Other Ten Percent 6/19/13

Jun 19 2013

So Leigh Alexander, who, you’ll recall, is probably my favorite games journalist on Earth, wrote a piece that I ended up really disagreeing with for the new Inquiry on legitimacy versus accessibility in games. She starts off articulating much better than I could something that’s been bugging me about gaming culture for years: the way it simultaneously craves acceptance from outside the community but violently rejects even basic critiques of the culture. If you don’t like something about games you’re just another one of “those people” that’s too stupid to understand gaming, by the way why don’t more people like us?

So far so good. But then the article takes this weird left turn in discussing the way gamers reject arguments against sexist or violent themes because games are “supposed to be fun.”

Instead of pointing out that a lot of the things those developers want “for fun” aren’t actually that fun to anybody outside of their myopic view of what their audience should be Leigh Alexander seems to be suggesting we just abandon fun as an organizing principle in gaming. The argument becomes not that fun has never been the entirety of gaming (ask anybody how “fun” failing in Mario is, and yet failure is a major part of almost every videogame)  but that it’s JUST a shield shitty game designers use to do whatever they want to please an audience that wants, frankly, some pretty repellant bullshit. She holds up as the model for gaming’s future the auto-biographical games of people like Anna Anthropy and the explosion of personal text adventure games powered by the game writing engine Twine. She then dismisses as personal the arguments against these games as being personal and sexist. But here’s the thing: outside of a few of these games like dys4ia that are actually pretty fun, I’m not sure why people are playing these games.

And I say that as somebody that really likes Anna Anthropy’s work. Somebody that’s familiar with her work and similar artists in the genre and who’s even encouraged people in a public column I got paid money for to try out what she’s doing. The question I always have whenever I play one of these things as a game though is, short of somebody yelling at you that you HAVE to play this thing, why the hell would you want to play it? There’s often no gameplay to speak of and the narrative is so direct it can sometimes feel like you’re reading a choose your own adventure non-fiction column with like 2 branches in the path that both lead to the same ending.

On some level that isn’t a problem, the audience these creators are interested in seek out their stuff because of that focus on issues the rest of the gaming community ignores. And I’m not arguing that every game needs to be fun for white straight males like me because boy do I have enough games made to be fun for me to last a lifetime. What I’m arguing is that the game being fun for SOMEBODY is a vital part of making games.

Leigh Alexander’s referenced in a lot of articles, most prominently ones she’s written about the Metal Gear games which I don’t particularly like that I already talked about once, that she’s a big fan of distanciation in games. She likes it when a game lets you know you’re playing a game and makes that a psychologically or downright physically unpleasant experience in order to COMMUNICATE WITH YOU. And I like that too. She likes Brecht, I like Brecht. Brecht bros. But the problem I’ve always had with distanciation, hell, the problem BRECHT had with distanciation is it only implicates the people who want to be implicated because everybody else just goes “I don’t like this it doesn’t feel fun” and leaves. You can deride them as philistines all you want but they’re still gone and not listening to what you’re trying to communicate anymore.

I guess what I’m arguing, and man the longer I spend on this article the weirder I feel trying to tell people how to properly not work within the system as a white dude, but I guess I’m saying that if we want to abandon the traditional system of game design that’s fine. About time really. Fuck those dudes. But abandoning fun in the name of art seems like a really weird way to do it if you want anybody to stick around to see your art. It seems like you’d be better off just embracing the idea that what you’re making “aren’t games” and doing your own thing that doesn’t have to be judged by their rubric. I don’t want that to happen though because I think gaming is way better off with all of the people making those games sticking around . What I want more than a masterwork of distanciation is a game that implicates gamers the same way Cabin in the Woods uses the grammer of horror to implicate horror fans for their worst impulses. That should be super easy right? Good luck with that guys. I was going to try to tie this in with similar problems in comedy (how do you make a funny joke that critiques the way that the format of stand-up privileges white dudes talking about white dude stuff?) but…yeah this is enough words to force you guys to read.

2 responses so far

  1. I like this response. I didn’t even know what ‘distanciation’ was, really.

    I didn’t say games should abandon fun, or that fun has never been relevant. Or rather, I didn’t mean to say that. I meant that culturally-legitimate games, or games that deserve to be considered alongside other meaningful forms of expression, don’t have fun as a priority.

    And “it’s just for fun” absolutely is used to de-legitimize games, both inside of them and out of them.

    During all these dialogues I’ve found it really strange that people see a one or the other situation, like discussions about the games that are important or meaningful prescribe a future for all games. what I foresee is simply a shift in priority for new game creation, toward communication or provocation (of idea, of feeling) rather than entertainment.

    Clearly this doesn’t apply to everyone. I have absolutely spent way more hours of my life on Ridiculous Fishing than Dys4ia, and I plan to continue to. One thing will not supplant the other, but I think new ways of looking at games are why they continue to be interesting in a modern world.

  2. Not sure if you’ll check back in here Leigh but I wanted to say I think we’re mostly on the same page. I really didn’t think you were trying to prescribe THE way to make games for all time. The industry is certainly big enough for all kinds of different organizing principles.

    I think the idea I wanted to get at is that provocation and entertainment don’t necessarily have to be at odds. It’s easy to have entertainment serve as a way to pat your audience on the back for the stuff it already believes of course. “Congratulations, you really are the best, just like you thought!” But it can also be used as a way to really make the gut punch of provocation land.

    Some of my favorite art, in gaming or in any other media, uses both at once. It has entertainment as an organizing principle so it can draw its audience into a world they think they agree with and then it hits them with the provocation, slowly morphing the thing they agreed with into a thing they know they should hate. The great thing about this trick is that it closes off the usual excuse of “that’s not me. I don’t think that.” Of course it’s you! You just agreed with it five minutes ago when you thought it was fun and not despicable.

    It’s not a trick I see used all that often in games and usually it’s small moments in larger games, Skyrim and Earthbound both have moments I think qualify off the top of my head but neither game uses it centrally.

    Even when you’re trying for it it’s really hard to do both at once well. Bioshock Infinite’s weird “we all know racism is bad so let’s be super racist to show how bad it is” sections are what it looks like when it goes wrong. But when it goes right MAN does it ever screw with people’s preconceptions.

    P.S. I also realized re-reading this that I leave a modifier dangling so it’s not entirely clear I’m not a big fan of the Metal Gear games rather than your articles about them. The articles I actually like enough that I’m once again getting the urge to try playing a Metal Gear game just to see if I can get into it this time.

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