[Editor's Note: Don't miss Tom Bissell reading tomorrow night (Tuesday, July 6) at Powell's City of Books on Burnside at 7:30 pm. Click here for more details
My book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter has now been on the shelves for almost a month, and the response so far has been extremely positive (except for when it wasn't). However, the single most consistent knock against the book — and it so consistent that I reckon there is more than a little to it — is that I do not really make the case as to why video games matter beyond why they matter to me. Thus, for my first blog entry for Powell's, I thought I would try to make this case a little more explicitly.
I do not doubt that, on this point, my book could have used more elaboration (it is, for crying out loud, the subtitle), especially when every adult who plays a lot of video games, and makes no secret of that, is often asked — by parents, bosses, spouses, colleagues, and strangers — to explain what value he or she finds in a medium widely regarded by non-gamers as morally gangrenous. True, this question has lately had a kinder edge, and non-gamers seem increasingly willing to accept that the medium has something to recommend it. (My book's reception proves that, if nothing else.) Oddly enough, though, this has not made identifying what that something is any easier.
So, why do video games matter? There are a lot of possible answers to this question, depending on the gamer and what he or she seeks in games. My own answer starts with the fact that, not too long ago, video games drifted from being goal-oriented experiences with a vague storytelling overlay to storytelling experiences organized around goals. The transition from games that (sort of) told stories to stories endowed with gamelike elements was a choppy one, and a number of people serious about their video games regret that this transition happened at all. But it did. Suddenly, an entirely new form of storytelling was upon us, and almost no one understood how it worked.
To me, what makes games so astounding is the degree to which the medium's storytelling principals are still not completely understood. Think about that: the world's fastest growing and most profitable storytelling medium remains, in many ways, open territory. Filmmaking and fiction writing are comparatively closed territories; their inherent storytelling problems are, by now, familiar, if no less vexing. Not so with video games. Every year a few titles appear that expand the paradigms of video-game storytelling, and there is no sign this will stop anytime soon. The last time anything like this happened on a comparable scale was during the opening innings of the 20th century, when filmmakers began to explore another realm of equally vast storytelling potential.
This lends some urgency to the task of figuring out why video games are so hugely problematic in the minds of so many — even ardent believers in the form. Start with the stickiest tar baby: subject matter. On the one hand, video-game subject matter is far more diverse than is typically supposed by non-gamers. On the other hand, there is no denying that a large percentage of storytelling games are conceived in ways that necessitate absurd quantities of violence. Not only does this limit the kinds of stories games can tell, it has a way of making even great games sound ridiculous in summary. BioShock, for instance, is justly celebrated for its intelligence, formal sophistication, and riveting story. It can also be accurately described as running around an underwater city while shooting lighting out of your hands at Atlantean psychopaths.
Another problem is the sheer amount of orbital stuff you need to understand in order to play video games with any pleasure: where certain types of information are normally found onscreen, how controller schemas generally work, how to orient yourself in a three-dimensional world, how to recognize in-game directional and motivational cues, and so on. I do not blame anyone who picks up a video game controller for the first time and regards it as though it were a detonator. Nor do I blame anyone who would rather learn Finnish than the equally foreign language of gameplay. Some daunting circumstantial boulders block a large number of people from being able to play video games, much less take them seriously, and if you believe that games are a blameless party in this non-exchange, you are kidding yourself.
But I don't think you are kidding yourself quite as tragically as the person whose inability to enjoy video games allows him to believe no intelligent person should, because video-game storytelling, when it really works, can be indescribably powerful. One of the reasons it is so powerful is that it can feel so unfamiliar. The storytelling tools of fiction, for instance, do not appear to work for games at all, and if you judge games by those tools' standards, you will make yourself crazy. The tools of cinema work better, but not much better, and ditto.
Non-gamers frequently assume that, in most video-game storytelling, the author is an AWOL entity, which allows player choice to determine the story. This is not quite accurate. The medium is interactive, of course, but only to a point. The video game author sets the table and the player decides where to sit, but the player cannot sit in a place where there is no provided seat. In video games, player choice has crucial but not necessarily determinative importance, and how best to balance authorial intent with player agency may be the most pressing theoretical matter facing game designers today. (And, in case it is not completely obvious by now, I am currently in the early stages of trying to write and help design a video game.)
Whether or not you believe video games matter, you should, at the very least, concede that this increasingly influential medium's growing pains are not without theoretical interest. Video games matter, in other words, because their fate, what they stand for, what they mean, and what they could mean, are viewed as so important by so many people. It really is that simple. Video games matter because gamers say they do.
Last week, the person with the most notorious disinterest in video games recanted on his previous position that video games are not and probably never will be art. I speak, of course, of the film critic Roger Ebert. As many have now commented, Ebert did not reverse his opinion on games so much as crucially qualify it. He still does not see how games can qualify as meaningful examples of human creation, but now he concedes that the problem lies more in his unfamiliarity with the form than the form itself. I respect Ebert immensely, and believe that gamers around the world were so wounded by his rejection of their beloved medium because, of all non-gamer film critics, he was the one who should have been able to appreciate what games have been up to.
But I wonder if Ebert's unqualified disbelief in the medium's power was more helpful than harmful. Another game writer who believes this is the wonderful Gus Mastrapa, who last week wrote a piece arguing that, in fact, gamers need Roger Ebert 1.0, if for no other purpose than to force themselves to formulate coherent arguments as to why they are right and Ebert is wrong. A contested medium is an aggressively changeful, innovative medium. It may well be that, when everyone believes video matter — when their mattering is taken for granted — they will, in some strange way, matter quite a lot less than they do right now.