video games in 2006 = rock music in 1967

Chuck Klosterman wrote this feature in the July issue of Esquire: The Lester Bangs of Video Games. His subtitle is his point, actually: “Sorry, that was misleading. There is no Lester Bangs of video games. Why?” It’s pretty deep thought about games – something we don’t have enough of.

I’m just going to assume that you believe video games in 2006 are the culture equivalent of rock music in 1967, because that’s (more or less) reality.

The question his article asks is, in brief: why are there no video game critics, given that video games are such an economic and cultural force? His own clarification:

I realize that many people write video-game reviews and that there are entire magazines and myriad Web sites devoted to this subject. But what these people are writing is not really criticism. Almost without exception, it’s consumer advice; it tells you what old game a new game resembles, and what the playing experience entails, and whether the game will be commercially successful. It’s expository information. As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself.

Tell me that’s not an interesting point? Two immediate thoughts come to mind for me, from my own experience of gaming:

1) Most games are way too shallow for that kind of analysis and criticism

2) User-created content is hot and getting hotter – and maybe games are the most ephemeral kind of user-created content

I’m not going to defend the first point. If you disagree, go read Heart of Darkness, or go play your game. It’s your life. :p

On the second point, think about a single-player game. Every time a player plays one, he or she is telling a kind of a story, creating as well as having a unique experience – but only for themselves. And when it’s over, it’s gone.

At the other end of gaming, think about an MMO. World of Warcraft has (literally) millions of players playing at varying times on (literally) hundreds of different servers, each of which is its own self-contained “copy” of the game and its world. “Rules” of the server vary based on the style of gameplay a server is set up for. “Characters” cannot move from server to server, and thus the players playing those characters also do not (usually) move from server to server. Those characters are created, and grow, and change, and die, hour by hour, 24 hours a day, for years on end. Even within a single server, different players tend to play at different times during their day.

All of that adds up to an incredibly variable and dynamic experience of the game. No, MMOs aren’t as rich or complex or as large as the real world, and the clock does tick faster there. But there are hundreds of those worlds running alongside this real world right this minute. And they are rich and complex and large enough that, as in the real world, no moment of experience in one of those worlds will ever be exactly the same as another moment – especially when you’re playing with other people. And when a moment is gone, the only place you’ll ever return to it is in your memory.

(I know, you can make pictures and movies of game experiences, just like in real life, but no, pictures and movies still aren’t the same, and anyway, while machinima puts a very interesting spin on gaming and storytelling, it still doesn’t change the essential point that he is making and that I’m agreeing with.)

So an MMO’s story never stops, is vast in scope, and is being told interactively by the actions and the words of a shifting population of thousands. Old media assumptions about storytelling, old media assumptions about analysis and criticism – they just can’t apply.

Maybe an MMO is a bit like group improv, but it never stops, and even in smaller virtual worlds, it happens at a scale unlike any other improv. Unless maybe you want to look at this real life as improv? Maybe that’s a tangent I shouldn’t have added – it’s my thought, not Chuck’s. Actually, I can’t take credit either. 😀

What if this scene played out differently for every person who watched Gone with the Wind? What if Rhett occasionally changed his mind, walked back into the house, and said, “Just kidding, baby”? What if Scarlett suddenly murdered Rhett for acting too cavalier? What if the conversation were sometimes interrupted by a bear attack? And what if all these alternative realities were dictated by the audience itself? If Gone with the Wind ended differently every time it was experienced, it would change the way critics viewed its message. The question would not be “What does this mean?” The question would be “What could this mean?”

His challenge:

If nobody ever thinks about these games in a manner that’s human and metaphorical and contextual… this generation’s single most meaningful artistic idiom will be — ultimately — meaningless.

Yeah, worth thinking about. And worth clicking to read him, not just me.


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