The Soul of the Game

by Colin Harvey

5 November 2003


Do video games have a soul? You might find this an intriguing opening gambit for someone writing about that most technologically dependent of mediums, the video game. After all, the video game form is seemingly much further removed from reality than that other dominant entertainment medium, cinema, which more or less records reality — or at least, records fragments of reality that it uses to as a means to create a new reality. By comparison, video games construct a reality from the maths upwards, using dense code to act as the equivalent of atoms and molecules that, when rubbed together, spark and coalesce to build a universe of plant life, animals and humans. Suddenly it’s Starbucks and, bizarrely but assuredly, it’s George Dubya. In short, video games create their realities whereas cinema, at least the old fashioned pre-CGI form which still dominates, recreates its worlds of stories.

But why did cinema take off? Of course, the truth is that at first it didn’t: despite apocryphal and oft-repeated tales of frightened French people running in terror from Lumiere’s apparently very real approaching train in that cinema, despite the undoubted fascination with the potential of the medium, it took years for the silver screen to become silver, years before it was taken seriously as a means for conveying poetic ideas. Intriguingly, Vachel Lindsay, writing in 1915 in a relatively recently rediscovered exegesis on the new medium of motion pictures entitled The Art of the Moving Picture (Modern Library, 2000), urges “Scenario writers, producers, photoplay actors, endowers of exquisite films, sects using special motion pictures for a predetermined end . . . ” to engage with the medium in a spiritual fashion as a means of ensuring its success as an art form.

“Consider what it will do to your souls,” the poet Lindsay intones in the closing sections of the volume, “Every year, despite earthly sorrow and the punishment of your mortal sins, despite all weakness and all of Time’s revenges upon you, despite Nature’s reproofs and the whips of the angels, new visions will come, new prophecies will come.” In other words, spirituality serves as a spur to originality.

Now, I’m not a religious man, but like most atheists who aren’t total sociopaths, I wander around with what Salman Rushdie has termed “A God-shaped hole”; in other words I don’t believe I have a soul but I have to act like I have, otherwise I’ll crumble to dust in despair. The stock-in-trade of video games has traditionally revolved around violence, even in the relatively anodyne early classics like Space Invaders or Defender, or at least domination, as in Pacman, which tasked the player with consuming all within that neon maze. Because conflict is at the centre of competition, of games (but not “play” necessarily) this is perhaps an unavoidable aspect for game designers. But a more spiritual, thoughtful outlook might help provide an alternative to the violent repartee, which, like any stock-in-trade, palls with each unoriginal regurgitation.

I’m not suggesting video games should eschew violence in favour of Disney-like fluffy baa lambs. But arguably the role of representational violence within the video game form could actually be seen as a means for exploring existentialist concepts, along the lines of “What would harming this person actually mean?” The interactive and play aspects of the medium make video games unusually, perhaps uniquely, adept at such an approach.At the root of this approach lies an appreciation of the fact that video gaming is an active, rather than passive, pastime, and that the potential is there to explore issues of complexity greater than is currently on offer.

The first thing to do, then, is bust wide open the stereotypical image of lazy teenagers mindlessly playing video games. Take it from me, playing video games is hard work. Not only is there the constant need to make decisions — do I turn this way, can I make that jump, should I kill this monster, can I manoeuvre my vehicle through that tiny fissure? — but there’s the actual act of doing it, the physicality of pressing those buttons or manipulating those joysticks. If we could harness the power of all those people playing video games to explore more (ahem) worthy ideas, than who knows where the medium could head.

Fortunately the manipulation aspect works both ways. Video games play us as much we play them. They do this by keying into our emotions as a means of generating feelings, a precedent set by many other cultural activities. For instance, at this time of year, particularly, our thoughts turn to scaring the bejesus out of our neighbours, a quaint tradition which Britain (albeit in typical half-arsed fashion) and subsequently America have exported to an otherwise unsuspecting world. We deem it as good for people to sometimes dabble in the extremes of emotion, as evidenced in our enjoyment of roller coaster rides, scary movies and of course, Halloween. Video games, as the current flavour of the zeitgeist, similarly regularly exploit such extremes of emotion for comparably good (i.e., “bad”) reasons.

Interestingly this is not just a dry theoretical argument: we can point to a number of key individuals in the industry busily inventing and constructing what we might consider to be “soulful” video games. At the summit of the pile stands Shigeru Miyamoto. This Japanese wunderkind trained as an artist and was responsible for the design of Mario, the Italian plumber and diminutive hero of Nintendo’s bizarrely named Donkey Kong. As with much of what we might now consider to be classic in the medium of video games, the design of Mario arose from the exigencies of the technology available to Miyamoto: he wasn’t able to draw a mouth, so he gave Mario a moustache, he wasn’t able to animate hair, so he gave Mario a hat. The resulting images became icons, burning into each individual’s memory and therefore the collective consciousness. Like any of the great cartoon characters — and indeed a survey of children in America at one stage in the ‘90s showed Mario to be more recognisable than even Mickey Mouse — Miyamoto’s creation appeals to us not just because of the bright colours and comic demeanour, but because at some visceral level, we recognise his plucky plight.

The interrelationship of the mind and body in relation to art is not a new idea. That chap Spinoza, for instance, became very interested in such matters. Antonio Damasio’s recent book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain (William Heinemann 2003) is a useful, accessible resource for arty types like me who tend to run a mile when anyone waves something vaguely science-looking in their direction. Damasio explores the interrelationship between emotions and feelings and how they’re presented in human relations.

Much of the discourse surrounding New Media — interactive media, digital media, hypermedia, dependent upon your taste — centres around notions of interactivity and an idea that what differentiates these new forms of engagement from older, processural art such as cinema, television and the novel, is the role of the body in affecting how the narrative might turn out. What tends to be lacking in such discussions are the physiological aspects of engagement with these newer methods of communication: we tend to get stuck at the level of the brain and of the text, and to ignore the physical body, though admittedly the metaphorical body looms large in some discourses.

As I’ve said, justification for the ultra-violence which characterises masterpieces like the realist games in the Grand Theft Auto sequence, or the science-fictionalised brutality of the comparably epic Halo, resides in the existential turmoil it provokes (and this is more than a liberal seeking to justify his guilty pleasure in the acts of cruelty which drives such games). The power, though, lies in the ability of such games to engage our emotions and, as Damsio implies, to invoke feelings of awe, or terror, or surprise, or shock, or joy, or sorrow. The relationship between body, mind, and artefact is an ongoing one, a rhizome of connections, which constantly reinvolve and re-engage each other.

Our souls — or in my case, and Rushdie’s case, our “soul holes” — are piqued by what the cultural theorists attempting to deal with these complex and essentially philosophical modes of discourse term the “intensities” of affect. Miyamoto’s soulful work plays with us perhaps because of the way in which he engineers such intensities: the irony is that those erstwhile stereotyped Italian plumbers, Mario and Luigi, point the way to a form of video game altogether more effective and crucially, more affective.


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