Games, History, and Emotion

Ian Bogost gave a thought provoking speech at the Southern Interactive Entertainment and Game Expo recently which has been reproduced on his website. The title is “Videogames: Can They Be Important?” and in the speech he considers how videogames might be recognized as a form of expression capable of mattering on the level of literature or film.

Bogost does not explicitly say that videogames matter; instead his perspective seems to be that it will only really be known if they have impact until after we are dead, as people in the future experience the games. Thus, his recommendation is for designers to not “will” videogames to be artful, but to “live as people, as flawed, confused, aggrieved, dismayed joyful, surprised, hopeful people” and to “record those flaws, confusions, grievances, shocks, joys, surprises, and hopes.”

I was of the impression that most every serious gamer, such as those who visit this site and consider games worthy of academic scrutiny, agree that games do matter. I would even go so far as to say that it is accepted by most gamers that games are art. Whether these assumptions about other gamers are true or not, I firmly believe that both are the case.

What I would like to consider are the complexities left out in Bogost’s speech, which I am sure were rhetorically and stylistically omitted given his audience.

I think it is both useful and useless to compare videogames as an artful medium to other forms such as film and literature. Useful because games are also a representational medium like film. Useless because games, as we know, are a temporal experience that derive much of their uniqueness from the fact they are played, or in Alexander Galloway’s terms, that they are about action.

I would contend that when you combine these two features of games an important difference arises. Specifically, the user’s experience of a game and its representations is shaped techno-historically.

Since games have not yet reached a point of “photo-realism” like films (and literature of course escapes this quandary altogether) much of the emotional experience of a game is dependent on the moment in which the game is played. Games which try and mimic or represent reality can only do so for a period of several years before that realism fades and the experience of the user is significantly different. This holds true both for games that truly attempt to offer graphics as close to reality as possible as well as games which attempt some kind of stylistic deviation.

Certainly film has experienced technological developments, but I would contend that in the past 70 or so years the changes seem to have not carried the representational import that similar developments in games have (of course this argument could be a book in itself).

So what’s my point?

Games have already and continue to provide the kind of insight that Bogost mentions. I can recall numerous gaming experiences that had an effect on me just as profound as equivalents in other mediums. Anyone who has played Valve's latest release Half Life 2: Episode Two through to the end surely can agree.

What I wonder, however, is whether these experiences hold up. While I may have found Xenogears to be an incredibly moving game in 1998, I would probably struggle to tolerate it now because the incremental changes in technology and gameplay mechanics are so critical to the experience. For example, I am currently playing through Metal Gear Solid 2, a game that has aged only six years, and I find myself frustrated by the control and clunky animation to the point where the experience is far different than when I first played it. Because games are about that specific moment of action, situated techno-historically and tied intimately to the hardware being used, the nature of the gameplay itself changes along with the context and meaning.

In this way, I am wondering if games are a medium of dynamic artistic expression, but only of a temporal nature. Meaning that we do have important and insightful moments in games that deeply affect us, but these will continue to fade until the medium can mature to a point where the technologies of simulation reach some kind of threshold, as they did in film. This is not to say that old films or current video games cannot be "read" and produce a lot of meaning about culture, but that until a certain representational capability is met they cannot have a timeless emotional impact.

Moreover, are there any games that, due to their level of abstraction or style, escape this issue entirely and provide truly timeless and emotionally profound experiences? If so is this tied to a specific moment in gaming history?

Or the last option:

Am I totally nuts?

not totally nuts

That is indeed an interesting talk by Ian. Thanks for pointing us to it.

Quote:
Moreover, are there any games that, due to their level of abstraction or style, escape this issue entirely and provide truly timeless and emotionally profound experiences? If so is this tied to a specific moment in gaming history?

I know this isn't the main topic of your post, but I wanted to respond to this since it's something I've been thinking about lately. I think most people might agree that the 2nd console generation (Atari VCS et al) might fit this definition, especially since it seems to be a focal point for retrogaming enthusiasm. But when I start trying to state why that's the case, I have a hard time.

On the one hand, sure, games like Qix or Breakout are on the surface pretty abstract, and it kind of makes sense that the iconic representation of characters, the bright colors and sharp contrast, and (to plug my own research interest) the geometric typography have a lasting aesthetic appeal. But on the other hand, it's not entirely clear that that's a fair characterization of these games. That is, if you look at the arcade flyers, instuctrion manuals, ads in comics, etc., it seems to be the case that many of the games we would now call "abstract" were trying to be representative. Breakout, for example, has something to do with an astronaut. The fact that these games fail to attain anything like photorealism might be less an aesthetic choice and more an aesthetic limitation.

So if our idea of these games as abstract and iconic is a reflective construction, at what point are we able to perform this retroactivity?

All that is just a complicated way of asking, "how old does something have to be for us to experience nostalgia for it?"

It seems logical in a sort of common sense way to say that games, and probably any other artifact of culture, follows a kind of "hipness" curve where the new stuff is hip, the really old stuff is hip, and everything in between is basically not hip. So as you move backward in time, games gradually lose their hipness until sometime pre-playstation they start regaining hipness until the late 70s are right back up there on the hipness scale.

Anyway, I do have an argument for why the late 70s and early 80s are so important for studying games today, but it's too big for this comment.

Maybe it doesn't need an argument; maybe we just need to keep on "living as people."

Re: not totally nuts

Zach Whalen wrote:
All that is just a complicated way of asking, "how old does something have to be for us to experience nostalgia for it?"

That's the great question, isn't it? Most people think that games become obsolete with time, but others insist that "retro" games have enduring value. It's also true that many of the most self-consciously literary or artistic games (I'm thinking here of Roberta Williams' such efforts) are usually pretty ghastly compared to the more popular games.

I do remember playing a game based on the Three Musketeers on my Commodore Amiga way back in the early 1990s. Here's a link to some info about it. As a youth, this game really made a huge impression on me, and I went out and read all the novels after playing this thoroughly immersive game. Would I play it today? Perhaps.

"So if our idea of these

"So if our idea of these games as abstract and iconic is a reflective construction"

That comment has me really thinking. I need some time to find where I stand. Doesn't Mark Wolf argue the opposite in this piece in the Video Game Theory Reader?

There is definitely an incredible amount of work that could be done studying the cartridge era of gaming and I predict we will see some really fruitful work in that area in the near future, especially with your dissertation work Zach and Bogost and Montfort's platform studies book on the Atari.

Tanner
http://tannerhiggin.the-means.com

Hipness curve

Quote:
It seems logical in a sort of common sense way to say that games, and probably any other artifact of culture, follows a kind of "hipness" curve where the new stuff is hip, the really old stuff is hip, and everything in between is basically not hip. So as you move backward in time, games gradually lose their hipness until sometime pre-playstation they start regaining hipness until the late 70s are right back up there on the hipness scale.

Totally agree. Case in point: I have a Game Cube and an original NES in my living room. Whenever people come over, they ignore the Game Cube and almost always say something like, "Wow! A Nintendo! Rad!" And then we play Duck Hunt.