the credits the game flips and apparently gives you a happier take on this ending.  And then flips again.  But players of Soma routinely report another kind of sadness: sadness that if they play the game again they will never be able to experience it in quite the same profound way as on the first play through.  I will play it again one day, I’m sure (as soon as I can get my brown corduroys cleaned), and I am sure it will yield different pleasures.  I’m sure I will have forgotten some of what is coming, but remembering some of it, I will be noticing other things, noticing also the skill with which the entire enterprise is crafted.  But this is also the point where games have an ambiguously different relationship to other forms.  Sure, that second reading of a beloved novel will not have quite the same joy of discovery, and you will instead be encountering the novel in a way that is different and which may deepen and broaden your understanding.  But I can’t help feeling that games are different in this regard.  The experience is more akin to encountering a favorite place which will be experienced differently when traversed for a second time.

These games obviously represent the best of the best.  Not all games reach this level, just as most books don’t reach the level of Austen.  But if you are a teacher who doesn’t game, not only are you shutting yourself off from a strikingly different way of engaging with ideas and their emotional resonance, but you are shutting yourself off from the way in which a significant number of your students are experiencing a world of ideas.  Are all your students going to be appreciative of the philosophical depth of these games?  Probably not; no more so than those who were made dutifully to slog through any number of Great Works in high school.  But you don’t have to read very far into online discussions of the the games I have mentioned to see that one of the things that makes these games so good is that a significant number of players did appreciate the depth and the intellectual complexity.  They got it (whatever “it” was in the game in question, and their willingness to debate that “it” is another interesting facet to which we should pay attention).  Therefore, if a substantial proportion of our college faculty are not having these kinds of experiences–and I would be very happy to be proven wrong about that–and therefore will have minimal sympathy for those who are, we need to think about what the implications are for our teaching practices.