"The larger question for each of us to answer when we ask ourselves how to evaluate art--whether in games or cinema or literature--is what we expect it to accomplish." Danny Ledonne
I'm pulling this quote from Henry Jenkins' three-part interview of Ledonne, the creator of Super Columbine Massacre RPG! I started thinking about video games this morning because of this little history of the Sega Genesis video game platform at Ars Technica.
I was staring at the pixelated goodness and was caught in a little nostalgia-hole. This sense of nostalgia, perhaps, that Phil Fish is referring to in his interview at Arthouse Games.
The question that Ledonne puts forward was answered for me several years ago when I simply stopped playing videogames. In part this cessation was the result of playing Star Wars Pod Racer against a child (all of 10 years) in a Blockbuster and feeling like the technology had simply lapped me. At the time I believed in the infallibility of video games to distinguish generations: I held, very dearly, the moment that I beat my father at video games.
It was, for me as a child, a moment for me to begin to assert that I was someone more than just the child that must do as he is told. This sense of rebelliousness (so totally useless in all fact) was perhaps also fuelled by the marketing that has come to dominate American life. As a child we learn, through the television, what is expected of us, we learn broadly what the range of responses to social cues can be - some are funny, some are sad; all can be amplified with a Sony Walkman and a 2-liter of Coca-Cola. But I've digressed... or is this the uncanny mechanism of nostalgia?
I believed in video games. The logic of the side-scrolling world was a given. In fact, I'd argue that much of my worldview was shaped by the video games I played. In a side-scrolling action game like Goonies you don't even need the instruction book: you are supposed to go from here to there and while doing that you must learn patterns of how events unfold. If you pick up an object on the way it's likely to be of use later in the game. This was a profound lesson for me because it emphasized that seemingly mundane items, like a slingshot, or a red passkey, are equally as likely to effect the outcome of my life as anything else I'd learned to that point. And, really, that logic has yet to fail me; it's what draws me most closely to the Confucian classic Zhongyong, whose message is so similar, "When making an axe handle, the model is never very far away." Take that, Heidegger!
But, what do we expect from video games? When I was about 22 I failed most of my classes in college for two reasons, I've joked: Sid Meier's Civilization II and Tenchu 2. I simply couldn't stop playing these games; they were far more interesting and rewarding than my Music Appreciation class, say. I found them fascinating because in them I saw so many assumptions about how people are, how events unfold in time, the rewards of making some decisions and not others. At the time my head was swirling around exotic ideas metaphysical ideas: a steady diet of Marx, Qabbalism, Sufism, Alan Watts, Robert Anton Wilson, Tim Leary, Carl Jung, and Josephy Campbell - they all seemed to be conspiring and each moment seemed so rich with significance and synchronicity that playing video games suddenly stopped being fascinating and became depressing.
I'd come to expect more from video games. That this was just at the dawn of the explosion of the internet perhaps explain why I didn't continue buying video games - I'm far too social. I loved CivII and Tenchu 2, but they were games that could only be played alone. My gaming experiences were thus taking turns playing Tony Hawk at my friend's apartment while hanging out or playing Final Fantasy X alone. In no way could video games compete with what was happening to me at school, though. Suddenly finding patterns and persevering made a difference in unexpected ways: I might not have to work in retail and food service for another 6 years, say. No amount of saving princesses or gold coins could buy me that. True, I started to hear rumors about some friends that were able to make real money doing things in Everquest - but I also saw plenty of real relationships lost to Evercrack.
I'd come to expect more from my life than what video games could offer, so I quit playing video games. Besides, to be a game enthusiast meant having to save lots of money (which I was terrible at) because the platforms and games were so damn expensive; I could barely keep me and the dog fed, let alone drop $500 on a game system, much less a game. Video games couldn't give me anymore insight into how to live my life; nor would playing video games help me know what to do after college. Video games had this terrible tendency of showing the player that things weren't as they seemed, but then cynically expecting the player to get a dumb job that paid them enough to continue to buy and play video games. Too much of a rat's treadmill for me.
But then, I played Katamari Damacy at a friend's house and I knew that someone else had been having much more interesting and productive conversations about just this problem.
Then today I played Passage. The game is free and lasts only 5 minutes, so please, play this game right now, then come back and read more here.