Monday, September 27, 2010

Explorations in Gaming: The Most Misunderstood Medium (Part 1)

For the last year or so, I have been blogging considerably less than I had before. While I was able to push out 89 postings last year, 2010 brought a meager 49 postings. I also have not written a major blog post since last year’s Nerds and Popularity. I am embarrassed to say that a tenfold increase in gaming time was responsible for my declining blogging productivity.

Some years ago, developing and enhancing this site was one of my top priorities online. As I turned on my computer, I browsed the web and thought about content to upload to this site. It served as a good outlet for me to explore personal thoughts, share the better ones with the world and chart my personal intellectual development. Since then, such topics have tropped out of interests and video games have come to fill that void. My most-visited sites used to be Wikipedia, Flickr, Blogger and DeviantArt respectively and has since shifted to Facebook, Wikipedia, Gamespot, IGN, GamesRadar and

The tenfold increase in gaming has also changed my personality in noticeable ways. My sense of humor has grown dry, consisting of deadpan references to obscure video games in inopportune moments. Just yesterday at Quiz Bowl practice I 4chanftwblurted, “IMRAN ZAKHAEV!” when prompted with a Middle Eastern Russian imperialist. Sunday Sites are now almost exclusively reposts of IGN and GamesRadar articles. My fundamental relationships with others have deteriorated as I hold little interest in professional sports, television and the opposite sex. Thus, in this post, I will attempt to explore and defend video games and the relationship with the gamer to his games. Games have quickly become the most misunderstood art form of our day. Spreading a greater understanding of the nuances of the medium is my goal with this post, which will be part of an ongoing series titled “Explorations in Gaming.” 

A Time of Asteroids and the Birth of Obsession

"The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one” ~ Mr. Antolini

I remember that there was a time when I had yet to discover gaming. I was about two years old at that time; I mostly read and drew to entertain myself. At three, I was given access to my dad’s Macintosh, where he kept a considerable number of games. The first game I ever played was a clone of Missile DefenseA5200_Missile_Command, along with Odell Down Under, Oregon Trail and Asteroids along with a crapload of edutainment titles. I must say that playing them was no revelatory experience. While I did play games on that computer frequently, I had yet to encounter the experience that would entrance me for life. 

In 1998, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time entered my life, I had played Super Mario 64 before, but nothing was like this. That was an early revelatory experience. The fantasy world of a 3D Hyrule permeated my early childhood fantasies, I would make up my own dungeons and Zelda stories with my imagination. I would be Link in my daydreams. The next game to conquer my imagination and daydreams would not come until I discovered Pokemon, which would entrance my fantasies and dominate my mind for years. Dreams of adventuring the countryside, chasing creatures and battling trainers would be all I would think about. Needless to say, this opened the door for a lifelong love… or obsession with gaming.

Like most teenagers, I have changed a lot over the years. I have lived through phases of anger, cynicism, silliness, fear IMG_8054and pretension. Notably, my love of video-games has remained unchanged and has only grown stronger. I love video-games for the profound experiences that they have given me, both emotionally and intellectually, nonetheless, gaming has had its detrimental effect on me, encroaching upon my interests outside of gaming, my ability to succeed socially and tackle interpersonal issues.

Wasted Time: Mainstream Perceptions of Video-Games

“Computers, long a symbol of depersonalization, were cast as ‘tools for conviviality’ and ‘dream machines.’ Computers, long a symbol for the power of the ‘big’-– big corporations, big institutions, big money-- began to acquire an image as instruments for decentralization, community, and personal autonomy” ~ Sherry Turkle (The Second Self)

When most people look at video-games, they see them as a waste of time. Indeed, while talking to my high-school peers, I discover that the general consensus is that games have grown stale and boring and are only fun when played with friends. Despite the commercial success of Wii Sports and Modern Warfare 2, the overwhelming majority of teenagers treat games as casual, social pleasure. While I have no opposition to enjoying games in this way, the sheer depth and nuance of the medium makes such a cursory glance rather disappointing. Despite the technical and artistic prowess of both independent and corporate developers, the mainstream perception of games as quick, cheap entertainment remains largely unchanged.

Video games do have their fair share of detractors. The mainstream media is well known for holding often silly and uninformed views of video games. For the most part, these pundits take video-gaming at the surface level, believing violence, not refined design, to be the main appeal of video games. This is a gross generalization that assumes that gamers are no more than a philistine population seeking to simulate violence as graphically as possible. This view is flawed, as it fails to account for the fact that several recent ultraviolent games, such as MadWorld, Manhunt 2 and Postal 2 were notable commercial failures. If ultraviolence were the main appeal of games, then the massive casual game movement spearheaded by 2006’s Wii Sports would have never started. Mad_world_wii_esrbboxart_160w

Ph.D student Vanessa Gorely says, “Video games are extremely prevalent in our culture, but they haven’t been paid much attention as a cultural phenomenon. Most attention has been paid to the negative aspects of gaming and not the good aspects of it.” Gorely is correct in this regard, the vast majority of people view gaming as boring, nerdy, socially-isolating or a societal threat. They do not acknowledge that gaming can be a truly enriching experience that can entertain, stimulate and entrance. Video games, particularly those by indie developers, have grown into a viable medium for artistic self-expression, indicating that gameplay is not a waste of time, but a means of personal development and life-enrichment. At the same time, there is no denying the profound effect that games have on their players and the mystery of the human-computer relationship.

 Intellectual Gaming: Using Games to Address and Convey Points

"If you think a game is 'Madden 2008,' then hey, games probably aren't art." ~ Jonathan Blow

In a 2008 lecture, Jonathan Blow said that 95% of independent game developers fail to complete their game, 95% of that population fail to make a fun and meaningful game. Oftentimes, developers design with high production-values in mind failing to design fulfilling mechanics and dynamics and arouse the desired response in the player. Blow is regarded by many to be the most preeminent intellectual in the gaming community, his 2008 puzzle game Braid is regarded to be the epitome of personal expression through interactivity in a medium dominated by multi-million dollar corporations. Lauded for its ingenuous four-dimensional mechanics, semi-autobiographical commentary on contemporary gaming, humanization of enemies and intellectual significance, Braid brought new ideas to game development, smashing the Hollywood-emulation mold that corporate development adhered to for so long. 


Perhaps Braid’s critical success can be attributed to its intellectually stimulating atmosphere and meaningful gameplay. Its ambiguous and surprising ending has been interpreted to mean a wide variety of things. From an emotional chronicle of a painful break-up to a psychological exploration of a Manhattan Project developer, interpretations are varied, thoughtful and interesting. Braid is unlike most mainstream games because its mechanics are an integral part of its storytelling whereas other games use a story to wrap together mechanics and dynamics.

Braid is not the only case for intellectual gaming. Indeed, video-games have already begun to make their way into educational institutions. The University of Calgary has already planned to add video-games to their research library. Wabash College in Indiana has already placed Valve’s 2007 puzzler Portal on its required summer material for incoming freshmen. Addressing “fundamental questions of humanity”, Portal has been analyzed by critics and compared to Goffman’s sociology book The Presentation of Self in wabash_college800x538Everyday Life. The character of GLaDOS, Portal’s omniscient, insane AI, is known for exploring themes of identity and conflicts between public and private selves. The fact that a video-game has made its way into a non-computer science college course signifies that video games are indeed a respectable and important part of modern culture.

Intellectualism in Mainstream Gaming: Commercial Success, Risk Taking and Satire in Grand Theft Auto

Intellectual gaming extends beyond obscure critical successes. 2007’s Bioshock and 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV were violent, mainstream (albeit traditional) commercial hits that held significant messages. Unlike the aforementioned games, which used gameplay to make their messages inseparable from the interactive experience, these games use atmosphere and cinematics to convey their messages respectively. This reliance on Hollywood-styled presentation detracts from the overall uniqueness that the interactivity of gaming affords.

This cinematic style can be attributed to the immense cost and risk involved in making mainstream games. GTA IV took 5 years and $100 million to produce. If it were to flop, then the combined efforts of hundreds of artists, engineers, marketers, administrators and writers would be undermined, causing significant economic disturbances. Realtime World’s MMO APB was a notable commercial failure, taking 5 years of development and millions of dollars. Within six weeks of its release, it was announced to be shut down due to its commercial unsustainably. Such commercial failures are why major publishers are unwilling to support experimental gameplay and champion the emulation of movies in games. The sheer number of differing voices involved in corporate game development makes it difficult for individuals to express themselves in these kinds of games.

Despite the clear distinction between presentation styles, some mainstream games still make an effort to pose challenging intellectual questions validating gaming. Bioshock received universal acclaim for its serious analysis of philosophical subject matter. It heavily criticizes Ayn Rand’s objectivism and theorizes over the ethical implications of a Randian society modeled after Galt’s Gulch. The game was commercially successful and told its story through methods unique to video games. Bioshock is considered to be one of the greatest video games ever released for its daring risk-taking and thought-provoking thematic material. Bioshockcoverfinalcropped

The oft-maligned Grand Theft Auto IV, popularly believed to be a celebration of violent street life, holds many redeeming values to be unearthed by deeper analysis. By depicting a realistically written, emotionally complex and humanly identifiable tragic protagonist through subtle nuances in animation, GTA IV garnered universal praise from critics. In his memoir Extra Lives, Tom Bissell extolled the game’s personally impacting environment and dialouge, writing that “[while] GTA IV’s dialogue has no bearing on its gameplay… it does make it one of very few games in which listening to people talk is not only enjoyable by sociologically revelatory” (168) Indeed, while most casual players ignore the intellectually stimulating writing, GTA IV is deserving of a considerable amount of respect in this area, particularly because of the media’s ample misunderstanding of it.

Missing Out on Life: Fulfilling Oneself Through Games (or not)

“So what have games given me? Experiences… most of which are as important to me as any real memories… I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium… I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium could… Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself… maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.” ~ Tom Bissell, Extra Lives (182)

There is no denying that games hold a profound effect on the player. For heavy enthusiasts like myself, video games encroach heavily upon real-life commitments and relationships. While games may have infiltrated my subconscious and caused problems in real-life, I can absolutely profess that I cherish the presence of games in my life for many reasons.

But that is a story for another post. Stay tuned for part 2 of Explorations in Gaming: The Most Misunderstood Medium.

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