Early in the evening yesterday, Harper’s posted this discussion with Tom Bissell, whose book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter came out in July. Right out of the gates, Bissell makes this point:

The biggest problem facing the video game, as something to talk about critically, is not that most of them are pretty wobbly as works of art; it’s that even excellent, thoughtful games are virtually impossible to explain to people who’ve had no experience with the medium.

It seems to me that they’re difficult to explain in large part for the same reason that people who aren’t already familiar with them are disinclined to simply sit down and give them a try. The big, headline-grabbing titles today tend to be very complicated affairs. Here’s a simple way to illustrate that point: compare the X-Box 360 controller to the joystick for the Atari 2600.

That’s important because explaining to a person the basics of interaction is just the first step in making them understand what is most compelling about a game. People are put off by modern video games for much the same reason that people are put off by cricket. In both, the investment demanded just to know the game well enough to play it at all is a serious obstacle to engagement.

The irony there is that early video games were scoffed at for their simplicity. Pac-Man was considered a diversion, a waste of time, kid’s stuff because it seemed so crude with its bright colors, googly-eyed ghosts, and the now iconic sound-effects. Since then, a hardcore base of the video gaming community has had a chip on its shoulder and a driving need to demonstrate the sophistication of which their hobby was capable. Now they run the risk of alienating potential players by running to the opposite pole.

Bissell follows by saying,

Anyone can watch a film. Anyone can read a book. The average person might not come to the most learned, considered place critically, no, but you make someone play a game who’s never played one before, and it’s just terribly, terribly awkward and depressing. You have to learn how to play them, and adults don’t like to learn new things, usually…

Maybe it’s simply that he’s trying to encapsulate a complex idea from the book into the relatively compact format of a brief interview, but I think that draws too stark a contrast. Nearly anyone can read a book, but imagine if, having just learned to read, someone decided to start you out with Finnegan’s Wake as your introduction to fiction. The technical demands alone would likely put you off of reading for some time.

Maybe more critically for the question of how to bridge the critical gap with video games, anyone can watch a movie, but it sometimes requires prior experience to navigate the conventions and tropes of a sophisticated film. For a relatively simple example, consider Rian Johnson’s Brick. Without some prior familiarity with the conventions of the noir and hard-boiled detective genres, you’re likely to miss half or more of what people find appealing about that movie.

Even more than the cinema, the medium of video gaming tends to be a genre-bound affair, and what makes any given game exciting may be nothing more than the way it innovates on the conventions established by its forerunners.So even beyond the difficulties involved in initiating the curious into the mysteries of interface and control, there’s the additional difficulty of situating modern games in a historical context that most non-gamers have simply missed.

One long-standing tactic for mitigating that difficulty has been to tie the narrative and visual motifs of a game to a popular genre from some other medium, e.g. the Western in the Red Dead games, but even then the mechanics of the game, which are arguably more central to the experience a critic would want to convey, remain specific to gaming. It may go some way towards explaining the experience of watching Dead Space to explain it in terms of sci-fi horror movies like Alien, but without some prior experience with the third-person shooter genre, the person you’re explaining it to won’t really get a sense of what it’s like to play it. Without that critical component, they’re likely to regard it as little more than a movie with (ahem) a gravely disjointed narrative.

So how do you deal with the critical hurtle of complexity? Maybe you don’t. Maybe the best you can do as a critic is to catch potential gamers at a moment when complexity appeals to them. Or maybe you simply invite them in at an earlier, relatively uncomplicated point of entry. And if that’s the case, the problem may boil down to the fact that the gaming industry currently provides so little middle ground between Farmville and Halo:Reach.


is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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