Earlier this week, Financial Times writer Lucy Kellaway set off a flurry of online discussion, primarily among video game critics. The subject was an article about her experiences as a judge for the GameCity Prize, an award designed to start a broad cultural discussion about gaming by inviting relative novices to sit on its panel. Kellaway was a model candidate in that regard, having, in her own words, “never even touched a controller, except periodically to confiscate my son’s and hide it at the back of my sock drawer.”
That foreshadows the central theme of Kellaway’s article, which is as much about relationships as it is gaming. “I said yes,” she writes of her invitation to sit on the panel,
though not because I particularly care whether there is a cultural conversation about video games or not. The conversation I’m after is even more elusive: I simply wanted to be able to talk to my sons again.
That’s a matter of what I’ve called cultural diplomacy: the set of problems and concerns that arise when people on different sides of a cultural phenomenon have trouble relating with one another as a result. Kellaway may take some solace in knowing that people on both sides of the video game divide share those concerns, as we confirmed recently in an interview with gaming critic Jenn Frank. In many ways, then, the question of how Kellaway can have that conversation with her sons is part and parcel of what may well be the defining cultural conversation with respect to video gaming.
For Kellaway, though, the personal dimension remains central. Just how central is evident by the way she dismisses the possibility of something broader. “This may be part of the reason there is so little cultural discussion of video games,” she wrote of her attempt to find something substantive to say about Fez: “there simply isn’t much to talk about.”
That may have been the sentiment that set off the critical community. To their credit, though, few responded as negatively as you might have expected. Many embraced the article as an outside perspective, useful for the way in which it lets us see across the cultural divide.
The intention, then, should be to provide a complementary peek into what makes the culture of gaming so inviting to some, despite all its flaws and frustrations. Whether or not it encourages Kellaway, and those on her side of the divide, to play more games is beside the point, so long as it helps bridge the gap a bit between themselves and the players who are important to their lives.
In that regard, it’s helpful that Kellaway’s own sons are already part of the story. She likely has memories of the games they played as children. Hopefully, as a parent, she recognizes how critical play can be to a child’s development.
As a basic example, a game like peek-a-boo helps children understand the persistence of other things, even those that are hidden from view. By complicating the basic structure of peek-a-boo, hide-and-seek lets children practice patience; by inverting the infant demand for attention, it acclimates them to the social virtue of sometimes making yourself unobtrusive.
Those are useful touchstones since talking about gaming is, first of all, talking about play. Much of the contemporary resistance to gaming draws strength from the perception that growing up means packing away the toys and getting a damn job. The first step in bridging the divide, then, is acknowledging this difference: that over the last several decades, increasing numbers of us have come to the conclusion that, even for adults, there’s value in play.
That can be understood as part of the historical shift from the Victorian status of children, not only in polite society, but in the social sciences as well. Psychologists like Jean Piaget helped probe that blind spot in the early half of the 20th century, and the post-War Baby Boom added urgency as children took on startling economic importance. The view that play has enduring value runs up against the contrasting insistence that games are for kids, but some heavyweight thinkers of the last century—Dutch historian Johan Huizinga notable among them—took seriously the premise that play is part of what defines us as humans. Nevertheless, some forms of play carry a stigma that’s hard been to shake.
Admittedly, name-checking Piaget and Huizinga is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. Examples can make for a more direct appeal, which is why peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek may strong anchors for helping outsiders understand the world of video gaming. We understand how to play them. We recognize the apparently simple pleasures involved. And, more importantly, we have some (perhaps insufficient) sense of how playing them can help shape us as people.
The other thing that’s useful about those examples is that the illustrate the way in which games build on one another. Peek-a-boo establishes a set of basic game states, hidden and revealed. Play consists of the alternation between those states. Still, relative to hide-and-seek, it’s a very stationary game. Hide-and-seek takes those elements and employs them in a more mobile game. It brings in additional elements: the “it” role, the choice of hiding places, the counting off of a grace period. Those additions result in a different game, one that gives rise to a different set of experiences, and which affords a different sort of development.
We can add more elements, changing the game even more. We can, for example, designate a location “base,” and declare that any hidden player that makes it back to base without getting caught is “safe.” Or maybe there are two bases, each with flags that must be retrieved and returned to the opposing team’s base. Maybe each of the players is armed with a paintball gun, and can remove opponents from play by splattering them with paint. Maybe we render all of this on a video screen so that we can set the entire game in an alien world with palpably different physical constraints. We can add narrative elements and explore the different ways the game can be played by setting novel goals that can, with some degree of challenge, be solved using many of the basic skills that we adapted from peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek.
The point is that each of those choices about how the game is played lend themselves to the creation of a different game. The experience changes, and with it, the opportunities for development. Not all of those opportunities are necessarily admirable or desirable. Some might be downright dull or even pernicious. Distinguishing between all of the different things that a game can be when you start to tweak it is a challenge unto itself, particularly since we as a culture have developed some curious ways of talking about some aspects of games, and no way at all of talking about others.
Which brings us back to the idea that “there simply isn’t much to talk about” when it comes to gaming. Among responses to “Game Theory,” there were some suggestions that unfamiliarity—or, rather, only familiarity—had bred contempt. If Kellaway had understood how to read the medium better (goes the argument) she might have found as much to say about Fez or Mass Effect 3 as the more traditional texts, like the novels of Proust and Austen, to which she compared them.
This touches on a point of some contention within the video gaming community, one that can be raised by asking game critics and developers whether or not games can be art. That’s a question that seems to have vexed players (at least in the West) very little at all prior to the 1970s, and the fact that it’s so problematic now has much to do with the iconographic nature of video.
If you pressed hard enough, you could, perhaps, explicate something like a “text” from a game of hide-and-seek or cricket, but it could never take on the same priority that literary criticism gives the text of a novel. One way to illustrate that difference is by pointing out that a text can have a moral, like those in some of Aesop’s fables. But it wouldn’t quite make sense to speak of the moral of chess. If chess had a moral, you could skip the hassle of playing it by just having someone explain it to you. In place of a moral we find the practice of negotiating the relationships between pieces and their functions; of seeing the world they inhabit as a territory that’s carved up in advance by the range of moves those pieces can make; and, finally, of understanding the complex adversarial dance of the game as the sort of conversation you might otherwise have never had with the other player. As your understanding of the microcosm provided by the game catches up to the practice of playing it, something magical happens: you start having fun.
Any given game can be retrospectively codified as a kind of text. Chess games are recorded in a specialized notation and poured over by players who want to understand the genius that animates the grandmasters. Sports are inscribed as stats that become the legacy of franchises. With his novel The Master of Go, Nobel winner Yusanari Kawabata even demonstrated how a tricky match in a centuries-old board game can become the material for a work of high literature. But the games themselves predate those texts, and may well go on long after the record is lost or forgotten. That’s one way that video games differ from most, though not all, of the games we play: they open play up to the sort of textual analysis available to other forms of narrative and plastic art.
Even so, it’s the activity—play—that is central in most games! If the “text” of any given video game pales next to the text of even the most basic of novels, that’s likely because the basic relationship of the player to the game differs from that of the reader to the text. No doubt that makes it harder to say something intelligible about a game, but that isn’t because there’s less to say. It’s because what could (and maybe even should) be said about a game resides farther than any text from our ability to speak intelligibly. The task is more challenging precisely because the natural thing to do with a game is not to read it, but to play it.
Hence the difficulty that Kellaway encountered trying to find something meaningful to say about Fez. “Surprisingly enjoyable,” she wrote. “Great colours. Like the weird music.” But those are all the sorts of things you might write about a text, as though Fez were a short film rather than a game. The challenge is asking ourselves how it feels to do something unfamiliar. What are the possibilities a game like Fez opens to us? How do we explore those possibilities? How might we grow when we rehearse those behaviors?
If novices like the GameCity panel find it difficult to arrive at meaningful answers to those question, they may find it consoling to know that veteran game critics run up against the same difficulties. Talking about what lies beneath the surface of any kind of play is a bit like translating poetry from one language to another. To the extent a poem is about the sound, rhythm and feel of a particular arrangement of words, there will always be something unfamiliar about the translation.
Far from convincing us that there’s little or nothing worth saying about gaming, that sense of unfamiliarity ought to indicate that there’s more at play than we can see from the outside. When it comes right down to it, the unspeakability of a game—that nagging sense that words can’t quite convey what it is to play it—may be the reason we keep coming back to play again.