“TV Games are for Boys” is a piece about parenting, making mistakes and trying to participate in a culture where even the tiniest misstep can result in complete social annihilation.
* * *
It seems I’ve been terrified for nearly three years.
Young brains are wired to mimic. This gets them up to speed as quickly as possible, meaning children often want to get involved in whatever their parents are doing. This includes cooking and the washing up at early ages (I hear this doesn’t extend into the teens) and also the playing of games. At the age of two, my son, K, wanted to play games with Daddy.
He certainly didn’t likePortal 2 (Valve, 2011) but if a game’s Spookiness Factor was low, he would be happy to watch. The only game that really worked for him was an early version of Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2012) which satisfied him for a while.
K was fascinated with city infrastructure: recycling trucks, fire engines, trains, that sort of thing. I thought of GTA III (Rockstar Games, 2001) and, heartened by the tale of another parent who exposed their four-year old to GTA, I let K have a dabble.
His controller skills were poor as his fingers were too small to manipulate the thumbsticks, so I had to keep course correcting, but he enjoyed his excursion in Liberty City and rode the train over and over again. I felt comfortable because he didn’t have the maturity to comprehend what was happening in the game: he saw roads, trains, bodies of water. The muffled shouts of angry pedestrians and the occasional traffic accident were background detail.
But I left the room for a moment and when I came back, my son was carrying a rifle.
I sometimes think that my generation got the wrong end of the stick when it came to the question of conformity. My first encounter with conformity as a theoretical concept came in my early teens when some pre-cursor to GCSE psychology mentioned Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments in which a subject was confronted with a room full of people giving the wrong answer to a simple perception test. Supposedly overwhelmed by peer pressure, over a third of Asch’s subjects chose to follow the group and give the wrong answer.
I say “supposedly” as while a lot has since been written about Asch’s experiments, most of it has been reductive, simplistic and wrong. The problem lies not in the work itself but rather in the tendency to package it up with Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment as part of a broad cultural narrative about the hazards of conformity.
By the time I was first encountering experimental psychology in the early 1990s, conformity was being presented as a Bad, Bad Thing that caused you to speak untruths, torture people to death and generally behave like a German prison camp guard. Indeed, a lot of the research into obedience and conformity that took place in the middle decades of the 20th Century is best understood as trying to understand the rise of Nazi Germany and thereby prevent it from ever happening again. The work of Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo may have been lousy and misunderstood science but it was great propaganda as it sold us a vision of humanity as a species wired for obedience and moral cowardice.
There are two main ways in which a work can provoke a moral reaction:
The first is by using the power of narrative to encourage feelings of sympathy for a particular moral view. This didactic form of narrative usually signals its presence through a system of winks and nods designed to make a particular worldview seem far more comfortable and welcoming. For example. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is filled with nostalgic yearning for nobility in an age of encroaching egalitarianism. Waugh’s approval of the past and rejection of the present is evident in the fact that everyone in the past seems to eat, drink, dress and speak far better than anyone in the present.
The second is to embody a set of values so profoundly ugly that audiences feel compelled to react not only against the morality of the work itself but also against real world manifestations of that same more system. For example, Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel features a group of upper class people who attend a dinner party but find it impossible to leave. As the days go by and people begin to starve and die out of what is effectively politeness and fear of being the first person to leave a party, the audience cannot help but react against not only the absurd characters but also the bourgeois morality they so closely cling to.
Video games tend not to be particularly good at presenting arguments or advancing moral perspectives but they are very good indeed at prompting a moral reaction. Indeed, because virtual worlds must be created entirely from scratch, the beliefs and assumptions of the people who develop those worlds are frequently all too obvious. This phenomenon is being extensively catalogued in a thoroughly excellent on-going series of videos by Anita Sakeesian:
Though often entirely unintentional, the moral reactions provoked by these sorts of games are often incredibly enlightening. Indeed, many of America’s racist and warmongering attitudes towards China, Russia and the Middle East seemed half rational until a series of First-Person Shooters attempted to mine that particular set of popular fears and produced what was effectively a series of interactive neoconservative rants. Similarly, few head-on critiques of the culture surrounding rap music are as effective as the Saints Row series’ decision to slowly transform its gangland protagonists from a group of scrappy up-and-coming underworld entrepreneurs to the soda-shilling heads of a vast merchandising empire.
A couple of years ago, I experienced a similar moral reaction after deciding to play Civilization V and Europa Universalis III back-to-back. What I realised was that the reason liberal people behave like psychopaths when playing 4X strategy games is that those games emulate what it is like to see the world through the eyes of the state. Another moral reaction occurred while playing Paradox Interactive’s latest strategy game Crusader Kings II.
Much like Europa Universalis III, Crusader Kings II can be interpreted as a critique of a social institution in that it exposes not only the moral failings of that institution but also of the players who take control of the institution in the context of the game. However, while the Europa Universalis series demonstrates our willingness to surrender our principles for the sake of bureaucratic expediency, Crusader Kings II targets an institution that is much closer to home: The family.
In this essay I shall discuss not only what Crusader Kings II teaches us about what it means to be part of a family, I shall also consider why even the most wretched of families mean so much to us. In order to explore what the game tells us about family life, I must first discuss what it means to see the world through the eyes of an institution.
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about video games but the awesome group blog Arcadian Rhythms were kind enough to host a little something I wrote about the stylistic differences between the original UFO: Enemy Unknown and its recent re-make XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
The main thrust of my argument is that while the original UFO was an emotionally muted and ambiguous affair that conveyed its themes of cataclysmic social change and philosophical crisis using subtle shifts in tone and design, the new XCOMexplores this same set of themes using a stylistic palate that is not so much muted as it is hysterical:
XCOM resembles the Metal Gear Solid series in so far as its approach to narrative is as totalitarian as it is melodramatic. Rather than trusting their material and their audience to find one another in an organic fashion, the writers of XCOM drive home every beat and every emotion as hard as they possibly can. Where the original UFO allowed players to uncover the disconnect between terrifying world and bland corporate office on their own terms, XCOM displays humanity’s precarious position in every colour scheme, every piece of text and every poorly performed and written cut-scene.
Games like XCOM are the product of a creative environment in which there is no room for subtlety or nuance. Like advertisers and political demagogues, AAA game designers are convinced that the only way of making the audience care is by reaching into their heads and forcing them to do so. Once upon a time, game designers used certain top-down narrative techniques to break up the monotony of fighting the same three enemies over and over again. Now, game designers use variations on these same manipulative techniques to wring emotional responses from the same old poorly written stories.
The most worrying thing about this growing tendency towards melodramatic storytelling is that it is a trend that is playing out across pretty much all the major gaming platforms. A fantastic example of this emotional bloat is the difference between the beautifully low-key nihilism of Far Cry 2 and the racist power fantasies of the recently released Far Cry 3. Indeed, while Far Cry 2 had you wandering around killing people and getting progressively closer (both spiritually and geographically) to the nihilistic figure of The Jackal, Far Cry 3 presents this same journey as a sort of spiritual quest in which you become a sort of white Christ figure for a group of noble savages. As with UFO and XCOM, the two Far Cry games demonstrate a growing discomfort around nuance, subtlety and ambiguity. For the modern AAA game designer, a game does not have a message unless the message is spelled out in a reductive and simple-minded fashion. This unease around ambiguity is beautifully apparent in what must be one of the most extraordinary interviews ever conducted.
John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun interviews Far Cry 3‘s Jeffrey Yohalem and pretty much accuses him of making a game that is a white power fantasy aimed at 20-something White Americans. Yohalem denies this and bizarrely supports his denial by pointing to all of the story beats and tropes that would lead you to think that the game is a power fantasy:
The sex scene [at the midpoint] – first Jason is shooting at that gigantic monster. He kills the monster, and it jump-cuts to him orgasming with Citra! He’s firing sperm at this gigantic monster, and then suddenly he’s on this alter with Citra, having sex with her, and then he thinks he’s the leader of the tribe and makes the big speech, and it’s his power fantasy! That’s the other thing – it’s all from first-person, so it’s completely unreliable. There’s a reason why Jason is a 25 year old white guy from Hollywood – these are all ideas that are in his head. You’re seeing things through his eyes.
Clearly, Yohalem believes that he is being satirical and yet the game he has helped produce is absolutely indistinguishable from a non-satirical white power fantasy. In other words, while Yohalem may have intended to express ambivalence towards traditional video game narratives, the ambivalence simply did not carry across into the final game. The game is so busy trying to manipulate the audience’s emotions that it simply does not allow for the fact that the game might intend you to call these emotions into question. Yohalem points to a number of clues supporting his ironic interpretation of the game but all of these techniques are drowned out by the game’s desperation to make the player feel like a gosh-darned hero.
Melodrama is an entirely acceptable emotional register when the aim of the game is to engender an authentic emotional response to a particular text. Consider, for example, Luca Guadagnino’s majestic I Am Love (2009) starring Tilda Swinton:
The film tells the story of a woman who marries into a large Italian family. While this family provide the woman with a luxurious lifestyle, it also forces her to exist in a repressed emotional universe that requires her to be be the perfect wife at all times. However, this universe is shattered when the women meets a local chef who unlocks her emotional core and drags her into a whole new world. Let me be clear on this: I Am Love is one of my absolute favourite films; I think Guadagnino’s ability to use music, lighting, architecture and colour to create different emotional worlds is absolutely astonishing and when the woman finally breaks free from her old life, I wept openly in the cinema. I did this because Guadagnino is an absolute master at emotional manipulation.
The difference between I Am Love and Far Cry 3 is that while I Am Love is all about the authentic emotional experience of love, transformation and happiness, Far Cry 3 is supposedly about questioning the very emotions that the game evokes. Far Cry 3‘s problem is that while the aim of the game might have been to question white racial privilege, the style of the game celebrates white power fantasies in much the same way as I Am Love celebrates the transformative power of love. Melodrama is a tradition that allows the audience to experience what the characters are experiencing, it is not a tradition that encourages us to deconstruct our own emotional responses. On one level, it is tempting to simply dismiss Yohalem as a simpleton who doesn’t understand the concept of style but games like Far Cry 3 point to a far deeper problem, namely that AAA game designers are now so used to melodrama that they simply do not realise that there are other emotional registers that might better suit the stories they are attempting to tell.
I’d like to open with a kind of history. This history takes many forms and surfaces in many different places with the names of the actors sometimes replaced. Occasionally, the role of the nation-state is assumed by religion and at other times it is the gods of classical antiquity who take the lead. Regardless of which iteration of this history you have heard, its narrative will be familiar to you for it is a narrative of loss.
Once upon a time, people lived in tribes. These tribes were small social entities made up of a number of different family groups that pooled their resources. Members of tribes lived together, worked together and died together and this permanent state of communion with others made their lives meaningful. Of course, human nature being what it is, tribes could not peacefully co-exist and the tribes soon began conquering each other until their dominion extended over millions of people and thousands of miles of territory. Because these abstract tribal groupings were a lot harder to manage than a couple of families that had been living and working together for generations, tribal elders began reinventing themselves as governments who began to rule over abstract political entities known as kingdoms and principalities then as nations and states. Of course, nation states were never anything more than a way of referring to the territory under the control of one particular government but they stuck around for long enough that people began to forget their tribal loyalties and began to see their nationality as a fundamental fact about themselves, a fact no different to their sex, their gender, their sexuality or their race, a fact that took the form of a noun.
I originally wrote the column about ten days ago but last weekend I became aware of two significant blogospheric shit-storms that seem to provide an interesting context for the column. The first shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by an article about yoga and the second shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by a review of an epic fantasy novel. Though ostensibly very different in their origins and subject matters, both shit-storms involve a community reacting very angrily to negative coverage from a perceived outsider. In the case of the ‘yoga community’, the outsider is the New York Times senior science writer William Broad and, in the case of the ‘epic fantasy community’, the outsider is the Strange Horizons reviewer and post-graduate student Liz Bourke.
The link between these blogstorms and my most recent video games column is that ‘Hang All the Critics’ is an attempt to confront the fact that the age of the critic has now passed. Criticism and its less well-heeled cousin reviewing rely upon the assumption that a person of reasonable insight and creative flair can consume a cultural product and issue an opinion or reaction to that will be of use to other people despite the fact that these other people might have very different tastes and interests.
It is no accident that the role of the critic has its roots in the cafe culture of the 17th Century as the coffee shops frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson tended to be cramped places where all kinds of bourgeois intellectuals were forced to rub shoulders. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the Internet’s infinite potential for space is that people from a particular class and with a particular set of interests are no longer forced to rub shoulders with people with ever-so-slightly different sets of tastes. These days, if you are interested in steam locomotives but not other forms of train then you are in no way obliged to encounter the opinions of people who consider steam trains to be a quaint but outmoded form of technology. The more the Internet matures, the more interest groups fragment and the more interest groups fragment, the more isolated and tribal these communities become. There is no place for criticism in a world dominated by tribal conflicts and persecution complexes, this is why Liz Bourke and William Broad got it in the neck and this is why Rotten Tomatoes is filled with people reacting angrily to the idea that a film they haven’t seen might not be as good as they expect. The age of the critic is at an end and it is time to change the way we do business.
Needless to say, I am not the first person to notice the collapse of our culture’s public spaces. Indeed, many reviewers and critics have attempted to respond to the increasingly commercial and tribal nature of the public sphere either by retreating into the walled-garden of academia or by creating a tribal space of their own. While I can entirely understand this desire for retrenchment, I think that it is ultimately an act of cowardice:
As someone who has never once tried to review a game for a major site, I am not in the least bit opposed to the fracturing of public space in order to create environments in which inaccessible forms of writing are protected from the vagaries of commerce and popular tastes. A recent comment on one of my pieces described my style as “masturbatory” and I find myself absolutely powerless to disagree. There is something decidedly self-indulgent about sharing one’s opinions online — particularly when one makes little or no effort to reach out to the majority of people interested in a particular topic — and this kind of self-indulgence is not about subjecting games to serious intellectual scrutiny or ‘consolidating a continuous counterbalance’; is a cowardly retreat from the public sphere, driven by the recognition that my opinions are of use to nobody but myself. There is absolutely nothing brave or revolutionary about taking your ball and going home.
My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad is not that they are wrong to feel the way they feel. Life in the 21st Century is frequently lonely and it is easy to begin thinking of one’s sub-culture as a kind of family that provides us with both an identity and a set of values. When you invest yourself that heavily in a particular sub-culture then it makes perfect sense that you should bristle when that elements of that sub-culture come under fire from outsiders. Even if you don’t like a particular novel or have your own concerns about the way that yoga is taught, it is one thing to hear those feelings from someone you trust and quite another to hear them from someone you don’t know. Ever bitched about a sibling to a member of your family? ever defended that same sibling when they came under fire from someone else? Some truths can only be spoken inside the family.
My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad (or the people who complained about Uncharted 3 only getting 8 out of 10) is not that they are wrong, it is that they are being insular. As I said elsewhere, the most wonderful thing in the world is to have someone care enough to listen to you and tell you that you are completely full of shit. By wanting to protect epic fantasy from outsiders like Bourke, the defenders of epic fantasy (and those of yoga) are closing themselves off to a potential source of cultural renewal.
I would like to believe that there is a place for people like Bourke and Broad because I would like to believe that there is a place for cultural generalists and for people who take the ideas and values of one culture and carry them into those of another. This blog is very much devoted to the idea that a single person can look at radically different forms and subject matters and say something of value about them. Unfortunately, while I would like to believe that there is a place for that form of cultural generalism, I think that the Internet is growing increasingly hostile to it. After all, why listen to random strangers when you can only listen to fellow academics, fantasy fans, yoga enthusiasts, republicans or furries? Why listen to anyone other than yourself?
Futurismic have my forty-sixth Blasphemous Geometriescolumn entitled ‘Skyrim and the Quest for Meaning’.
This column took me quite a while to write as I struggled to put my finger on precisely what it was that annoyed me about Skyrim. Initially, I thought it might be the bleak nature of the setting that reduces life to a series of to-do lists and selfish ambitions with easily quantifiable outcomes. However, while I am no Randian and tend to think that this vision of life is to be rejected rather than embraced, I simply could not fault it. I mean… life is ultimately about jumping through hoops until we die, right? Then I began to reflect upon the game’s lack of narrative and how playing it felt a lot like playing World of Warcraft without engaging with the social realities of guilds and pick-up groups. This was more promising as Skyrim is indeed a nightmare of pointless grind hidden by the tiniest narrative fig leaf imaginable. Then it occurred to me: if life really is nothing more than grind, why should we seek to immerse ourselves in fantasy realms that are similarly bleak and mechanistic? Skyrim‘s real problem is that it is an escapist fantasy that denies the possibility of escape:
While all video games ultimately reduce down to mechanical feedback loops and branching decision trees, most game designers soften the impact of their mechanical reductionism by hiding it behind a series of dramatic conceits that place the events of the game within a particular context which, though meaningless in mechanical terms, will provide the players with a context through which to understand their in-game actions, a context that will allow them to connect on an emotional level with the plots and characters of the game.
As usual, when faced with the bleakness of the world, I turned to Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for advice. The great sage’s advice to me was clear and unambiguous, when confronted by the horrors of existence and the feeling of bottomless dread that can only come from the realisation that we are truly and hopelessly free, the only possible solution is to laugh and launch into a nice little musical number as searching for the meaning of life is really nothing more than a quest for the most psychologically convenient form of self-delusion available.
Futurismic have my forty-fifth Blasphemous Geometries column about From Software’s Demon’s Souls and its place in the history of video game attitudes towards death.
Following on from some of my thoughts on Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, the column argues that rather than trying to downplay virtual death by re-packaging it as with Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia‘s talk of death-as-flawed-memory, video game designers ought to follow From Software in embracing the cataclysmic number of deaths that feature in their games. Indeed, what makes Demon’s Souls such a fascinating game is its relentless downbeat tone and its recognition of the fact that characters will die and players will give up in disgust. Clearly, if Demon’s Souls had been a film, it would have been directed by Ingmar Bergman. The column also draws the reader’s attention to Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon, a book all about the psychological impact of experiencing a futile death over and over again…
Nowhere is the need for unpleasantness greater than in video gaming’s attitude to death. What was once a means of rationing the time people spent hogging a particular arcade machine has now ossified into a set of linguistic tics that are now completely disconnected from both their real-world and in-game significances. Video games ask us to die over and over again but rather than acknowledging this fact, many game designers seek to minimise the impact of these sacrifices by explaining them away as lapses in memory. By trivialising death, game designers have not only cheapened the lives of our characters, they have also deprived themselves of one of the most powerful thematic motifs in all of art and literature.
Games like Demon’s Souls recognise that they are dealing in death and this recognition is genuinely disconcerting. Like death itself, Demon’s Souls is utterly indifferent to both our presence in the game and our attempts at engaging with it. Demon’s Souls is a game of misery tempered by frustration, and its unapologetic recognition of this fact is what makes it both different and great. While I appreciate Walker’s point, I cannot help but feel that he is looking at the problem in entirely the wrong way: Let us not repackage death, but rather celebrate it as the core of the video game experience.
Having spent a good deal of time playing carefully-packaged AAA-rated titles for this column, one of the continuing joys of Demon’s Souls remains its complete indifference to my presence. Forty hours in and I’m still not completely clear on how many basic aspects of the game actually work. One of the game’s major mechanics involves shifting between different forms and you begin to pick up magical items helping with that transition a long time before you actually realise what it means. Similarly, it took me about 20 hours to realise that the game had a magic system. In a video game culture full of shallow joys and craven player-pandering, there is something truly wonderful in From Software’s complete indifference to whether or not we ever get the hang of the game.
A lot has been made of this game’s boss fights and the myriad niggles and irritations that conspire to make its game-play something of an uphill struggle. I will not deny, this game inspired more rage-quits than any game in recent memory. However, rather than seeing these irritations as products of genre-confusion and outdated game design, I decided to consider these problems as part of the game’s central aesthetic and sub-text. I conclude that, whereas the original Deus Ex games were all about empowering the player, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions is all about claustrophobia, prejudice and being forced into a position of willing servitude:
Taken together, these racial and economic narratives combine to create an almost intolerable atmosphere of disempowerment. Whereas Deus Ex sought to empower its players, Deus Ex: Human Revolution constantly reminds them of how worthless and incompetent they really are. Playing DXHR is like spending an afternoon with a depressed and alcoholic mother who is not only disappointed with what you have made of yourself, but also insistent on letting you know how she feels about your failure as an individual. However, as unpleasant as DXHR can be, it is an intensely enjoyable game. Indeed, the game’s real thematic power lies not in its narratives of disenfranchisement and oppression, but in the fact that it keeps us coming back for more in spite of them.
All too often, reviewers tend to assume that any mechanic that is not fun is broken. I simply could not disagree more, all mechanics tell a story… you just need to open your mind and play the story that the game wants to tell.
A little while ago, I took a trip to the city of Bath. Having taken the train up from London, we tooled around the city for a day or so and then decided to spend the following day visiting the nearby countryside. In order to access this countryside, we needed to rent a car and so we walked to the outskirts of Bath in order to pick up our rental. We usually rent a car when we go to visit my girlfriend’s family and so we were well acquainted by the buffer zone of form-filling and scratch-detailing that exists between us showing up to get a car and our driving off the lot with said car. However, we usually rent from quite a small rental company and this was our first experience with a major multinational rental agency and the experience could not have been more different: Potential upgrades were not just mentioned in passing, they were argued for using quite aggressive and manipulative language:
What if we were heading back late and needed to drive faster to make the drop-off? If we got a faster car we could save ourselves money in the long run.
What if someone broke into our car and stole our stuff? If we upgraded the insurance to cover everything in the car, we could stop some crook from ruining our holiday.
What if someone stole the petrol in our tank? If we insured that then we could save the money required to re-fill the tank and call out a tow-truck. Petrol is really expensive these days.
The list went on and on. Obviously working from a script, the woman behind the counter probed and prodded our every fear and concern in a desperate effort to extract more money from us than the price advertised on the company’s website. Sensing my growing irritation, my girlfriend suggested I put our stuff in the car while she sort out the paperwork but I find myself reliving that sense of irritation in more and more aspects of my day to day life. Under pressure from investors, companies are trying to wring more and more money from their existing business models. Customers are not just being squeezed, they are being squeezed in ways designed by people with a profound understanding of human psychology. Nowhere is this understanding of human psychology more evident than in the marketplace for popular culture.