Why videogames

I have made several attempts at writing this post; this is the first I have deemed an adequate answer—or a beginning to an answer—for the question. As a dog returneth to his vomit, so I return to this question.*

Sometimes—when I get rejected by a mainstream journal with a note like, “Loved the essay, too much video game stuff,” for instance—I see myself through the eyes of my non-gamer readers. I see a competent writer who, for reasons incomprehensible, devotes himself to writing about a hobby that is immature at best and an active waste of time and talent at worst. They likely see it as uninteresting or irrelevant to the interests of readers who are not gamers, and I can empathize. I imagine some readers of this blog, too, sometimes ask the damnable question I ask my students all the time: why is this worth writing about?

The question makes me think about Steve Almond. My thesis chair, who always pushed me to write about games, told me that Almond made a career being the guy who writes about candy, and that I could be the guy who writes about video games. This may be true; though there are more experienced and more talented writers* working on the subject, I haven’t yet found a writer who sees games quite how I do. Even Bissell, whose excellent essay on GTA:IV gets very close, doesn’t quite come out to say what, for me, makes videogames worth writing about.

We have the same conversations about gaming over and over again. Are they too violent? How are they affecting the children? Are they art? Are they on a par with other art forms? And we come over and over again to the same impasses. They are too violent, or they are not. They are art, or they are not. They are making our children stupider, or they are making them smarter. But lost in this is what makes gaming so compelling to me: that games allow us to share the life and mind of another person in a way that no other medium can.

This is where I always run into difficulty. The idea of a shared or shifted subjectivity—of seeing the world through someone else’s mind—is one that is visceral and concrete to me, but that I can only express in abstract, theoretical terms. This is the fundamental problem of video game writing—we’re using the abstract medium of language to describe a complex experience, one that is doesn’t exist any other place in the world. You can’t understand what I mean by “shared subjectivity” unless you experience it, somehow—which, really, is why I write the way I do. My writing attempts to interpolate my personal experience with my gaming life, with the intent of exploring how one informs the other. But maybe, if that “why” question is still out there, some of the theory is merited.

One of the premises that suffuses my life is that I can’t really understand what it’s like to be anyone other than me, no matter how close they are to me.**** Megan asked me the other day whether I found Outsourced, the new TV show, offensive, and I couldn’t really answer. I can say that it is “problematic,” in my fumfering, academic way, but in order to be justifiably offended, I would have to be ethnically (and possibly nationally) Indian, which I am not. I do not have the tools of thought and experience necessary to decide whether, for instance, a joke about Americans having difficulty pronouncing Indian names would be offensive to an ethnic Indian, or to a national Indian, and really we need to cut finer because the answer is almost certainly that it is offensive to some national Indians and not all, and that the question is influenced by a number of demographic and individual factors that, etc, etc, etc.

Gadamer suggests that each of us is limited by a horizon of experience—that, essentially, we can only see so far. I am equipped to understand what it means to be Californian, and I can probably see far enough to say what it means to be American, although my American experience is probably different from a black Tennesseean’s American experience. My horizon lies somewhere in the middle there, as far away from myself as I can understand. In between me and that black Tennessean lies a lot of space—but also people, whose horizons overlap mine. If, say, I had access to a white Tennessean, or a black Californian, we could probably piece together a sense of what it might mean to be black in Tennessee, though (to my mind) our picture would always be limited. In short, contact with others (bzw. Others) can expand our horizons.

Consider Heavy Rain. At present, I have no children of my own, although Megan has been threatening lately to produce a daughter and name her “Gert,” apparently to spite us both. But Heavy Rain put me in the shoes of a father, among others. The opening scenes focus on a father losing track of his son in a mall. It’s been six months since I’ve played the game, and I’ve already forgotten the names of every single character, but I remember my panic in that mall, pushing through the unmoving crowds as I tried to chase the red balloon that my son had been holding. When my son was hit by a car, despite my best efforts, I wanted to play through the sequence over and over, in the hopes of saving him. I kept thinking, if I’d only moved faster,, and if the mall had been less busy, and if he’d only stayed close to me like I asked—the same kinds of thoughts I imagine a person in that position would think. I’ve only played through the game once, so I don’t know whether his death can be avoided, but I didn’t feel like a person ransacked by fate—I felt like a guilty father. And while I still can’t say that I understand what it’s like to be a father, much less what it feels like to lose a son—that, thankfully, still lies far beyond my horizons—I can say that I’ve experienced a shadow of those emotions, a hint of what that feels like, at least—and this, for me, is the important part—I understand more, or better, than I could have without Heavy Rain.

I believe that videogames offer an unparalleled opportunity for people to understand themselves and each other. They allow us to see the world from a different perspective, and to my mind, that experience can’t help but be rich and expansive. I’ll be the first to admit that games like Heavy Rain are uncommon, but even games where we’re playing a space marine shooting aliens offer us the chance to rethink ourselves, to see the world through other eyes, to expand our horizons.

Probably my favorite essay that I’ve written—one that is, sadly, as yet unpublished—concerns an episode in my life where, when I wrote it the first eight gorram times, I was certain I was the wronged party. Those first eight attempts were completely unsatisfactory, even though each time I was convinced I’d gotten it right. It wasn’t until my thesis chair convinced me that I had to add something about games that I was able to make the essay work. When I connected the experience I had with Braid, I was able to rethink the story. I realized that one of the defining characterists of the game was what was missing from my essay: regret. The game’s story makes us rethink Tim, taking him out of the role of valiant savior and showing us that he is, in reality, deeply flawed. This is what my essay needed, and more than that, what I needed. My experience with Braid invited me to reexamine mysellf and to understand myself differently, in a way that no movie, or book, or television show could. Being someone else, even if only for a few hours, changed the way I saw myself.

That is why I write about videogames.

*It wasn’t ‘til after I typed this sentence that I remembered the actual end to the verse: “so a fool returneth to his folly.”

There is a large argument about the orthography of “video games,” which is one reason I generally prefer simply to say “games,” though this invites confusing with tabletop gaming and such. I tend to prefer “videogames,” which emphasizes that the “video” and the “games” are inseparable, that these are not just a type of game but something new, unique, and separate. My iPad, though, insists on “video games,” because it hates me, and apparently it considers itself on par with Jenga.

†Although in fairness this may be because I am constantly using it to play Scrabble.

*I am looking at you Tom Bissell.

****Nothing has proved this premise to me more effectively than marriage.