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February 7, 2012

For those that haven’t read last week’s post, here’s the punch line:

Remember when you were a kid, and you went off to play house, or Rambo, or Pokémon, or whatever the hell you did in imagination land?  Now think about grown up you, watching Avatar last year (Don’t lie, we all went).  Don’t these two experiences seem, in some way, similar?  I think they are.  In fact, I think they are pretty much the same thing.  So are video games, TV shows, office gossip, novels, plays, comic books, poems and more.  All of these things are, for lack of a better term Make-Believe.

This isn’t really my idea, especially worded like that.  This particular language borrows heavily from a book called Mimesis as Make-Believe by Kendall Walton (and that book borrows much from others before. Such is the way…).  For the two of you who’ve read this book, I won’t be recycling nearly as much of it as the previous paragraph implies.  My theft is largely one of terminology.

This week I’m going to work through of few objections/questions this line of thinking seems to raise.  It’s as good a way as any to work through the idea.  One thing I want to clarify: these things are all play the way that cats, donkeys and whales are all mammals.  It’s a broad classification.  For those that wish to maintain a privileged treatment for the novel, you could theoretically buy into my thinking and continue doing so.  You’d be wrong, but if that’s your thing who am I to judge?  I’m uninterested in determining if any medium is somehow more special than the others, so let’s move on to the useful objections…

“If games are some kind of storytelling, does that make tic-tac-toe or basketball some kind of narrative?”

No, unless you take these terms to mean very abstract things.  There’s some trouble that comes from the words ‘game’ and ‘play’; we use them to mean many things.

I’m more interested in games that ask the participant to treat an object as something other than what it actually is.  In children’s games this is a little easier to show.  When kids play house, that pie pan filled with whatever the hell they dug up in the back yard is a cake, that tree stump is a table, and so on.  When a person (child or adult), plays basketball, the ball is a ball, and the net is a net.  Enjoying the game doesn’t require anyone to embellish upon reality.

This isn’t to say that we somehow go insane when we watch a movie.  We know that it isn’t real.  But at the same time, we talk freely about the suspension of disbelief and the way it impacts our enjoyment.  We enjoy films that allow us to forget that we’re watching a mass-produced recording of actors pretending they are characters in a story that didn’t really happen.  In some way, within the space of this experience, the characters are people, just as that mud was a cake.  It’s this act of make-believe that I’m using to tie all these things together.

“Playing house as a kid and watching a movie certainly seems like two very different things.”

They are, but maybe not for the reasons we think.  In all the things I’ve classified as make-believe…

I’m sorry, I need a better name for that.  I can’t take myself seriously when I keep talking about ‘make-believe’ this and that.  It’s like I’m writing a Sesame Street script with lots of post-structuralist ranting and cussing.

Good God, I want that to be a thing that exists.

Instead of talking about ‘make believe’, I’m going to refer to these things as ludic.  It’s derived from the Latin word ‘ludus’ (play), so I can feel good about myself using it.  It has also received some attention on the internet already, but we’ll get to that later.

…In all the things I’ve classified as ludic (pats self on back), there is at least some degree of interaction, but the degree of this interaction varies wildly.  In the case of film, this interaction is largely mental (i.e. viewing and interpreting the film. For those familiar this is the interaction Sartre spoke of), although I would include the rituals of watching as part of the interaction; we expect certain preparatory behaviors from ourselves before we drift off into the fictional world of the film.  However, the viewer more or less yields control to the film, allowing it to determine the manner and pace of storytelling.

When reading, we interact with the text slightly more.  Tempo and tone are somewhat controlled by the reader, who also plays a more active role in constructing the world of the story, and possibly it’s meaning.  Within this there is further variation.  Something like Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy offers generous description and relatively clear portrayals of good and evil. Something like Joyce’s Ulysses offers neither, leaving the reader to do a large part of the world building.

Taken like this, the interactive/noninteractive distinction turns into a sliding scale, not a binary distinction.  Films and television shows are almost entirely non-interactive.  A book adds a degree more control, with the reader controlling the tempo of their story, turning pages, and generally playing a more active role in creating the ludic world (pats self on back).  Video games are highly interactive, although the absurd flexibility of this particular form makes them difficult to classify.  Some games, like the Civilization series, are essentially highly complicated board games.  Others (The recent Heavy Rain comes to mind) feel like a peculiar hybrid of game, movie and book; a sort of film where you input basic commands, control the tempo and events of the story, but engage in minimal game play.

So the belated answer?  In a way (their ludic traits (pats self on back)), playing house and watching a move are the same.  In another way (interaction) they are quite different.  Neither of these characteristic requires or prevents the other.

 “Are you saying Video Games are art?”

I didn’t say anything about anything being, or not being, art, and I’m not really interested in the “what is art” debate.  Considering use of the term ‘art’ over the last 150 years, it’s entirely possible that most of what I’m talking about isn’t art at all.  ‘Art’ is a word that describes a thing, that’s all.  If the definition we gave ‘art’ doesn’t include video games, so what?  The problem is that, especially on the internet (sorry folks), this debate gets a lot of focus.  Most these debates break down into something that really isn’t an argument about ‘art’, but an argument about whether or not something is important or worthy of attention.  The assumption appears to be that if something isn’t art, it isn’t worthy of intellectual engagement.  I’ll dismiss that idea outright, and I’m not going to bother with an argument against it.  If anyone can come up with an argument for it, go right ahead, and I’ll rebut.  Nonetheless, most of the ‘videogames are art’ arguments accept this premise, and include some variation on three steps to make their point.  The argument goes something like this:

Step One: Prove video games are art.

Take any number of “Are Video Games Art?” articles and you can see what I mean.  In most of these, a person who cares very much about the subject (video games) wants to defend their fondness of the medium.  There’s a whole laundry list of argument strategies.  Some find out of date critical theories and show how they don’t rule out video games (hint: because they were written in 1870). Others fall back on the video-games-are-super-popular argument, than throw out some sales numbers.  Then there’s that Supreme Court hearing where video games we’re declared protected free speech, implying that they are art.  That’s pretty authoritative, right?

I considered citing some examples here, but didn’t.  If you really want to see what I’m talking about click this link, it’s the Google results for “are videogames art”.  See how many you can read before you break out in hives.

Step Two: Establish criteria for the “artistic” game.

So, the Russian Structuralists totally think video games are art, what do you d– Ludonarrative!!!  Sorry, that just came out.  It’s something you can find a lot of talk about in these arguments.  Basically, ludonarrative (Ludo. Ludic. Get it?) is the story that the player craft’s through gameplay.  Ludonarrative dissonance is often cited as a key fault in video games; this is a dissonance that occurs when the narrative of the game is out of synch with the actions the player engages in.  The easy (and popular) example being Grand Theft Auto IV, where the player/protagonist Nico scrapes by as a reluctant member of the city’s underbelly during cut scenes, but run’s over hundreds pedestrians driving to and from the strip club while the player controls him.  I think there’s something to this complaint, but as the grounds for aesthetic criticism, it’s kind of shit.  “An artistic video game must be coherent with… itself?”  There’s a reason this isn’t winning anybody over.  I’ll talk about ludonarrative more at a later date.  I think it’s actually an important concept, but it’s a tool for analyzing games, not judging them.

Nonetheless, let’s take this as our example.  If an aesthetically successful game should have no/minimal ludonarrative dissonance.  What next?

Step Three: Shit on a popular game to sound smart.

For those who don’t follow such things, pretty much everyone loved Grand Theft Auto IV.  That must mean its pretty good, right?  Apparently not.  GTAIV is full of ludonarrative dissonance, and good games don’t have that. So, all you people who became completely engrossed in Nico’s struggle to move up in the world, I hate to tell you this, but you were wrong.  You didn’t actually care about Nico or have fun.

There’s something wrong here, isn’t there?

The Same Old Bullshit

In much critical theory, the criteria for what makes up good art (or what makes a thing art at all) is a starting point.  A work is measured by this rubric, and it’s quality determined.  What people do or do not like seems oddly absent from this process.  The tail certainly seems wag the dog here, and it has been since the German romantics.  In the later half of the 20th century the dog got sick and threw up, but no one knew why.  I guess it’s time to dig through the wretch and figure out what went wrong.

Faced with something new, we’re falling back on old cultural habits.  Instead of starting with what we do or do not like (faux-academic translation: what is or is not effective), we start with a notion of what ‘art’ is and build criteria that may allow our new thing to fit that concept.  Instead of looking at video games and asking, “what is going on when this works”, were looking at them and asking “how can I describe this so it will impress my English teacher?”  I think this is, in a word, wrong.

I don’t care what art is, and I don’t really care about how any given thing compares to a disinterested rubric (That’s right Kant, take your mathematical sublime and shove it).  I care about why people like what they like, not whether they should like it according to some aesthetic theory or another.

We’ll get back into this in a few weeks.  I’ll do my best to get some fiction back up here in next week and the week after.


Bert:  Oh, I don’t know Ernie, do the potential confusions of translation really lead to a potential misinterpretation of the Wittgensteinian language game?

Ernie:  It sure as shit seems to Bert.  Saul Kripke was a well repudiated philosopher, and he still managed to confuse the intention of the Philisophical Investigations.

Bert:  I’m aware of Kripke’s bastardization of the P.I., but wasn’t that an isolated event?  The rest of the English-speaking world seemed to figure it out.

Ernie:  But how can we know they got it right? Without the grounding force of the authors…

Bert:  Stop Ernie, just stop.  I don’t want to listen to anymore of your post-structuralist bullshit.  The referent is destabilized this, signature event context that.  Stop.

Ernie:  Du hast mit deiner Katze Gespielt.


Ernie:  What did you do with the cat, Bert.  What did you do with the cat?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2012 11:25 pm

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  2. March 3, 2012 1:11 am

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