Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Talking about Trigger Happy

Ever since I wrote that piece about game-labor a few posts back I've wanted to check out more Steven Poole. While I was cruising his website I found that he wrote an actual book about videogames called Trigger Happy, which I swiftly procured from an Amazon seller.

The aims of Poole's book are evangelical. It's out to convince joe six-pint that in the year of our lord two thousand, this whole videogame phenomenon has really arrived. The narrative demands of this missionary effort are the kind of thing that'll vary your mileage. Poole cites the customary battery of statistics about the size and ethnographic makeup of the fin-de-siecle videogame scene, and he notes the collaborations between established cultural enterprises (pop stars! name brand trainers!) and the videogame business so as to confer legitimacy on the nascent artform. If you are already inclined to the view that the video games are a culturally significant and interesting pasttime, you will find the book less-than-revelatory in the early going. But remember that this was 2000: Poole was doing God's work. As Kieron Gillen notes, Trigger Happy “was an serious, accessible book on videogames where no one else had published one.”

And he can certainly evangelize with wit and verve. Poole manages the difficult feat of striking a tone that is both fiercely literate and unpretentious-- even when he is is showing off, it reads as constructive whimsy rather than writerly self-aggrandizement: “Games such as Defender or Space Invaders offer 'extra lives' when a certain score is achieved... It resembles an ethically inverted form of Buddhism... whereas Buddhism's final aim is to jump off the exhausting carousel of constant reincarnation and to be no more, life in a videogame is always a good thing, and killing is the morally praiseworthy action required to resurrect it.” Trigger Happy abounds in learnèd-yet-appropriate asides of this sort (the index contains entries for Theodor Adorno, Martin Heidegger, and “Nietzsche, Friedrich, pummeling the joysticks”), and its greatest charms reside in Poole's capacity to weave old and new media together: “Just as Timaeus argues further that the four numbers (or atoms) that make up the cosmos correspond to the four elements of ancient Greek cosmogony (earth, wind, fire and water), so modern polygons can be made to draw every kind of substance on the videogame screen: rocky outcrops, sure, but also lakes, blazing torches, grass, even snow.” Despite the erudition on display the tenor of the prose is inviting, and the knowledge of other artforms on display throughout Trigger Happy gives birth to may of its best insights.

On his website, Poole says that Trigger Happy is “about the aesthetics of videogames: what they share with other artforms, and the ways in which they are unique;” The “about” is telling. Trigger Happy doesn't make an extended argument about the nature of ludic pleasure (the kind you'd find in Raph Koster or Steven Johnson); it's more an inventory of the various aesthetic elements of the videogame: graphics, perspective, character, narrative, and so on. Poole has a wealth of perspicuous insights about the way that games differ from other media in their handling of these elements, but you won't find a narrative.

Indeed, the reader already-familiar with video games will find the side-streets the most interesting elements of Trigger Happy. There's a great bit on the the conflict between the aims of gameplay and realism; an Piercean-semeiotic riff on Pac-man, and a thought-provoking meditaton on the relationship between Japanese aesthetics and Japanese game design. My favorite parts of the book were these stray aperçus, his astute observations about the subtleties of reward scheduling and the narrative pitfalls of infinite repeatability.

It's churlish to register complaints with a work with so many stylistic felicities and such a wealth of keen observations, but I have to say that Trigger Happy left me wanting in certain respects. Though it engages with a wide variety of popular entertainments and never lacks for witty things to say about them (in this respect it is vastly superior to the stuffier game-studies approach of Persuasive Games, which rarely treats popular games and embarrasses itself when it does), it lacks a certain generality. Trigger Happy isn't animated by a single idea-- Poole is a fox rather than a hedgehog, in Isiah Berlin's terms. The craving after generality may be a particularity of mine, but as I read the book the I felt the continual disappointment of my hunger for a thesis.

This disappointment was made the worse by my sympathy for Poole's fundamental attitude towards the medium. Much of the game-studies lit operates at a substantial remove from the experiences of the game-player, and unintentionally evince a kind of lofty disregard for the very elements that make games compelling to their audience. (Bogost's concept of “procedural rhetoric,” for example, explains why someone would design a game-- to persuade, of course-- but is strangely mute on the seemingly inessential question of why someone would want to play a game so designed.) Poole's book operates on the assumption that popular games are objects worthy of an aesthetics, and though he doesn't give a cohesive picture of the native excellencies of the medium (what it means to be "trigger happy"), he is on the side of the angels as far as I'm concerned.

8 comments:

clean3d said...

So when I saw you'd posted this I felt really compelled to comment. It's not often I've actually read the book some game-theorist is talking about. After typing out my comment, though, I realized it's been forever since I read it and that I didn't remember enough to discuss it intelligently... oh well. :p

For those interested in reading the book, I would recommend checking out the free .pdf downloadable from his site. It's a good way to see specific points and skim through, but if you're going to read the whole thing I still prefer a hard-back copy. :p

Excellent post, Iroquois!

Steve gaynor said...

I bought a copy of this book some months ago but haven't opened it. Those torturedly pretentious quotes sure don't make me eager to do so!

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@clean3d: Ha! it's my fault for reviewing a book that came out 9 years ago. It's a creature of its time but quite good

Thanks for the note about the pdfs! and also for the encouragment.

@steve: crap! I had intended these quotes to portray the book in a positive light. It isn't tortuous-- it's really a pleasurable read, and it has some good insights along the way.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Haven't read it, but it sounds like it's trying to make the case for games to intellectuals on their own turf. That's cool that he pulls it off but the whole goal just strikes me as building sand castles. Any attempts to argue the artistic merits of games in comparison to books, film, or philosophy gets washed back in the wave of cultural history those mediums can point to.

Not that I'm not guilty of this and I love it when people borrow from other resources and incorporate that into their analysis. It's just when they make comments like "Games are like Buddhism", which is problematic, as opposed to statements like "Games borrow some stuff from Buddhism".

The idea is to rope them in with the commonality, not try to compare games to other mediums.

Frank Lantz said...

>> Any attempts to argue the artistic merits of games in comparison to books, film, or philosophy gets washed back in the wave of cultural history those mediums can point to.

Sorry L.B., but I strongly disagree. Games, too, have a cultural history to which we can point. That we normally choose not to is historical myopia.

It also may be simple laziness. If we consider games to be an aesthetic form (the side of the angels) then we're really obliged to think about *all* games like this, not just digital games. And that requires re-thinking some of our established ideas about aesthetics - works, authors, performance, expression, etc. And that's hard work.

Of course we could claim that digital games are sui generis, and belong to the realm of aesthetics while non-digital games don't. But that would require identifying some special property bestowed by electricity or bits, or would require picking through digital games and removing those that are too much like boardgames and sports and not enough like action-adventure or whatever genres make the cut. And that seems like even harder work (and the devil's work, to boot.)

>> ...comments like "Games are like Buddhism" [are] problematic, as opposed to statements like "Games borrow some stuff from Buddhism".

The relationship of games to religion is every bit as complex and fascinating as that of religion to painting, perhaps moreso. Consider, for example, that the game Chutes and Ladders can be traced back to the 13th century Buddhist boardgame Moksha Patanu.

To evoke Adorno yet again, in a sense all aesthetics have their roots in magic thinking and sacred rites and the conflict between these things and rationality. Games have a lot to contribute to this conflict. Poppa needs a new pair of shoes!

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@lbeezjeffries: You see, now I worry again that I've done the book a disservice.

It's not quite that it's trying to make the case that games are as slash more worthy of critical esteem than cinema or whatever. He's not really out to stage that kind of battle and of course he shouldn't.

What I would say tho: think of the person who has some culcha. Maybe they read the New Yorker or whatever-- in general they know a bit about music and cinema and religion and painting. I see Poole's book as a pretty smart attempt to explain videogames are about to that sort of person, leveraging some common resources to explain the video game thing.

He uses the cultural vocab in order to create points of reference, and I think he does it in a way that's readable and witty by and large.

steven said...

Thanks for the kind words (again)! It's true that there isn't really a systematic thesis to TH. What I was mainly trying to do at the time was to construct an argument by example that there even could be such a thing as an aesthetics of videogames.

(The references to other artforms, I think, are as often as not made so as to distinguish videogames from them: particularly in the cases of cinema and "storytelling".)

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@steven: good to see you! Sorry I made your book sound so damned pretentious. It is probably just my own colossal pretensions rubbing off on the source material.

Though I complained about the lack of a grand narrative in Trigger Happy, I hope I made it clear that it's not really a knock on the book itself. You can't blame a work for not embracing the aims you'd want it to have, and as I say I think it succeeds pretty well in what it sets out to archive.

As for the relationship to other media I think you have it right: comparisons aren't ways of conferring legitimacy on the videogame enterprise but ways of bringing the aesthetic particularities medium into focus. This is where I think that leveraging broader cultural knowledge (how books, film and other artforms work) is helpful.