Over a month ago Tim wrote an excellent response to the question: Are Video Games Art? As he aptly points out, the question is a bit of a toy problem, much like those hypothetical situations philosophers use to demonstrate their logical or speculative chops. What’s more, he suggests that the motivation behind such an inquiry is more important than anything that might be said in response, since the over-determined nature of the question distracts us from the real concern, which has to do with the significance of games: do they matter?
The Right Questions
As the wily Slavoj Zizek would say, there are not only wrong answers, but wrong questions as well. While we may not want to go so far as to say the question of whether or not video games are artworks is “wrong,” it is certainly counterproductive if we’re at all interested in talking about actual games or actual art forms, since the abstract question begs an impossible conceptual reply containing some claim about “video games” (spanning Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two to Blizzard’s World of Warcraft?) and “Art” which is likely to satisfy no one save the respondent. (More on why this conceptual starting point is unhelpful further down).
What Tim got absolutely right is that the answerable question that animates the toy problem about the artistic status of video games is: “Do video games matter?” We can respond flatly: anywhere socio-economic conditions permit, games unequivocally matter. Of course, in the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we must admit video games rank low, but considered in the media ecology of America today we deny the significance of games at our own peril. But you won’t have to take my word for it:
1) As Stephen Colbert is fond of saying, The Market Has Spoken. If “mattering” means mattering economically, it is hard to fight with the numbers. The ESA reports that from 1996 to 2008 the industry sales grew 22.9% to 11.5 billion and that 68% of American households play games. Even in the UK sales of games are forcing journalists to concede that they just may be “bigger” than film. And no one disputes that film matters, right? Also, there’s the influential work of economist Edward Castronova on virtual economies to buttress our claim, already made an understatement by the fact that he was working with data that is now dwarfed by the social networking gaming revolution going on as I write. Just consider the much blogged about talk at DICE2010 by professor Jesse Schell, wherein we learn some startling figures about how the gaming industry itself got caught underestimating how much it mattered as other industries raked in the cash in its place by applying game ideas to their social networks and products. In short, if you can’t see that games increasingly matter economically, I have this insider tip on a floppy disk manufacturing company you might want to invest in. It’s the wave of the future!
2) Also, The People Have Spoken, mostly with the way we’ve spent our time. Just consider the staggering figure Jane McGonigal provides in her recent TED talk, noting a virtual, parallel education system of people through gaming: according to recent research at Carnegie Mellon University, the average young person will spend as much time playing games by the age of 21 as they spend in all their state-mandated education in K-12 (btw, its 10,000 hours). Kaiser Family Foundation’s recent study shows a doubling of the average time 8-18 year-olds spent playing games, from 26min daily in 1999 to 1:13min in 2009 (see p.26). The new media economy is really a fight for time, a time-economy, and the answer to the question of what people are spending their time on is increasingly: playing video games.
3) And perhaps least significantly, The Scholars Have Spoken. Do games matter? Well, insofar as play matters, we might consider Johan Huizinga’s very influential book Homo Ludens, in which play is presented as the source of all culture, leading us to the view that video games, as an increasingly dominant historical form of play, might be worth looking at. This is just one of many typically unread, unheeded academic texts on the significance of games. Sure, “game studies” is an uneven, motely academic discourse caught in that familiar chaotic stage we find exemplified in any early foray into theorizing and understanding a new media form or combination, but it is starting to matter, too. If you don’t care much for theory and socio-histotical approaches, how about education? Remember Oregon Trail? Well, get ready for more of that. Educators are increasingly looking to games as a tool to educate with. The work of James Paul Gee is a good start, showing how gaming practices essential learning forms, and there are many others. Also, in addition to the academic publications I would like to submit some anecdotal evidence. Here at the UW there has been a marked increase in student interest in pursuing games as an academic subject. More and more, students are asking about writing their theses about games, or requesting research help. What is more, students are increasingly interested in understanding games, not only playing them or making them. I was pleased to find that in courses I’ve taught on games students are just as interested in getting some philosophical hold on their experiences as they are nerding-out on techniques, which-is-better debates, and other standard gamer fare.
A Shift in Attitude, Approach
Anyway, this is all just to say that yes, of course, games matter. In fact, in a way, games might matter too much right now. Let me explain. In courses on games, and even more so in casual philosophical conversations about games, the personal investment of a gamer-discussant in a certain game, genre, or view about “games-in-general” often blocks meaningful discussion. This is amplified by pervasiveness of some entrenched attitudes that often manifest and take over at critical moments where these generalized personal investments are challenged in a community of inquiry: “it’s just a game” as one extreme, and “if you haven’t mastered the game, you can’t speak on it” (or worse, “I can’t learn anything from this”) as another. This latter attitude is very poisonous, since it makes what I think is a crucial mistake in thinking about games: it mistakes mastery of a technical object for understanding. This mistake, to which I would now like to turn, shows that it is not only about getting the right question, as Tim pointed out, but also about shifting the “attitude” of critical gamers (I’d like to note, we may posit a similar attitude-problem in game studies academics who mistake mastery of theoretical concepts about games for understanding, too – but that’s another post).
So, while there is a new hunger for more complex appreciation and understanding of game media (and I would stress, of particular games), this is inevitably channeled into the problematic process of legitimization whereby new ideas and criticism either affirm commonplaces or are dismissed. As one example that speaks to this admittedly abstract problem consider again the question of whether or not games matter. One reason the laundry list I provided above to show that games matter in various contexts is unsatisfying (and misses the spirit of the inquirer who also wants to know whether or not games are art) is that no amount of mastery over the information and concepts of the games or the culture in which they are played can stand in for an exemplary account of how a particular game matters, how the experience of it generates significance. The problem seems to be that some gamers often approach this problem by looking for confirmation of some magical property, “mattering to society,” for instance, or “artfulness,” in the games or the general concepts we associate with them. Or worse yet, they have already decided what that property is and proceed to form and indiscriminately apply a theory of games valorizing that property to all games.
Alibis for Critical Gaming
This pattern of searching, verifying, justifying, etc., it seems to me, treats games as objects of information, operations, and themes in a way that forecloses on the experiential qualities and specifics of games we are actually compelled to talk about, reflect upon, and share. Often we ask how a game speaks to our cultural or moral values and concepts of significance, or how well it interacts with the commonplace rubrics of a game genre or industry. But we might be in a better position to satisfy more sophisticated inquiries about the significance of video games if we took a game-centric point of departure in which we might ask: What is this specific game asking me to think and do? How does it configure my experience of the field of ideas, narratives, images, sounds, and game spaces it submits to my exploration? This would be a subtle but important shift, but one that is a more promising ground for a community of inquiry spanning academics and reflective gamers. This would at least satisfy student gamer complaints about a kind of lack of respect and attention to the particularity of games in theorizing and commenting on the significance of games in the academic discourse, and it also works against the various attitudes of inquiring gamers as well as game critics that end up functioning as alibis for critical gaming. This subtle adjustment sees the quest for the answer to How do “video games” matter? as necessarily built out of an aggregate of compelling exemplifying answers to the more immediate and historically needful question: How does this game matter?
So, which game do you want to talk about?