I’ve written a couple times before and will no doubt write again my thoughts about video games. I think video games in general are interesting as a still-young cultural phenomenon, and that many video games, seen from this point of view, are interesting in themselves.
But these days there are, rather suddenly, a lot of people out there talking about video games – holding conferences, publishing symposia, interviewing each other, spending money on it – and the whole appeal of investigating the what and wherefore of the form has been a little soured for me by the fact that most of what these people say is so totally nerdy. The supposed intellectual curiosity behind it always seems phony, like a posture intended to redeem geeky fannishness in the eyes of the disapproving. But of course the disapproving will never be impressed by that sort of thing. These people seem to be driven by the hope that if they can jury-rig the facade of an academic establishment (“Video Game Studies”), the world (i.e. their parents) will apologize for doubting the value of their time spent playing those games. In any case, the kind of discourse I’ve encountered doesn’t generally feel intellectually sincere or open-minded – not nearly so sincere and open-minded as it makes pains to project.
So anyway, this morning (well, now that I’m actually posting this, it was two days ago) I was reading a back-and-forth on Slate about video games, and the point of departure was one guy’s claim that this game, “BioShock,” was an admirable artistic step forward for video games, which led into some discussion of whether video games had yet produced a “Citizen Kane.” Follow the link and read a little about the game in question to get a sense of what we’re talking about here.
Here are my thoughts. The quality of art is the quality of its relationship to life. Art rises in our esteem the more it seems to us to be right about something outside itself. That something can be a something that only exists in our minds – our fantasies, our instinctual responses to colors, all the primal abstractions that govern us, etc. That something can also be part of our world-understanding – how people behave, how the world works, etc – i.e., everything. The deeper the understanding evinced by the art, the better it seems. This may seem like a limited definition but I think it accomodates all sorts of things – really fine light entertainment has to be right about what delights us – and the subject of “what delights us” is just as real a subject as “what love is” or “how power isolates a man” or whatever. What isn’t as real a subject for art is mutants in a dystopian underwater city, et al. You can trace these things back to their origins in human experience and human fantasy, but you have to follow them around several tight curves and by the time you get to the point of origin, you can no longer see “BioShock” from where you stand.
The stuff of culture, passed from one mind to the next, is just as subject to the slow work of Habit as any other behavior. Over time, with enough exposure, memes (that word again!) get washed smooth by the currents of society – or tumbled smooth by the rock-tumbler of society, if you prefer – until they are no longer actual valuable items for barter, but mere cultural currency, paper money purportedly representing actual thought and feeling stored in some Fort Knox of thought and sentiment. Though I’m not sure there is any Fort Knox out there – I think a good deal of the originating thought and sentiment is actually lost in the tumbling process, and we’re left pushing paper dolls at each other. Mixing metaphors, in my opinion, is only a sin if the mixture is potentially misleading or distracting.
To be a nerd is to be a paper-doll aficionado. Superhero comic books might still feed certain actual human fantasies, but only at some animal subconscious level – the conscious mind of the comic book fan is drawn not to what the explosions and mutants might mean, it is just drawn to the explosions and mutants, in-themselves. The nerd is interested in amassing paper money because he loves paper.
“Escapism” doesn’t mean escape from realistic thought into fantastic thought – it means escape from thought. All thought is necessarily about reality, to some degree. Escapism is relief from your cares and worries, not from the actual things your cares and worries are about; all you have to do for that kind escape is close the door. People like to divorce themselves from the meanings of things.
So of course tons and tons of culture is produced out of mere paper, by and for paper-lovers, who may or may not know consciously why they surround themselves with paper. When they need to defend themselves, they might point out that every piece of paper corresponds to something wholesome in Fort Knox, but they don’t really feel it – it’s just a historical fact they read somewhere and can call on if need be.
This brings us to “ambitious” nerd culture, which takes these ephemeral foundations and then, with great pride, adds a cherry of referential meaning on top. Batman might, on a particularly award-winning day, have to deal with universal themes of disillusionment and psychological struggle or whatever, and yeah, that might be “about” human experience, in its way – but our buying this comic book about a bat-man in the first place is still dependent on its blessedly distant relationship to the things of this world. So self-congratulation for maturity seems a little undeserved.
And so: video games have made huge strides in their artistic quality in many ways having to do with the senses, with aesthetics. The sculptural, architectural part of videogame art is real and exciting – many experiences I’ve had with video games, of being in some place with a particular and unified textural and spatial feeling, have been as strong and real as any other kind of artistic experience I’ve had. But the dramatic, conceptual, theatrical and cinematic aspects of those same video games are still entirely within the paper world of nerddom, and show no signs of life. Artistic progress will not be made by adding would-be “depth” value to games built unreflectively from nerd-currency. I await the game that truly and completely knows itself, all the way down to its roots in human experience; then we will have something to talk about. I don’t think it will happen for a while yet.
I could have tried to attend to my own various pretensions and shortcomings here, but that would just have mucked up what I was trying to say. Consider them acknowledged and a source of concern.