[Humanist] 22.410 video games and longings

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Dec 28 10:41:57 CET 2008

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 410.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 28 Dec 2008 09:38:49 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: video games

Some here will very much appreciate John Lanchester's article on video 
games, "Is it Art?", in the London Review of Books 31.1 (1 January 
2009), pp. 18-20, fortunately also available online at 
www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n01/lanc01_.html. I quote a small bit of it as a 
taster (here I take "USP" to stand for "Unique Selling Point"):

> Most games, as Poole argues, are work-like. They have a tightly
> designed structure in which the player has to earn points to win
> specific rewards, on the way to completing levels which earn him the
> right to play on other levels, earn more points to win other rewards,
> and so on, all of it repetitive, quantified and structured. The
> trouble with these games – the majority of them – isn’t that they are
> maladapted to the real world, it’s that they’re all too well adapted.
> The people who play them move from an education, much of it spent in
> front of a computer screen, full of competitive, repetitive,
> quantifiable, measured progress towards goals determined by others,
> to a work life, much of it spent in front of a computer screen, full
> of competitive, repetitive, quantifiable, measured progress towards
> goals determined by others, and for recreation sit in front of a
> computer screen and play games full of competitive, repetitive,
> quantifiable, measured progress towards goals determined by others.
> Most video games aren’t nearly irresponsible enough.
> This sense of agency is the cultural and aesthetic USP of video
> games. The medium doesn’t have, and probably never will have, a sense
> of character to match other forms of narrative; however much it
> develops, it can’t match the inwardness of the novel or the sweep of
> film. But it does have two great strengths. The first is visual: the
> best games are already beautiful, and I can see no reason why the
> look of video games won’t match or surpass that of cinema. The second
> is to do with this sense of agency, that the game offers a world in
> which the player is free to act and to choose. It is this which gives
> the best games their immense involvingness. You are in the game in a
> way that is curiously similar to the way you are in a novel you are
> reading – a way that is subtly unlike the sense of absorption in a
> spectacle which overtakes the viewer in cinema. The interiority of
> the novel isn’t there, but the sense of having passed into an
> imagined world is.
> And what do [the majority of game-players] want? The same thing the
> audience for any new medium always wants: they want pornography,
> broadly defined. They want to see things they aren’t supposed to see.
> This is why video games, in general (and away from the world of
> Miyamoto-san) are so preoccupied with violence – it’s what young men
> want to see. (Pornography in the sexual sense is less of an issue:
> they can get that from the internet, any time they want.) Their
> rule-bound, target-bound educations and work lives leave them with a
> deep craving to go and commit imaginary crimes – as well they might.
> Not all games are cynically, affectlessly violent, but a lot of them
> are, and this trend is holding video games back. It’s keeping them at
> the level of Hollywood blockbusters, when they could go on to be
> something else and something more.
Lanchester's observation about the "rule-bound, target-bound educations 
and work lives" applies of course to our students, who are trapped in 
the first and in sight of the second. While it would be irresponsible of 
us not in some sense to prepare them for their work-lives, it seems to 
me that to do so by aping the world of work, as we are doing now, is to 
throw away the opportunity to supply that imaginative engagement with 
worlds of endless possibility to which gaming appeals. It's not just 
that game-players want distraction, I think Lanchester is saying, they 
want something better, something worthy of the imagination. And we want 
to train them to be better workers?



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

More information about the Humanist mailing list