Are video gamers cowards? Those who have faced down the terrifying gigantic scorpion-spider creature from Capcom’s gothic adventure Devil May Cry might argue otherwise. Those who have rounded a bend at breathtaking velocity in Acclaim’s frenetic racing game Burnout 2 would no doubt similarly protest that theirs is a courageous pursuit. And in a sense you can see their point: games turn us all into protagonists, or in Joseph Campbell’s terms, heroes.
The counter-argument, of course, is that it’s relatively easy to be brave in an environment in which nothing is permanent, in which the consequences of your actions are almost always salvageable in some way. But in the midst of the battle or the race it may seem like your life or the trophy really are at stake in some tangible manner. Certainly your body may behave as though this is the case, evident in increased heart-rate or in sweating palms. Sure, on one level it’s like the roller coaster ride or the scary moment in the horror film, with your engagement as a player in the video game environment residually mediated by the knowledge of the real world around you. But in the same way that the ride can make you scream or the film can make you jump, when you’re in the midst of this kind of liminal state you can end up being very brave, indeed.
So in a sense courage isn’t in question, it’s inherent in the nature of gameplay: you won’t have a very enjoyable gameplay experience unless you take a few, often hairbrain, risks. But as a player, what exactly are you being brave about? A giant scorpion-spider that frankly had it coming, anyway? Or throwing your car with reckless abandon around hairpin bends in chase of some darstardly Porsche that keeps cutting you up? The notion that games represent a retreat from the real world is unfortunately a compelling one: rather than engage with reality, gamers apparently spend their days decimating hordes of gibbering aliens or speeding through Miami Vice-inspired versions of the 1980s. For the Marxian notion of “bread and circuses”, the means by which the proletariat are distracted from revolution by the prevailing forces of need and desire, we might substitute power-ups and explosions. As gamers we may be brave in the virtual world but maybe we’re actually just running scared from reality.
Perhaps I’m kidding myself, thinking that games really could provide arenas for engagement with serious ideas. Maybe the act of play is somehow inimical to the exploration of difficult themes or ideas, perhaps games are inevitably and only a “trivial pursuit”. Except, of course, that particular moniker in this context should only ever be employed ironically; there are many examples of play, outside of video games, that are serious as well as frivolous.
Yet the evidence to date indicates that there seems to be little appetite among either the makers and distributors of games or the consumers of them for what we might term “serious subjects”. On the few occasions subjects of substance are used it tends to be in an uncritical, unquestioning way. SCI’s Conflict: Desert Storm may provide some good gameplay, but a considered critique of the West’s approach to the 1991 Gulf War it is not. Imagine, though, what video games that tackled serious issues would look like.
Recently Gonzalo Frasca’s Ludology site reported the arrival of the video game, 9-11 Survivor. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s because the mainstream media, including the rabid British tabloids, don’t yet seem to have picked up on its existence. On the web, however, the discussion has been lively. My immediate reaction upon reading the title and seeing the screenshots was that this constituted a truly appalling, offensive idea, on a hitherto unprecedented scale even for an often arrogant, manipulative games industry.
The truth, as usual with these matters, is more complex than my knee-jerk reaction indicates. In the words of the makers, Kinematic.org, 9-11 Survivor is “a game project that examines the role of media in our culture, and the influence that continuous, hyper exposure has on our overall perception of the distinctions between reality and media mediation”. In the parlance 9-11 Survivor is what’s called a “mod”, a modified version of an existing game scenario which utilises the original’s technology but creates new scenarios, spaces or levels. This particular scenario places the player (though the term still makes me wince in this context) in the Twin Towers following the point of impact. On the whole we accept that there will be films, novels, and photography attempting to chart the events of that day, that there must be art after 9-11. Perhaps in fact we could see 9-11 Survivor in the same way we view Picasso’s Guernica as an attempt to express the inexpressible. What my and other people’s spontaneous outraged responses illustrates is indicative of the wider body politic’s view of games as pop culture ephemera unsuited to dealing with issues of weight. At the very least, 9-11 Survivor provokes discussion, which is surely always preferable to respectable silence.
Would any publisher dare release something along the lines of 9-11 Survivor commercially? Unlikely. Creative bravery among those producing games is not lacking, yet the nature of the mainstream game industry means that innovation amongst designers and programmers tends to operate at a much more formal level. When games stand out from the crowd it’s because they represent a different way of achieving a goal rather than a different goal. More often than not this can be expressed as simply as a different way of killing your enemy. It’s easy to see why this is the case in an industry so dominated by an obsession with the mores of young adult males.
Other artforms are instructive here. Against all the odds, genre television shows like The Sopranos or Buffy the Vampire Slayer demonstrate that clever conception and production can be used to explore deeper issues in mainstream settings. Like some televisual US equivalent of the old Czech New Wave films subversive ideas are buried and sometimes uncovered amidst otherwise apparently innocuous storytelling. Even comics, with which games demonstrate some close affinities both in terms of form and content, got serious in the 1980s. Alan Moore’s The Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns took the superhero model and layered meanings into an otherwise hackneyed form. More recently, Chris Ware’s heartbreaking graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid in the Universe (Jonathan Cape, 2003) won the Guardian First Book Award in 2001.
But what 9-11 Survivor signifies is that there are alternative strategies to the production and distribution of games. 9-11 Survivor might be at the extremes of this alternative, “arty” way of doing things, and indeed there are other examples of non-mainstream but nonetheless commercial producers, notably Eric Zimmerman’s company, GameLab. Game designer, artist and critic Zimmerman has talked about the difficulties of attempting to chart the murky non-mainstream sector of games production and distribution. In a witty and intentionally equivocal essay in the Game On book (Laurence King Publishing, 2002) which accompanied the eponymous London and Edinburgh-based exhibition of game culture and history, he discusses the difficulties of identifying “independent games” in comparison with “independent film”.
For every statement he makes about, say, economic or cultural factors Zimmerman offers up a competing perspective. But the medium’s newness, while making it difficult to pin down certainties with regard to definitions, also renders it resplendent with opportunities. His essay ultimately operates as a call-to-arms for those working in and around the game industry to innovate, to demand more of the medium. As a rare example of an individual who manages, through his writing and attendance at conferences, to play both an influential role in the games industry and within the burgeoning academic community seeking to analyse games, Zimmerman is well worth listening to.
The recent video game conference in Bristol, England, entitled Power Up, dealt specifically with notions of ideology and featured Australian media art producer and curator Rebecca Cannon who, among other things, helped provide some useful context surrounding 9-11 Survivor and talked more generally about game modification as art. One of the emergent themes of the conference proved to be how it might be possible to build and distribute what were termed “progressive games”. Funding was identified as an immediate problem; but as those who have worked in other areas of the non-mainstream art sector will recognise, the manifold problems and contradictions connected with financing would certainly not be peculiar to any putative progressive game scene.
The quest for serious games may sound suspiciously teleological in its thrust, as though games are somehow predestined to transform into artworks equivalent to cinema or the novel. This is not an imperialist ploy to turn video games into something they’re not. On one level, we won’t actually know what video games are capable of unless individuals and organisations push the envelope further than is currently the case. On another level, theorising this subject should be a creative rather than a destructive act, and it seems to me this kind of prompting can only be for the good. In actuality it’s patronising to the artform to suggest it can only be trivial.
In fact, while some games could be more ambitious in terms of content, it would actually be a very bad thing if supposed trivial games vanished, just as it would be a very bad thing if supposed trivial films or novels disappeared. It ain’t either/or, but both. There’s actually nothing wrong with decimating hordes of gibbering aliens or speeding through a Miami Vice-inspired version of the 1980s to the sounds of Kim Wilde.
The existence of a thriving independent sector can only help influence the mainstream games industry for the better, in the same way that indie film sometimes exert a useful pull on the Hollywood machine. As Zimmerman intimates, innovative games can sometimes sell very well; if the indie sector can produce innovative games that happen also to be progressive, then why not let them contaminate the mainstream? Together, video game players and makers can become heroes of the revolution-reformation.
That really would be a brave thing to do.