15 Aug 2010

In Response to Nicholson Baker on Video Games

Nicholson Baker is one of my favourite novelists: witty, observant and capable of conjuring magic out of any overlooked facet of life that he turns his attention to. Baker’s piece on videogames in this week’s New Yorker (abstracted here) is characteristically insightful and treats the subject with a light touch, but reading it I felt the swell of defensiveness which rises in any hobbyist when their pastime comes under scrutiny by an outsider: Baker was missing the point. Baker’s report from the front line of gaming exposes the running themes of killing and dying in a manner which makes the gamer in me faintly ashamed. Judged like for like it’s hard to argue against the prevalence of death in gaming even over and above its centrality in cinema; even Sylvester Stallone’s back catalogue contains a body count which would appear meagre when put next to 90 accumulated hours of Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer. In large part I think this is due to an integral aspect of games with which no other media needs concern itself: challenge.

There is ‘difficult’ music, there are difficult films, and there are certainly difficult books, but their difficulties are qualitatively different to that of games. When watching a film or reading a book the level of perceived difficulty is no barrier to continuation. The experience may seem less enjoyable or less rewarding, but you can still turn the pages, the DVD doesn’t start skipping if you lose track of the plot. Even in the case of solo play, games are a conversation happening in real time: a push and pull between the gamer and the game’s AI.

Gaming is, in large part, about challenge, and if you’re unable to meet the requirements for success you cannot continue. Baker notes the length of games, the 30+ hours put into making your way through an interactive narrative, and all of that time is accrued in overcoming obstacles. It just so happens that survival is a wonderfully clear-cut challenge, and character death the simplest way both to communicate to a player that their skills need work and to increase the game’s longevity. Thirty years since Atari’s Asteroids posed the challenge of keeping a little triangle in one piece by avoiding and destroying crude wire-frame rocks; thirty years also since players struggled to guide Pac-Man around mazes in search of power pellets, which would allow him to destroy ghosts before they could destroy him, game designers are yet to find a challenge as inspiring as avoiding death, or a thrill as basic as being the one to mete it out first. As the industry has grown and visual fidelity has increased exponentially the depiction of violence has undoubtedly grown more vivid and gratuitous, but death itself is part of some games for good reason.

Gaming of course, is a broad church. Uncountable games in a plethora of genres offer an experience entirely free of the obligation to kill or the fear of dying. Puzzle games, including the perennially popular Tetris (possibly gaming’s greatest success story to date) pose a challenge of an entirely different kind. Photo hunts, role playing games, management simulations (including wildly popular Facebook games like Farmville), sports simulations, platformers… all shift the balance away from the kill or be killed dynamic. And that is perhaps the shame of Baker’s piece; guided by his 16 year old son into playing only the biggest selling triple-A titles of the last year or so Baker has missed a great swathe of what games are capable of. It’s roughly analogous to watching Iron Man 2, Avatar, and Twilight: Eclipse, and considering that a representative sample of modern cinema. The shame is less that Baker falls into this trap — he is quite clear that his investigation is of his son’s gaming habits — but that it robs us of his thoughts on other games in which he might find more to like. An article in which Nicholson Baker plays through Jason Rohrer’s interactive memento mori Passage, or gets involved on either side of the story-telling game Sleep Is Death would be fascinating. Personally I would love to know Baker’s impression of Molleindustria’s Every Day The Same Dream or Amanita Design’s charming Machinarium.

All of this isn’t to decry Baker’s article. In it, and in the accompanying podcast, he is receptive to the idea of games as an art-form and is positively effusive about the beauty to be found in some of the constructed worlds with which he interacted. He praises the designers’ desire to “pay homage” to the real world - but that cannot be a game designer’s only goal, she must also busy herself with the effort to provide the player with an entertaining struggle. Part of loving an art form, and perhaps especially one still in its infancy, is wanting it to be viewed in a positive light. Baker does a wonderful job of appreciating detail in the games he played, but seems quick to write off their core as facile, trivial and blood-soaked. He may be right. In many ways gaming is going through an adolescence, with the first generation to have grown up playing games all of their lives now moving into positions of power within the industry. In time perhaps the predisposition towards violence will drop away and more nuanced stories can be told. Arguably this is beginning to happen already, and as it does hopefully more commentators of Baker’s calibre will discover that instead of merely base and bloodthirsty and brutal, games can be engaging and subtle and beautiful.