Gamers want toys, not art. Well, that and sports, but we’ll save that for next time.
I recently had the pleasure of coming upon the following article on IGN entitled “Video Games and the Search for Authenticity: How postmodern social theory could help explain the rise in gaming’s popularity.” I was actually more interested in reading the response in the comments to “postmodernism” than I was the actual article.
That and I was completely fascinated by the fact that the article, due to its subject, got through an editor, eschewing the usual content marketing, lists, and reviews the publication is known for. It was out of pocket and would certainly annoy the boys who are just there to play.
The response was ambivalent. This is rule for games writing that at least attempts to be thoughtful or open to new ways of discussing games. The recent resistance to Mattie Brice’s work is a perfect example. This type of work is usually reflexively dismissed as a hipster byproduct, and soon forgotten for the latest medium evolving and nurturing PewDiePie commentary. That’s sarcasm, btw.
Games are supposed to be fun! cries the gamer from his couch.
By definition, I suppose “games” are meant to be unassuming pleasure points. To go against that is to undermine a less justifiable entitlement that socially inclined criticism like Brice’s or Leigh Alexander’s work receives. After all, game criticism shouldn’t deal with anything that matters. It’s not like games are art or anything . . .
Circa 2010, Roger Ebert tells the world video games can never be art. He does eventually concede, sort of, that games may become art one day. Gamers, games writers, and developers alike all came to the defense of the medium. What most gamers didn’t realize is that this cry was to be their curse, leading to the production of games and accompanying criticism that set out to challenge and complicate what games are by accomplishing the very thing that the anti-Eberts tried to prove: Games are art.
Dsy4ia, Dear Esther, Gone Home, Cart Life. All of these games are bound by being considered “pretentious,” “hipster acts of mental masturbation,” and “not real games.” Most offensively, none of these games are fun. They each try to do something unique, and approach the medium with a consideration of aesthetic materials and instilling value that transcends a one dimensional good time. You know, like art.
This is all to say, most gamers simply want adolescent male power-fantasies, ego reaffirmation, and the beloved escapism. That’s cool. I’m not above playing a game simply for fun. I am, however, not delusional when it comes to deeming a medium that is only able to offer up one type of experience an effective art form, or art at all. It may be great entertainment, but great entertainment does not equal great art.
Gamers don’t want their games to challenge their deeply rooted ideologies, to make them uncomfortable, or offer up an experience that values challenging default thinking over enjoyment. They want things, objects, that don’t really mean anything. Again, they want toys.
But I’ve been misleading.
Toys have meaning too. All cultural artifacts do. People just tend to forget that all human products are imbued with some sort of culture, the thinking and values of a particular society are always expressed.
Que genius Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, a thought altering book on semiotics, the study of signs (symbols) and their meaning making. In this book, of what amounts to a collection of short yet enlightening cultural criticisms, Barthes convincingly and brilliantly analyzes the meaning of everything from detergent to Greco Roman wrestling. In the two page essay “Toys”, he has the following pertinent things to say:
toys, always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army . . .the Air Force (Parachutists)…medicine (miniature instrument cases, operating theaters for dolls)…hair styling,” etc.
Toy here reveal the list of all the things the adult does not find unusual: war, bureaucracy, ugliness, Martians, etc.
There exist, for instance, dolls which urinate; they have an oesophagus, one gives them a bottle, they wet their nappies; soon, no doubt, milk will turn to water in their stomachs. This is meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of house-keeping, to ‘condition’ her to her future role as mother. However, faced with this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy.
His analysis is incredibly difficult to convincingly argue against. Barthes gained his renown for consistently showing how much latent meaning is held within the most seemingly benign of human objects. As long as there’s a human behind it, an object will retain and express meaning. It’s not a matter of opinion. It’s how it is.
So even if we reduce video games to toys, to mindless entertainment, they will say something about our culture in spite of resistance and ideological opposition. Instead of crying about it, we should embrace reading and discussing it.
This goes for expanding and developing the conversation around games beyond what is pleasurable.
If someone wants to discuss games from postmodern or feminist lens, you don’t have to agree, but maybe take a moment to listen. Especially if you’re uneducated in the subject, and probably overly *educated* in a socially reinforced and myopic viewpoint. This isn’t an attack on games or those who love to play them, but a true respect and love for the medium, an admittance that it can be something greater than it is.
I’ll leave you with one last Barthes quote on critical conversation and understanding, then promptly remove myself from his nuts:
In fact, any reservation about culture means a terrorist position. To be a critic by profession and to proclaim that one understands nothing about existentialism, [feminism], or Marxism, (for as it happens, it is these two philosophies particularly that one confesses to be unable to understand) is to elevate one’s blindness or dumbness to a universal rule of perception, and to reject from the world Marxism and existentialism: ‘I don’t understand, therefore you are idiots.’