Holiday note 2: QOTD: video games

John Lanchester has an article on video games in the current London Review of Books. Because of the cultural segregation between audiences that he describes below, it is unusual to see a serious treatment of video games in a venue like this. I was particularly interested to see this given the increase in gaming capacity our household has seen each Christmas for the past few years ;-)

Here is the passage that I will probably remember ...

Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane; Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. Both those observations are brought to mind by video games, which are full, overfull, of exactly that kind of arbitrary convention. Many of these conventions make the game more difficult. Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It's a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all - and it's not by accident, either. One of the most common complaints regular gamers make in reviewing new offerings is that they are too easy. (It would be nice if a little bit of that leaked over into the book world.) [LRB · John Lanchester: Is it Art?]

Here is how the article starts ...

From the economic point of view, this was the year video games overtook music and video, combined, in the UK. The industries' respective share of the take is forecast to be £4.64 billion and £4.46 billion. (For purposes of comparison, UK book publishers' total turnover in 2007 was £4.1 billion.) As a rule, economic shifts of this kind take a while to register on the cultural seismometer; and indeed, from the broader cultural point of view, video games barely exist. The newspapers cover the movies extensively, and while it isn't necessary to feel that they do all that great a job of it, there's no denying that they have a try. Video games by contrast are consigned to the nerdy margins of the papers, and are pretty much invisible in broadcast media. Video-game fans return the favour: they constitute the demographic group least likely to pay attention to newspapers and are increasingly uninterested in the 'MSM', or mainstream media. [LRB · John Lanchester: Is it Art?]
There is no other medium that produces so pure a cultural segregation as video games, so clean-cut a division between the audience and the non-audience. Books, films, TV, dance, theatre, music, painting, photography, sculpture, all have publics which either are or aren't interested in them, but at least know that these forms exist, that things happen in them in which people who are interested in them are interested. They are all part of our current cultural discourse. Video games aren't. Video games have people who play them, and a wider public for whom they simply don't exist. (The exceptions come in the form of occasional tabloid horror stories, always about a disturbed youth who was 'inspired' to do something terrible by a video game.) Their invisibility is interesting in itself, and also allows interesting things to happen in games under the cultural radar. [LRB · John Lanchester: Is it Art?]

And here is how it finishes ...

The other way in which games might converge on art is through the beauty and detail of their imagined worlds, combined with the freedom they give the player to wander around in them. Already quite a few games offer what's known as 'sandbox' potential, to allow the player to ignore specific missions and tasks and just to roam around. (Many people's favourite aspect of the Grand Theft Auto games involves their sandboxiness. A favourite sandbox activity in the California-set Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was simply driving to the coast and watching the sun go down over the ocean.) I think more and more games will make this central to the user's experience of the game, and one straw in the wind here is Fallout 3, a new game from the producer Bethesda. It's set in a post-apocalyptic 2277, and your character begins the game living in Vault 101, a bomb shelter set near the ruins of Washington. The game has the usual props and targets, but one of the most striking things about it is the opportunity it offers to explore the bombed-out, desolate, intensely evocative city. This is something which, once you've done it, I suspect will be difficult to get out of your head - and it is a glimpse of what games can do at their best. The next decade or so is going to see the world of video games convulsed by battles between the moneymen and the artists; if the good guys win, or win enough of the time, we're going to have a whole new art form. At a moment when there's less good cheer than there should be, it's something to look forward to. [LRB · John Lanchester: Is it Art?]

Comments: 2

Jan 13, 2009
Tim Johnson

Thanks for noting this interesting article. I may pass it on to my son, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, with a degree in art, who is very interested in video games and digital art. He's currently a quality assurance tester for Activision (meaning he plays games 8-12 hours a day; it's a tough job but somebody's got to do it). He often has interesting stories to share (when he, can; the industry can be somewhat secretive), e.g. finding characters wearing logo sportswear (Nike, Adidas, etc.) that has to be removed because permission was not received from the company (or the game developer overlooked that issue of trademark/copyright).

Jan 13, 2009
Chris Rusbridge

I'm not a huge fan of games, but it does seem important to treat them as valuable cultural objects. They can be pretty tough to manage as long term cultural artefacts, though. There is an article in the current IJDC by Paul Gooding and Melissa Terras (http://www.ijdc.net/index.php/ijdc/article/view/85), quantifying the parlous state of archiving computer games.

OTOH there is a large base of enthusiastic amateurs interested in preserving at least some of the games. How can these best be welcomed, supported and encouraged to contribute to the preservation task?