Art and attempt

There’s a scene in The Magicians where one character pounds the hell out of another, seemingly unprovoked.  A friend says of the fight that the pummeler’s agression had been building for a while.  ”He was either going to hit you or start a blog,” the friend says.  ”Honestly, I’m kind of glad he hit you.”  Starting a blog feels a little like farting in an elevator.  I’m doing something most people do at some point, intentionally or otherwise, but something that is nevertheless slightly embarrassing and very public.  But as you’ll see, I’ve had a growing discomfort with how people are talking and writing about video games, which is what I spend a lot of my time doing, mostly while my wife puts her fingers in her ears and goes “LA LA LA.”  Two of the things at the core of my identity are gaming and essay writing, so this blog will in part be a space for me to rub those two things together in a way that is hopefully fruitful, and hopefully not too lascivious.

You probably already know about this, Roger Ebert’s recent rearticulation of his established claim that “video games can never be art.” Ebert’s full post is to my mind somewhat misdirected—it might better be titled “I am not persuaded by Kellee Santiago’s TED talk“—but he better articulates his own view in his retraction, posted earlier this month. His core contention seems to be that games cannot be art—or, at least, are not art— because they are not constrained enough by authorial oversight. “Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion,” he writes, “not a smorgasbord of choices.” For Ebert, the defining problem of videogames is that there is too much freedom.

You may not have seen this, Steven Church‘s recent post about Tom Bissell’s recent book Extra Lives on Brevity’s blog. “My basic problem with video games,” Church writes,

is in many ways my problem with most contemporary plot-driven fiction and film. I get bored with the plot-fueled narrative… . Games are not (like Tom’s book) digressive, fragmented and irrational or lyrical. They are, by design, the product of authorial purpose, and mostly linear progression—all of which are things I can appreciate but which I don’t necessarily seek out as an artistic (or entertainment) experience.

Of course I’ve played games that are digressive (Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), fragmented (Heavy Rain), irrational (Day of the Tentacle) and lyrical (is Braid too easy?). What rankles, though, is Church’s insistence that games “just aren’t essayistic.” For Church, the defining problem of videogames is that there is not enough freedom.

For me, the precise reason I enjoy gaming is because it is essayistic. To me, each of these writers is answering the other’s objection in a meaningful, instructive way. The real promise of videogames as art lies in the tension between authorial intention and player agency. Ebert’s piece struggles against his inability to define “art,” a term for which I have no fondness precisely because of its airy imprecision. But Church does define “essay,” or at least alludes to a definition: what marks an essay, he suggests, is “digressive, consciousness-driven explorations.” Essay titan Philip Lopate clarifies: “I am more interested in the display of consciousness on the page [than in plot-driven narrative]. The reason I read nonfiction is to follow an interesting mind.” Essaying is a process of thinking through, figuring out, and above all attempting—which process rests at the core of good gaming.

In Extra Lives, Bissell tells a story about Mass Effect, and an encounter the main character, Shepard, has with a Hanar evangelist in the Citadel. In short, Shepard has to decide whether to help an alien proselytizer convince a security policeman to allow the Hanar to speak, or whether to helpt he policeman run the Hanar out of town. Across several playthroughs, Bissell writes, he “found it difficult to have [his] Shepherd say anything even remotely pro-religion.” I, too, have played through the encounter several times, and every time, I either end up buying the Hanar the permit or talking the guard into leaving, depending on how charming my character happens to be at the moment. I always avoid the religious discussion, and I’m not particularly empathetic to his perspective (while I’m a person of faith myself, I am categorically opposed to evangelism). But I always find a way to let the Hanar preach.

I think my Shepard’s actions reflect—although I am not necessarily consciously thinking of this at the time—my belief that no one should have to purchase the right to free speech. Our differing responses, as gamers, to the same stimulus can’t tell us anything about the game, but it can tell us a lot about us—not Jane Shepard and Jane Shepard, but Josh Geist and Tom Bissell. The tension between a gamer’s choices and the limitations of the system isn’t a problem, but a tool of the medium—a way of letting us examine ourselves. As Bissell writes, “[G]ames become uniquely compelling when they force you to the edge of some drawn, real-life line of intellectual or moral obligation that, to your mild astonishment, you find you cannot step across.” Which is to say, navigating the set possibilities of an encounter in a game forces a gamer to examine the nature of the character she’s playing, and to interface that imagined personality with her own identity, finding the places in her that will stretch, and those that won’t. The best moments in gaming are moments of self-discovery for the gamer.

There’s more to be said about this, and I expect I will return to these issues again and again in this blog, but I think this will serve neatly enough as a founding principle: whether art or not, video games are rich fields for essaying against, in, and through. More than any other medium (with the possible exception of writing) offer space for self-definition, self- discovery, self-exploration, and self-revelation. They are places where we work to decide who we are, and who we want to be. Spaces for interesting minds to work.

Well. Excuse me. From here on out, it’ll just be like farting in an elevator that is already stinky—that is, the damage is done, probably nobody will notice, and each iteration will relieve a little pressure and get us all closer to where we’re going.