This post could also be called “Things I’m not particularly good at, and hence largely shy away from”, but that was a bit long I thought. It might also help to keep that in mind while reading.
As a member of the burgeoning blogeratti, us pretentious, occasionally intelligent videogame writers (admittedly a somewhat unknown in comparison to the likes of Michael Abbott, Iroquois Pliskin, Leigh Alexander, N’Gai Croal, etc.) there’s a particular thing that I see others doing and that I struggle to be interested in.
Reading around, I get the sense that there’s a lot of thought being put into things like defining the proper terminology for talking about games; whether that terminology should be specialist or general enough to be inclusive; and what kinds of things need brand new words or explanations. And I really struggle to want be a part of it. And when I stopped to think about it, I wondered if maybe I was onto something.
This is going to run the risk of seeming like I’m calling him out, but Corvus Elrod (whom I greatly respect) has devoted a generous amount of words and blog posts to things like his definition of ‘play’ or the definition of ‘mechanics’. I think the first time I saw it happening I actually did a double take. Does an established word like ‘play’ really need redefinition just solely for the context of videogames? Isn’t just the context of a videogame blog enough for people to generally understand what you mean? If you do think there is a case for it, wouldn’t it perhaps be better to come up with some new and descriptive word rather than repurpose an existing one? Can’t we also by this point assume that many (most?) people who are reading our blogs pretty much know most of the terms and understand what we mean when we say things about a game? Surely they don’t really need us to explain that “videogames involve a player’s input, whereas a movie doesn’t”. If a particular reader doesn’t know that sort of thing already, what are they doing on my blog?! Go out and play some games first! Seriously, shoo! Go play Halo or The Sims – you’ll pick up on that whole player input aspect pretty darn quick, let me tell you. And if my mum can do it, so can you.
James Paul Gee wrote in What videogames have to teach us about learning and literacy that the best videogames, the ones that are successful, actually teach the player about how games work. So why do we in the blogosphere seem to think we have to explain the wheel to our readers? They’ve all played Call of Duty, they’ve know all the tricks. And if they don’t, can we even expect them to understand this interactive medium without experiencing it? Gonzalo Frasca, the granddaddy of academic videogame theory, says that in media that is simulational (videogames), unlike traditional narrative’s with which most people have already had significant exposure to in the form of film, books, etc, you can’t actually come to grips with it from the outside or without experiencing it for yourself.
In another example of the terminology discussion, Iroquois Pliskin (who, again, I greatly admire for his near-overnight rise to prominence and contribution to discussion) in a recent post criticized Clint Hocking’s bastard phrase, ‘ludonarrative dissonance’. He described it as,
“needlessly florid, and…the sort of thing that gives aid and comfort to the people who think that games writin' has gotten too fancy.”
I commented on the post, but I’ll reiterate here – I think ludonarrative dissonance is a fantastic term, and honestly it’s not just because I’m enamoured with the work of Clint Hocking himself (heh). It’s because it’s a term that describes quite exactly a specific occurrence in videogames – one that only occurs in videogames. But hey, just a second ago, wasn’t I advocating against discussing terminology and such? True, but in this instance ludonarrative dissonance is actually a term specific to videogames – unless it involves rules or mechanics that “say” one thing, and a story that says another you can’t get ludonarrative dissonance. There is no potential for ludonarrative dissonance in media like film, so I think it’s quite a valuable term for describing something rather unique to videogames and as such hasn’t really had a name before. And it avoids repurposing old words which, frankly I think is actually doing more to create a specialist vocabulary about games than phrases like the above. In what other context does ‘play’ mean “the self-guided exploration of possibility within a bounded space.”1
Okay, so the counter argument to that all this is, well, look in the dictionary – there’s already a bunch of given meanings for ‘play’ that are all different, some subtly, others wildly. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like this is an issue. The recent hoopla over the snappy gamer’s article, which tried to call out fantastic games writers as being “overly intellectual” and ruining it for everyone else, so pooh pooh, made Leigh Alexander comment that, while the author was being a dick, he did kind of have a point.
All of which makes me think that, shock horror, Kieron Gillen and New Games Journalism maybe actually had the right idea. You really, truly can’t dissect a game without reducing it to less than its whole. I just don’t think it works as it fails to capture the essence of what’s really great about games and why we play them. What I believe Gillen was onto with NGJ was identifying and writing about ourselves. Ultimately, people and their reactions, their feelings, their thoughts their stories (which I am also a big fan of, gaming anecdotes [RPS’ Planetside, the 1% and the ‘I was there, man’ syndrome is an amazing example]) are always going to be more interesting to read than a technical breakdown of game mechanics and why the pistol in Halo 1 was overpowered.
So, let’s bring this train wreck to a conclusion – what am I trying to say? Is it misguided to attempt to nail down some important and novel terms and ways of thinking about games? Well, no not really, there’ll always be a place for that. But, if writing about games is going to really truly transcend accusations of ‘over thinking it all’ then I believe the blogosphere has got to stop trying to clinically explain ‘how it is’. Let it go a little more often - go a bit wild. I think the really successful writers are already doing it, and I tip my hat in the direction of Duncan Fyfe and his writing at Hit Self Destruct. Also, Rock, Paper, Shotgun are often exceptionally good at this too.
Lastly, to both the guys who I criticized earlier, please don’t take it personally. Feel free to disagree with me, take my argument apart and show me the gaping flaws in my logic – please tell me if you think I’m aiming way off base. I am eternally thankful that, largely, we’re all an incredibly mature, friendly and thoughtful bunch and that that in itself goes miles towards overcoming any disagreements.