I got your smart games right here.
April 25, 2012
There's no nice way to say this, but it needs to be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb… In games, any predicament or line of dialogue that would make the average ADHD-afflicted high-school sophomore scratch his head gets expunged and then, ideally, replaced with a cinematic clip of something large exploding. --Atlantic Magazine profile of Jonathan Blow, May '12
It’s hard not to see Taylor Clark’s recent Atlantic essay as a sharp slap in the face to all of us who don’t believe all video games are “juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy” and aren’t peering at the horizon awaiting the “Citizen Kane of video games."
Clark, presumably channeling his subject’s well-known contempt for mindless derivative design, berates the entire medium, industry, and community of gamers with a cruel flick of his pen. Predictably, the Twitterverse and discussion forums erupted in outrage, with angry gamers accusing Clark of ignorance, elitism, condescension…and worse. Clark's critique has validity, but his sweeping generalizations and dismissive rhetoric undermine his assertions and obscure an otherwise fascinating portrait of an important designer.
So, how best to respond to such an inflammatory essay? I have one idea that I’ll pitch in a moment. But first a few thoughts about Clark's assertions.
Mainstream media is always “dumb.” It’s easy to point at a critical darling like Mad Men and say “See how smart TV can be?” Do you know how many people in the U.S. actually watch Mad Men? 2.5 million. That’s a decent number for cable, but a meager 2.5 million viewers would get Mad Men canceled if it ran on a major network.
Twice as many people watch reruns of Jersey Shore than watch first-run episodes of Mad Men. Three times as many watch Judge Judy. As I write this, the #1 movie in America is Think Like a Man, and the #1 book is “Guilty Wives.” We consume lots of pablum. We always have. Why should video games be any different? Clark's contention that games are even dumber than dumb movies makes no sense to me. Dumb is dumb.
Clark is looking at the wrong games. I hope Mr. Clark will attend IndieCade or Games for Change this year. I hope he will chat with other designers besides Jonathan Blow about their design philosophies, priorities, and aesthetic sensibilities. Don’t bother with the Sid Meiers or Will Wrights. We’ve heard their ideas. Try a young, emerging designer like Chris Bell. Listen to him describe the game he’s working on (a game called WAY, which I’ve played), and tell me what’s dumb about his project.
So many questions. Why no mention of Minecraft, Portal, SpaceChem, Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery, Bastion, or any strategy game? Why so fixated on narrative? Why no consideration for player-driven or emergent experiences? If “the form remains an artistic backwater,” exactly what form are we talking about? Discussing video games as a monolithic medium oversimplifies the wide (and still growing) variety of genres, play styles, mechanics, and interactive formats video games have adopted.
Maybe Clark is exhausted. I have a feeling this is the real story, and I'm sympathetic. I’ve been there. Maybe you have too. We’ve played games from their infancy, and we thought they would matter more by now. We thought we would be long past the “art” question by now. We thought we would see more games for grown-ups by now. I watch the E3 press conferences, I walk into my local GameStop, I hear my students talk about games, and all I see are guns, guns, and more guns. It’s so easy to be disappointed. Clark quotes Chris Hecker’s lament, “It’s just adolescent nonsense.” Often I think he’s right.
But then Clark delivers another zinger, and I hear a gauntlet hit the ground:
It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated.
Really? Clark further contends that “gaming’s intellectual champions could point to only two popular titles” - Flower and Braid - to counter Roger Ebert’s notorious claim that games are unworthy of aesthetic consideration.
Let's Build Something
I think we can do better than that. We can respond constructively. I propose that we collectively build an informal "Smart Game Catalog.” Nothing official. No effort to be comprehensive. Simply an invitation to pitch a game you consider “artistic or intellectually sophisticated” and explain why you think so. If you disagree with Clark's bleak assessment, counter with a helpful response.
Vilifying Clark or defensively rejecting his characterization of games serves no useful purpose. There is more than a kernel of truth in his view of games as "juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy." Too many games are "plagued by cartoonish murderfests and endless revenue-friendly sequels." Clark's generalizations may undermine his argument, but as I wrote about Jon Blow in my previous post, an artist must love a thing before he can hate it enough to want to save it. Clark strikes me as a critic motivated to do just that.
Pooling our collective expertise and building an informal catalog of smart games may encourage Clark and others to consider games in a more nuanced way than his Atlantic article models. If nothing else, such a catalog will make a handy resource for players seeking smart games, broadly defined, to play.
Here’s a simple format for the catalog:
- Name of game
- Developer and Release Year
- Platform (PC, Sega Genesis, PS3, Multi, etc.)
- A paragraph or two (keep it concise) explaining precisely why you consider the game “artistic or intellectually sophisticated.” Apply rigorous criteria. You have one game to recommend. Choose the best one you know.
If you agree or disagree with someone’s choice of a particular game, say so in the comments here. I’m not interested in flamewars, so be civil and respectful. I’ll moderate your entries to avoid spam, so please be patient if the game you choose doesn’t appear on the list immediately.
Let’s see if we can prove - with specific titles as our evidence - that games can be more than “brain-dead digital toys.”
NOTE: After 365 submissions, I'm no longer accepting entries to the catalog. Thanks for your help!!
View the catalog in spreadsheet mode (Choose View | List to sort and filter)