Friday, October 10, 2008

The Limits of Escapism

There was an article up on last week, in which Michael Pachter gives a pretty upbeat assessment of the financial crisis' effect on the gaming industry: “I don't think that the market meltdown will impact game delivery for a couple of years, if ever.” This is good news, I suppose. When the liquidity crunch combines with peak oil to hurtle the global economic system back to subsistence agriculture, I plan to be hitting Devil May Cry 6: Fran├žois' Tumescence pretty hard. (I aim to run a lucrative sideline in black market AK-47s and fermented-millet moonshine to finance these luxuries.) According to the folks over on the 1up Yours podcast, the gaming industry is “recession-proof:” just as the film industry thrived during the great depression, the gaming industry will thrive during the coming world-spanning economic clusterfuck, because it provides a relatively cheap commodity whose value rises in direct proportion to the sum total of human misery: escapism.

Michael Abbott has been running an interesting three-article series this week about cultural attitudes towards play. One of the running themes of his articles is that American attitudes towards unproductive activities are the product of what the great Sociologist Max Weber would have called the “Spirit of Capitalism.” While the idea of asceticism-- disciplined abstention from pleasure-- arose from religion, Weber thinks its lives on in the capitalistic ethos of ascetic productivity: “Victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs [religion's] support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one's calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.” I agree with Abbott's argument that these negative judgments of unproductive leisure should pass away when ethical and religious values that sustained them have died. We don't believe office drudgery is going to save your soul, and who should be willing to sacrifice one of the chief goods of a Godless cosmos-- pleasure-- for the sake of that mouldering corpse-god, late-stage Capitalism?

Despite all of this, I still feel uncomfortable justifying entertainment in the name of escapism, or mere pleasure. I don't know which classical image best captures my reservations: it's either fiddling while Rome burns, or the Caesar doling out bread and circuses. Along with the wholesome and by any measure necessary idea of refuge comes the less savory idea of hiding, immersing oneself in a dream-world in order to deny the reality of the world going on around us.

Junot Diaz touched on this feeling when in his review of Grand Theft Auto IV: “For me, GTA IV is more an example of our evasions as a culture, more of a fairy tale, more of a story of consolation than a shattering cultural critique or even, dare I say it, great art. GTA IV is a game that allows you to forget how screwed-up and complicated things are in the real world; it could have done more, it could have put that screwed-up complicated world front and center.” Though Diaz is wrong about GTAIV (it's a a funhouse-mirror snapshot of American consumerism being consumed by its own excess-- it presents a world that is vulgar, exuberant, and bleak by turns), I think he is right about the sort of demands we ought to make on art.

The reason games lack the cultural capital of books, movies, and even TV is that they only rarely attempt to be anything other than than entertainment. Last year, N'Gai Croal wrote a wonderfully sharp critique of Roger Ebert's debate with Clive Barker over the status of games-as-art. And though Croal does a fine job of exposing the ignorance and contradictory presuppositions that fuel Ebert's derision of games, he chooses to duck one of Ebert's more probing questions: “the real question is, do we as their consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?” Croal's response was to play the Pauline Kael role, and question whether art should be edifying at all. Skewering the art-as-broccoli crowd puts Croal in good company (J.G. Ballard called the moralizing bourgeois novel “the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented”), but I think this response ducks the real force Ebert's question.

Why? Because though Ebert is wrong about the expressive capacities of games, I think he's right about why we value great works in other media. The Wire is endlessly entertaining, to be sure. It has indelible characters and pitch-perfect dialogue, tight pacing and an engrossing narrative. But the reason I care about that show is because The Wire is also a great work of moral imagination. It brings a multi-dimensional, morally complex world to life in order to challenge, provoke, and confound the audience. We could say the same about Battlestar Galactica or The Godfather or Middlemarch, and that is why we value them.

In the abovementioned review, Diaz writes that “Successful art tears away the veil and allows you to see the world with lapidary clarity; successful art pulls you apart and puts you back together again, often against your will, and in the process reminds you in a visceral way of your limitations, your vulnerabilities, makes you in effect more human.” Entertainment is wonderful-- don't get me wrong here, I love whaling on demon hounds and lining up sparkly blocks as much, if not more than, the next guy. But I honestly believe that games will never have the same stature in modern cultural life as other media until they can do what successful art does. It's not just a matter of getting over the last dregs of the Protestant ethos.

Steve Gaynor argued that there is something redeeming, even cathartic in the way that games transport the player into a world in which she is the unique locus of power and significance. A designer, he says, can “give our audience the kind of agency and autonomy they might not have in their daily lives.” And this is surely the right kind of answer to give when it comes to justifying the kind of escapist transport that is gaming's stock and trade.

Call of Duty is no standard-bearer for the games-as-art movement, to be sure, but it does have these daring moments where it shows the player a world as seen through the eyes of a helpless human, facing down immanent and irrevocable death. This is the challenge, it seems to me. It's to do with the tools of design-- rules and states-- what other media do with images and sound. reveal the world as seen through different eyes, with lapidary clarity and moral courage. And this means moving beyond merely empowering and entertaining the player.


Christopher Hyde said...

Interesting. Since you start with a discussion of the marketplace, I think what I might mention is that I believe that given the realities of the expense involved in creating big budget titles that it's fairly unlikely that huge games tackling big themes or aiming as high for artistic aspiration as you do in your last paragraph are going to come pouring out of the big developers. The necessity of returning a profit in this marketplace is sure to pare down the interest of developers like EA et al in exploring moral choice or deeper emotional impact in games. This is, of course, not at all unlike what happens in movie or television production--a quick glance at Hollywood's latest offerings is instructive in demonstrating that Roger Ebert's chosen art is rife with gutbucket pandering tripe designed to be gobbled up and spit back out. Even your choice of The Wire is telling, given that this was a show that hung on by a thread for five years even given critical acclaim and was roundly ignored by the awards governing the idiot box's best although it was of stunningly high quality.

I think that for the most part that what we'll see is the continued evolution of themes and artistic evolution being more prevalent on the smaller scale, independent end of things than on the blockbuster level. It's just too chancy a proposition for people risking millions to stray too far from the successful formula--sure, you'll get your occasional subversive developer who will manage to sneak in some intellectual content or your well established Will Wrights and Gabe Newells whose proven track records allow them at least a bit of a free hand. But I really feel like the true game-as-meaningful-art moment is much more likely to come out of some small independent individually expressive developer than it is to come smack out of the corporate monolith. (Aside: I too am not at all averse to the games-as-mostly-entertainment side either--though I mention EA above, truth be told I think this company has the slate of games that I'm most interested in at present, so I'm not really slagging them for acquiescing to the realities of the marketplace).

It's funny because just after I read your piece I read L.B. Jeffries' nice review of James Remar's excellent Iji ( which I think helps demonstrate the point. Here's a tiny, one-man developed free game that allows itself to challenge the player and put him/her in a position where the way they choose to play (as pacifist or fighter, as Jeffries describes it) determines the path and impacts how the characters in the game see you as well as how it all plays out. When I played Iji, I began in typical shooter style--just blasting everything that moves. But as I went along and the opponents I was mowing down began describing me in their logs as a vicious killer, I really found myself questioning the way that I was playing and I started much more avoiding the conflict wherever possible. I felt bad, somehow, when these 2d aliens who had taken over the world thought I was some sort of psycho. There really are few games in the marketplace that bother to make the player look at the shooting up they're doing in this manner, and that make you confront the player that you are and to deal with the responsibility of the choices you make. It's telling to me that this sort of thing crops up in a relatively simple style of game developed by a single person over the span of four years and not so much in next gen games assembled by huge teams with gigantic budgets and bombastic marketing campaigns. I think there's more of that to come--and while I'll surely continue to play both ends against the middle, I believe that it's at the lower end where I think we're going to see the breakthrough that you're hoping for.

L.B. Jeffries said...

@ christopher

Glad you dug the review, I downloaded that game after seeing people rave about it and was blown away with how Remar took a bunch of game designs we all know by heart and used them in really interesting ways. It still stuns me how many games exist that involve violence and yet never really discuss the actual results of such conduct. The game is free to play and everyone who can should give it a spin.

@ the article

Interesting read, it reminded me of the dangers of nostalgia and relying too heavily on our views as kids as opposed to looking at things with a darker critical lense. I find the plight of games to be something that Ebert struggled to express but did not have enough experience to explain: a product designed for adults may stand alone on its capacity to induce insight or thinking, a product designed for youth must focus on being quite appealing and slipping in the critical moments whenever possible. It is a matter of priorities, and like Hyde points out the moments I see it shifting are in the indie scene. You cannot play and complete a game like 'Immortal Defense' and tell me that its writer intended anything except to completely frag my world view.

It's funny you mention 'Middlemarch'. I dedicated 2 months of my life to that damn book reading and researching it for a course in college. Page after ungodly boring page of Dorothea rambling about dumbass art, her epiphany that marrying an old man was dumb, and any number of things that now seem obvious and trite. Yet her final spiritual redemption and dedication are so amazing. I told a friend after finishing it, "That was one of the most boring and tedious books I've ever made myself read and yet it was one of the best and most profound messages about life. I'm really glad I made myself read it." I don't think even video games, like Planescape: Torment, can escape the tedium of their own artistic burden for the audience. Perhaps a game that does not have to concern itself with being light and fun, such as the indie scene, is the only place it can happen.