There’s something I don’t quite understand: if interactivity is the “intrinsic element [games] add to culture,” then why do we keep looking at the narrative elements of games to provide “validation”? Why can’t the interaction itself be the message? Do we expect a musical piece to contain a narrative for it to have meaning? Likewise does a painting require a story for it to provoke a reaction? Most puzzlingly, why does the game community itself continue to demonstrate a distinct lack of confidence that we have already reached the level of “art,” and have done so for quite some time now?
I want to make clear before I begin that I consider narrative to be crucial part of producing meaningful gameplay; it serves the essential function of providing a subjective structure upon which the player can project himself. Indeed, if you wanted to pigeonhole me into a label, you could call me a “narratologist” for all the importance I place on the symbolic relationship between the player and a game. It is narrative (be it “procedural” or pre-authored), after all, which gives most players a crystallized means of understanding their interactive experience beyond the pure moment of it.
But it’s time we stop discrediting interactivity as a value in and of itself, stop taking interactivity in games for granted as a non-critical process. What I want to argue in this post is that we’re focused so much on the most obvious or easily discussable aspect of games—the narratives—when we are trying to judge their cultural worth that we lose sight of the actual experience of a game and the kinds of high level thinking and emotional understanding these experiences generate.
As noted in the articled linked above, Mr. Hecker argued that Left 4 Dead is a “vacuous” game, but this is a position which I strenuously protest. Yes, it may be vacuous from a narrative standpoint (and even this is only true if you look at the narrative in a traditional sense—for instance, consider the narrative that is formed through projection when understanding the composition of a painting), but it is far from vacuous from the experiential standpoint. Left 4 Dead is a persistent struggle in evaluating whether going after a teammate is worth the cost to the team—and the very fact that this decision making occurs at all, even when strategic considerations clearly preclude that a choice even exists, places the experience squarely within moral dilemma territory. Certainly, you can come to a point where you have distanced yourself enough to make most decisions in a purely strategic fashion, but not even the hardest veteran player is completely immune from emotional involvement. And indeed, developing such a degree of emotional control itself is something which few works of art can engender.
Much of the purpose of my last several posts has been to demonstrate that the experience of playing a game is quite often actually the experience of coming to understand oneself. Gameplay is a series of events in which a player invests in a position and then has that investment brought into question. It is the contestation of emotional and intellectual attachment—the fluidity of both of which is often required for efficacy. This process of “striving” (in the words of Goethe in Faust), this act of submitting oneself to Socratic examination, is the central value of interactivity. And the fact of the matter is that a game such as Left 4 Dead is only “vacuous” if you remove it from its interactive context and disregard the experience of it. But even Duchamp’s Fountain is a “vacuous” piece if you take it out of its context.
It’s rather ironic that Mr. Hecker paraphrased Nietzsche by saying, "the way your language works makes you think in certain ways, and you have to try really hard to think another way,” but then went on to commit exactly that error in discussing how games can be rendered culturally acceptable to society by dismissing Left 4 Dead as “vacuous”. It seems to me that we cling so much to the narrative aspects of gameplay when we discuss games as art because they are the most readily presentable aspects to the rest of society—because this is the language best understood by non-gamers.
Do we really not “know how to say things through interactivity,” or are we simply not conscious of the message when it is being said because we are attempting to understand it through the language of previous art forms? Even films took time before the audience came to understand the language of cinema. And, for instance, Dragon Age’s intentionally produced confrontation with the shadow is quite clearly an example of an “authorial voice [working] through a system,” if ever there was one—despite the fact that the efficacy of that voice in Dragon Age (a BioWare game, no less) had far more to do with its ludic arrangements than with its narrative or setting.
At any rate, trying to make games “knowable” to (or acknowledgeable by) "society" is a largely self-defeating and ultimately futile exercise. I am not saying that we need to stand in defiance of social acceptance, nor am I stating that all games have value—I am merely trying to indicate that artificially attempting to create "value" is unnecessary and even counter-productive. Jason Rohrer at GDC brought up the specter of Roger Ebert, stating, “Ebert said video games can’t be art. He issued all of us a direct challenge. And we need to find an answer.” But all we are doing if we take this as a challenge instead of an uninformed opinion is reducing games to what Mr. Ebert thinks games should be. There is no need to take on the role of an insecure younger sibling to other art forms, struggling for their approval in vain. We don’t have to prove ourselves, and we already have the answer. And that answer is the inherent meaningfulness of invested interactivity. The only thing left is to acknowledge this ourselves—to take ourselves and gameplay seriously.