[Humanist] 22.412 video games

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Dec 29 07:28:10 CET 2008

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 412.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 29 Dec 2008 01:23:21 +0000
        From: "Blaxill, Luke" <luke.3.blaxill at kcl.ac.uk>
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 22.410 video games and longings
        In-Reply-To: <20081228094157.96C1E2AEB2 at woodward.joyent.us>

As someone with a long-running interest in major shifts in developments in the video-gaming world, I'd take issue with a number of Lancaster's arguments. To start with, although many video games are driven by specific goals which are attained by performing repetitive tasks, I think the industry as a whole is moving increasingly away from this old-fashioned paradigm, and towards the increasing ability to customise, create, and explore the gaming worlds and the characters in them for reasons other than gain in terms of points or progressing in the game. These arguments would have been a lot more applicable five or ten years ago.

Even the most objectionable  games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto can include the facility to design levels, and the simple desire to explore scenic portions of enormous playing areas. Furthermore, there has been a huge movement in recent years towards Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games like Second Life. In these games, one creates an avatar and interacts with other gamers in any way one chooses- you play competitively if you wish, to gain money to purchase upgrades for your character and the like, or you can choose simply to meet other players in the world and role-play with them. You can watch the sunset, go hunting together, or cook a meal together, or whatever. Such an entirely non-linear world, where the other players are real, can- like life – be played in a never-ending variety of ways, but with the ability to things that in the real would be impossible, unaffordable, and impractical. These games have an extremely loosely designed structure, It isn’t repetitive or structured, and the rewards are not prescribed. The potential for exploring whatever you want in a virtual world is enormous. 

I also feel that Lancaster’s base of examples consist of a relatively small number of popular games in Britain and America, which even when taken together, do not make up a majority of the market. If one looks outside the famous and popular games with the higher elements of violence, one can find a huge number of obviously extremely artistic titles. In Japan (where, we must remember, the video games market is collosal, and comprises a huge percentage of what it is globally) games are very often showcases for the work of artists and musicians who design characters, worlds, and soundtracks. One of the great interests at the release of Chrono Cross some years ago was its beautiful soundtrack, which was released alongside the game. With recent titles such as Shining Wind on the Playstation 2, advertisements lead with the name of the artist(s) responsible for the design of the characters, and artbooks containing their illustrations are released at the same time. I wouldn’t say such games are in a majority, even in Japan, but only a small number of games from the genre of first-person shooters are ridiculously and excessively violent. Platformers, Role Playing Games, Puzzle Games, Strategy Games, and Simulation games (to name but a few other genres) are very seldom violent and gory.

I also would not underestimate the extent to which games can be played artistically. The objective is not necessarily always to ‘best’ the game, but to do so beautifully, in an elegant or aesthetically pleasing manner- like playing a beautiful point in a game of tennis, or drawing an expressive free-flowing sketch. In one-on-one beat ‘em ups (where you play as a character and have to defeat one their opponent like a boxing match) like the famous Streetfighter, players gain prestige amongst friends for performing a beautiful and visually pleading chain of ‘moves’ to defeat an opponent quickly, elegantly, and without suffering any damage in return- perhaps with a particularly skilful or spectacular climax at the crescendo of the background music. It’s almost like a perfectly choreographed dance routine.

A look at youtube will also demonstrate the extent to which players will find all manner of ways to adapt, change, and personalise games playing experiences- adding their own music, characters, or playing the game in their own way. Many fans even now seek to create their own games either from scratch, or using flexible designing packages like RPGMaker or Games Factory. Recent developments in the games industry permitting high levels of customisation, and the ability that players now have to customise graphics and music on home PCs and share the fruits of their labours with others on the internet, ensure that the potential for video games to be artistic is greater than ever before. The player has increasingly been given the sketchpad and the potential artist is no longer necessarily just the game producing company. 

Luke Blaxill,
Room 1,
Shepherd's Bush Office
Division of History and Digital Humanities,
School of Humanities,
King's College London
2nd Floor
232A Uxbridge Road Building
Tel: (+44) 0207 746 9386 (office) (+44) 07903 404 268 (Mobile)
luke.blaxill at kcl.ac.uk
From: humanist-bounces at lists.digitalhumanities.org [humanist-bounces at lists.digitalhumanities.org] On Behalf Of Humanist Discussion Group [willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk]
Sent: 28 December 2008 09:41
To: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

                 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.

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