Quest Updated: Why We Need Critical Gaming
This week, Marko told us of his descent into the pool of academia, and shared his passionate defence of gaming in class with us. After three full years in the humanities, I’ve learnt a lot about how academics works (put inter- or meta- in front of it and -anity at the end and you’re golden!) and even though I’ve never had so direct a discussion with a lecturer over gaming, I have often thought about gaming through, as they say, an academic lens. What I’ve realised is something touched on by Marko: a lack of understanding from a wide variety of people when it comes to games means that the whole form gets dismissed. There is something fundamentally lacking when it comes to a critical appreciation of games. Not as in a review where the aspects of what makes the game enjoyable and successful or buggy and disappointing are listed, but as in a reasoned, dare I say ‘literary’ approach to understanding how a game works.
This raises an important thought in my mind: do we actually want academics parading around the gaming industry attaching meta- willy nilly to things and talking about complex intersubjective transgender relations in Portal through a psychoanalytic lens of focalization and hegemonic-subaltern dynamics? Well, in some ways, yes, but hopefully with much, much less jargon. Rather, I think what is needed is an approach to understanding gaming that mimics elements of film study and literature studies.
And this is why the games as art debate is actually a zombie argument. You know games can be art, I know games can be art, and the creators of games, be they AAA or little indie numbers, know games can be art. Why do we feel we have to defend them? In part due to ignorance, where people who have never actually played games pronounce rubbish such as “they make kids violence” or “it’s just pressing buttons”. Another part is that, perhaps, we haven’t quite adjusted to what it would entail to treat games as an art form.
It is almost as if we’re not sure where to go from here. We have an ever growing list of games that are emotionally moving, complexly narrated and beautifully styled. So what do we do with this list?
Examine it. We should draw inspiration from the growth of fantasy studies in literature departments world-wide. Last year I had the joy of spending a semester studying Tolkien and C S Lewis, The Sword in the Stone and other British fantasies written in the early and middle 20th Century. One of the first things we as a class concluded was that fantasy is a legitimate kind of literature. And, following the examples of celebrated critics (in an academic sense) of Tolkien in particular, we moved on to the books. By discussing the novels in a literary style, talking about the themes of courage in Lord of the Rings, or the mistrust of science shackled to corporations in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, we in fact proved that fantasy is worthy of study by studying it. What a glorious paradox: the best defence against claims that gaming is not an art form is to assume it is, because from there it can be proved.
I, for one, cannot wait for a time when university courses in media, or literature, heck even computer science or game design, will include a critical study of gaming forms. Not just games, but the different parts that come together to make a game: the story, the visuals, the perspective, the choices offered the player. Even more, we should look at what the game tells us. Hell, Portal and its sequel probably taught me more about tenacity than Invictus. WE should be looking at games much more like the way we think of films. In fact, this is already beginning, albeit slowly. Check out Rice University’s English course in Scandinavian Fantasy Worlds: Old Norse Sagas and Skyrim! Games have themes, just as novels, poems and films can.
And we should worry about what those are, rather than about whether or not games can be art. Because the very existence of these themes proves that games are art.