[9 June 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
At long last, we come to the final entry of the Zarathustran Analytics series. The question proposed in the first essay of this series was essentially this: if we define video games by player input, how do we go about assessing that? Since the game design illustrates what the input precisely is and the plot defines the meaning of that input, the thing game critics should be looking at is the overall experience the game generates rather than just one of these particular elements. Then we took into account how to categorize games by experience rather than game design, exceptions to this concept, and the basic philosophies that govern what people think games should be. We also made the decision to not factor in graphics or A.I. in order to not inhibit creativity in the medium (and somehow, no one called me out on it). After taking into account what a critical language for video games should not do, we finally get to the point of why we need to be talking about the player experience in the first place.
In a blog post by Henry Jenkins in 2006, he points out the basic problem that interactivity creates for a critic. Unlike Gone with the Wind, in a video game the player’s input may result in an extremely different outcome. Rhett may have gotten shot a while ago, or Scarlett might be level 80 and fully capable of running the farm herself. The basic problem of re-addressing art’s quality in terms of seeing the audience’s response to the show rather than the show itself is that most people aren’t used to the audience response being a factor. For someone like Roger Ebert or a literary critic, focusing on the audience response is reverse-thinking. Not what does the game project at me, but what does the game allow me to project back. Jenkins and others compare game criticism to assessing architectural designs and discussing how a person will inhabit a building. I personally tend to think of them as miniature languages and what those languages allow me to express. Whatever the mindset of the critic, rather than dismiss the audience experience as impossible to discuss we should tackle it head on. We do this not by talking about what a player should be thinking, but what a player could think in the space given to them within the game. That’s what it means to assess a game experience. Since we can put so much of ourselves into a game, the critic must assess where our response can go in such a place.
So how big of a difference does adding player experience to our criticism really make? In a link from Jenkins’ post, Timothy Burke goes over several examples of games that by themselves sound downright dull. Planescape: Torment is a basic D&D affair about an immortal who can never die. The average player spends the whole game wandering huge dialogue trees, sometimes behaving and sometimes being cruel depending on what’s advantageous. Yet what made the game profound was that at the very end, the game asks you what all that meant in terms of your identity. What made you help people, what made you abandon them? And every person has their own, self-realizing response to that. Or Burke’s comment on Katamari Damarcy being impossible to explain without sounding idiotic. You’re a tiny man rolling a tiny ball into a gigantic one, going from items on a desk to entire cities. Beyond the complete control of what you roll into the ball, the sheer pleasure of progress and happiness at rolling together an entire planet of junk is what makes the experience amazing. Or perhaps the most profound story on the web thus far is the incredibly personal reaction to Animal Crossing that one player had with their mother. That brief story about one person’s reaction to a game played with their mom is probably one of the highest emotions art can ever achieve, and we need a critical language that can talk about how that experience was created. Otherwise, we’re only talking about half the story.
Finally, we need to talk about player experience because this element, this way that games allow audience input which makes them art, is going to be neglected if we don’t. If no one notices game developers for producing profound player expressions in their games, why should they bother making them? If no one bothers to look beyond the plot or the game design, then no one is going to ever really get into what makes games so amazing in the first place. The late Joseph Campbell, whose works with mythology inspired Star Wars and countless video game plots, was asked in a PBS interview what he thought of video games. He said that they were another way of imparting wisdom. That games were still functionally doing the same thing as a group of people practicing hunting or sitting around a fire. Games were just a new way of teaching and sharing experiences, whether that experience be making a successful kill or hearing the legend of an epic hero. Such is the function of myth, philosophy, and art amongst people and Campbell thought video games would eventually take their place with them. We need a new critical approach so they can finally start doing it.
Joseph Campbell was the first person to make me sit down with video games and start looking at them in a new way years ago, so I’ve decided to end with a quote from his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He writes:
“Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form – all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.”
If the audience response is where games become art, if that response could become so powerful that it could allow a person to achieve personal breakthroughs, or to gain new perspectives on life, then it is not enough for game developers to create more complex games. It is not enough to just make them more realistic or incredibly satisfying. We must now, both as critics and as gamers, start to ask ourselves something far bigger when we play a video game: What are video games for?