The vision thing
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On the meaning of video games

"Pictures are for entertainment. If you want to send a message, call Western Union."
--Samuel Goldwyn

Scholar2 I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what video games mean. I'm interested in the ways they communicate ideas and stimulate our thoughts and emotions via narrative and gameplay. The value of this analytical process is self-evident to me, but not everyone sees it that way. In fact, some people consider interpreting video games a self-indulgent waste of time.

I recently wrote an appreciation of Aquaria, an indie game I admire for its soulful "vibe," for lack of a better word. Someone on the developer's discussion forum posted a link to my essay, and several people commented, including one of the game designers:

[designer] Every time I read someone's interpretation of the game, I feel like barfing.  Gotta learn to resist the urge to read articles about the game. Its like I feel like I'm X and someone is like "No, you're really Y".

[forum member] The way people tend to analyze and read-into creative work has always irked me to a certain degree.

[designer] In this case, it seems like a really positive article for the most part, but it labels things and organizes things in the game. For me it feels like the game is this big sprawling living creature that I'll never really understand, and when people write articles on it, it kind of feels more like a corpse that's being dissected.[1]

My friend JC over at the superb Japanmanship blog has written a very funny and uncomfortably accurate satire on overwrought academic interpretations of video games:

Super Mario Bros. vs. Marx
The communistic overtones of the adventures of Mario, a working-class plumber, being exploited by the bourgeoisie, a bone-idle princess, who is under constant attack from the lumpenproletariat, need little explanation. The fact Nintendo visualized the metaphorical specter haunting Europe in the shape of a Boo is merely the icing on the decadent cake.[2]

Some of JC's readers took the ball and ran with it:

[commenter 1] I always hated interpretations. I gag when I see people trying to see a meaning in something and even believe the author has put their interpretation in there deliberately. Should it fit into the theme of the work, OK, but when they begin to use references to classic literature like in this case, they should just go back to their poem interpretations.

[commenter 2] Yes, video games are the pornography for much academic masturbation these days. I take it as a sidelong compliment and forget about it.

Believe it or not, I often share these sentiments. Early in my career I delivered my share of mind-numbingly arcane conference papers, none of which did much to advance knowledge or educate students. They advanced me to tenure, and that's how the game is played. But I'm out of that game now, and this blog is an effort to find another way. 

I realize the whole "what does this novel/painting/game mean?" approach can be tiresome and fraught with silliness at times, but one could say the same for all forms of criticism in all media. The fact that there is too much esoteric or theory-mangled criticism out there does not mean criticism or analysis have no place in our consideration of video games.

I believe "reading into" games--trying to understand them in a way that has meaning to us--is an inevitable and positive pursuit. I work and teach in the theater for my "real job" and I find that people see all kinds of things that I may or may not have intended in my plays. When something stimulates us emotionally or intellectually (as some games do for me) we're bound to respond through whatever lenses we see the world, and that inevitably affects what we think a game means or says, if anything.

When you, the writer, composer, designer, or whatever, put it out there, it's basically out of your hands, and that's a good thing. The worst response, I think, is "well that was nice." Better to provoke something meaningful, even if it has no relationship to what you were thinking as the creator. We make meaning from our experiences. That's what humans do, and we each do it in our own way. This, too, is a good thing.

Scholars like James Paul Gee (whom I greatly respect) have written about the "meaning" of Tetris. That takes things farther than I can make sense of. It all sounds like mental gymnastics to me - interesting to think about, but ultimately too much of a stretch and perhaps a bit self-indulgent. Tetris is a game about sliding blocks, and that's pretty much it.

But is it possible to scrutinize the paradox of Kojima's pacifism expressed in gloriously violent games? I think it is, and to me it's a worthy endeavor because those games have a rhetorical and political dimension. They can also be damn fun to play, but that doesn't negate their other qualities. In fact, it only enhances them.

JC wisely cautions that we must be careful not to limit our analysis of games to a single framework, such as cinematic comparisons:

I'm just a little weary of the constant film-videogame linking that goes on everywhere, in the media, even within the industry itself. It's obvious where it stems from, film possibly being the closest medium to compare this exciting new technology to, but the connection is flawed in so many ways.

That isn't to say it's not fun, but it is spurious. Hopefully once the industry and medium grow up and have been around longer it can be fully self-referential like other media. But comparing Kojima to Fincher is doing both men and both media a disservice and actually limits the potential scope of your examination of videogames.[3]

Fair enough. To do this well, we need to develop a language sufficient for analyzing video games on their own terms, not merely borrow terminology from other media or disciplines. This discourse is emerging in the specialized field of game studies, but I believe other disciplines like my own can make valuable contributions.

I hope when the stigma attached to seriously studying video games diminishes--and believe me, that stigma is very strong in my profession--we will see scholars and enthusiasts from various disciplines bringing their experiences to bear on this rich medium. The trick, in my view, will be avoiding the theory-school quagmires and niche-focus turf wars we academics seem bent on creating. I'm pinning my hopes on blogs like Japanmanship (Edge Magazine's January blog of the month!) to help keep us honest.

Now back to my post-colonial Marxist deconstruction of PaRappa the Rapper.

image courtesy of amartinsdebarros at deviantart