When pressed to justify our leisure we run the risk of disavowing pleasure. Because games are almost universally associated with puerile amusement, because they are seen as frivolous where they are not seen as corrupting, the ludologists and the games-as-art crowd are quick to run to the defense of games with the standards of respectable art in hand. Surely a good many games are about nothing more than engineering some empowering bit of badassery, we say, but their potential lies in their expressive capacity for making us reflect on agency, identity, and control. Look past the genre exercises-- your headhopping cartoons and your space-marine operas-- and you will find a medium groping towards works of moral imagination. Games aren't just trashy fun, or at least they won't be forever.
As Andrew Doull argues in a provocative recent article on GameSetWatch, our rush to defend games in these terms betrays a certain “fear of fun.” As a card-carrying member of the games-is-art crowd I am doubtless as guilty of this as anyone. I want games to aspire to the narrative complexity and technical self-consciousness I associate with high art, art for adults. When driven to defend gaming I will cite the pleasures of discovering and mastering the rules of a game-world, an activity which shares a great deal with the sort of learning we do in other contexts. And I believe that games can use the tools of their medium-- control, interaction, and narrative-- in order to interrogate these very pleasures. Games like Bioshock and Shadow of the Colossus have suggested, each in a different way, that our desire to master the world and turn it to our uses is shadowed-- as The Dialectic of Enlightenment warned us-- by a covert desire to conform and yield to the rules imposed on us by others. We're not in Citizen Kane territory yet, to be sure, but clearly these games are waypoints on the medium's journey towards maturity.
Doull's piece reminded me of the essay Trash, Art, and the Movies, written by legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. What Kael says can be read as a counterpoint to the aspirations I mention above, so I am going to use this post to present her view. She has some interesting points to make about justifying pleasure, and though they are meant to describe the state of film in 1969 they are just as applicable to gaming in the present day. Her response to the demand for justification is to question our very desire to justify ourselves: “Does trash corrupt? A nutty Puritanism still flourishes in the arts, not just in the schoolteachers’ approach of wanting art to be 'worthwhile,' but in the higher reaches of the academic life with those ideologues who denounce us for enjoying trash as if this enjoyment took us away from the really disturbing, angry new art of our time and somehow destroyed us. If we had to justify our trivial silly pleasures, we’d have a hard time.”
In short, Kael counsels that we are best off to overcome our misguided scruples-- divest ourselves of the idea that there is something ignoble about the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure she memorably remarked, is “something a man can call good without self-disgust.” Even a cheap and mindless genre exercise can be redeemed (as trashy movies are) by the presence of some glimmer of real vitality: “The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line.” The plot of Ninja Gaiden is insipid, the character design tawdry, and the level design pedestrian. But the combat-- the combat is genius. It shouldn't matter that virtually everything else in the game is trash.
The upshot of her view, then, is that the price of acquitting ourselves of the charge of infantilism is the disavowal of what is vital and compelling about the games themselves. What Kael says of film one can also say of gaming: “Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in movies, it is not to be found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so. It’s the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings.” If Kael is right, we do violence to the excellences of games when, in search of respectability, we try to turn Resident Evil 4 into Middlemarch. We are better off celebrating the subversive gesture-- the vengeful and methodical beheading of the undead-- with unabashed relish. As Kael wrote, “we shouldn’t convert what we enjoy it for into false terms derived from our study of the other arts. That’s being false to what we enjoy.” The challenge of games criticism is one of becoming articulate about what we enjoy. Fun is what we have always enjoyed in games; but saying interesting things about having fun cannot mean leaving it behind.
But I do wish that games tried to be the “really disturbing, angry new art of our time.” As Louis Menand notes in an excellent review of Kael's work, she forged her critical consciousness in reacting to the cineastes and the directors (Bergman, Kubrick) who were contemptuous of the audience's desire to be entertained. In games we face the opposite problem: game creators are too complacent about their ability to entertain us. They know what we like and they know there is money to be made by giving us more of it. And while I don't think there is anything unethical in this, this attitude reeks of cynicism and laziness. I'm not worried about games falling into the hands of pedants, I'm worried it falling into the hands of people who would be willing to exchange creative stagnation for profit. The more this happens the less fun we'll have on our hands.