Art of the Game


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Tom Bissell is a David Foster Wallace man. I mean that specifically. DFW’s essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again contains “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” In that essay, Wallace wrote these momentous sentences:

Most scholars and critics who write about U.S. popular culture … seem both to take TV seriously and to suffer real pain over what they see. There’s this well-known critical litany about television’s vapidity, shallowness, and irrealism. The litany is often far cruder and triter than what the critics complain about, which I think is why most younger viewers find pro criticism of television far less interesting than pro television itself.

It would be difficult to overestimate the relief this sentence brought to many critics under the age of 40. It signaled that we had definitively turned the page on an era in which you had to go through the motions of holier-than-thou derision every time you wanted to discuss television or similar aspects of popular culture. Going through these motions had become painful and boring.

Wallace understood the huge role television plays in who we are and how we act. He proposed we take television seriously and do away with the knee-jerk scorn. Television, Wallace seemed to be saying, is beyond good and evil. It is both and neither. It is, simply, part of the structure of our experiences and any student of the human beast in his triumphs and foibles must pay attention to the medium.

A brief survey of how human beings in the developed world spend their time today will reveal that what is true about television is also true of video games. Everyone knows, by now, that these games are big business. Eleven billion dollars is, I’m told, quite a lot of money.

I’m rather more moved by the personal numbers, the hours upon hours that gamers will spend playing a new game. Gamers will spend, say, 200 hours playing Halo, or 400 hours playing the newest version of Grand Theft Auto. This is committing a significant portion of your allotted hours on Earth, year after year, to games. It is going to affect who you are as a person, how you experience the world, how you relate to other persons.

Tom Bissell — himself a serious gamer — is well situated to write about this matter. And that’s what he’s been doing for the last couple of years. His book, Extra Lives, is the result. [Full disclosure: Tom is a colleague of mine; we’ve collaborated on several projects together].

Taking video games seriously is not unlike taking television seriously. It contorts the sensitive mind into paroxysms of pleasure and shame not easily disambiguated. There is, thus, a constant note of apology in Bissell’s study. And why shouldn’t he be apologetic? There is something embarrassing about spending hundreds of hours playing video games. No amount of fine language and intellectualizing is going to wipe that away. Bissell can’t, and he doesn’t. That’s the DFW honesty coming in. Anyone who has played one of the new generation of video games and not taken some pleasure in doing so is either a liar or not a human being (alien, skin job, etc.). We play these video games because they are fun, and fun does not easily break down into units of greater analysis. Fun is fun. Exploring new worlds containing creatures strange and hilarious is fun. Hunting zombies is fun. The feeling of speed and adventure created by a good game is fun. I remember the sheer sense of exhilaration playing one of the first Sonic the Hedgehog games. In the real world, I would never move so fast and with such abandon. I remember the genuine, giddy fear that shot through me the first time I was manhandled by a zombie in Resident Evil.

Bissell, in wanting to consider how this fun plays a meaningful role in shaping our sensibilities, asks important questions. He establishes a set of criteria through which we interrogate this new experience, something he elsewhere calls a “grammar of fun”. “What aesthetic tradition does this game fall into? How does it make me feel while I’m playing it? What emotions does it engage with, and are they appropriate to the game’s theme and mechanics?”

Something is happening to people when they disappear inside the world of a video game. Bissell thinks the magic really comes about when you are made to feel agency within a game. It may be “just a game”…

But when a game does this well, you lose track of your manipulation of it, and its manipulation of you, and instead feel inserted so deeply inside the game that your mind, and your feelings, become as essentially crucial to its operation as its many millions of lines of code. It is the sensation that the game itself is as suddenly, unknowably alive as you are…. To say that any game that allows such surreally intense feelings of detachment and projection is divorced from questions of human identity, choice, perception, and empathy—that is and always will be, the proper domain of art—is to miss the point not only of such a game but of art itself.

Video games, like art, have become worlds unto themselves, generated through the grammar of fun and limited only by the self-chosen rules of their creators.

There is a point in David Foster Wallace’s above-mentioned essay on television at which he suddenly turns on the medium he has just spent so much time defending. Wallace had immense empathy for the scared loneliness that lurks at the center of the American soul. He knew that Americans are the perfect television watchers partly because we are so perfectly screwed up. It is hard for us to have real experiences in the real world. Television responds to that pain and, inevitably, helps to feed and strengthen it. People look to television, Wallace thought, partly seeking “relief from the pain of their reluctance to be around real humans.” Ultimately, Wallace equates TV watching with other addictive behaviors. And Wallace does not think that the television addiction is benign. He defines something as malignantly addictive when “(1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes.”

One of Bissell’s laments about most of the video games he plays is that the human interaction contained therein lacks reality, real reality: “I don’t mind being asked to kill in the [game]: Killing is part of the contract. What I do mind is not feeling anything in particular — even numbness — after having killed in such numbers.” The promise of the video game, what keeps Bissell coming back, is the promise of a real experience — a rich and meaningful connection to the world. But this promise is structured as a trick. That is what Wallace pointed out about the devilish structure of television: Like TV, video games promise to give without being able to. Instead, they create further isolation and loneliness, and thus a greater need for connection. They create the problem they aim to solve, driving in a vicious cycle ever downward. For all his awareness of what the vicious cycle is doing, Bissell cannot stop playing and the hundreds of hours keep piling up.

By the last chapter of the book, Tom has become overwhelmed by the video game experience. “These days,” he says, “I play video games in the morning, play video games in the afternoon, and spend my evenings playing video games.” He starts doing large amounts of cocaine so that he can continue playing games. The addiction to video games and cocaine merge into a single beast. Still, in the classic addict’s move, he defends games, his first mistress. Admitting that video games feed his “love of solitude,” he wants to maintain a distinction between games and cocaine. “The crucial difference is that I believe in what video games want to give me, while the bequest of cocaine is one I loathe and distrust.”

It is a moving thing to read the work of a thoughtful and sensitive person in the throws of this dilemma, conscious at every moment of his current situation. Reading Bissell’s book, there is no question in my mind that video games are creating a new and important form of experience. There is also little question that this new form of experience is an infernal one. It diminishes a man.

Extra Lives is a serious journey down a road human beings have lost themselves on ever since Homo sapiens first got sapient. Living in the world is a constant trauma. We seek an easier way, which only makes it worse. The story of the modern world, from the perspective of day-to-day experience, is the story of brand new technologies by which we subject ourselves to all the old pitfalls. But they are no less instructive for their being new. The great strength of writers like David Foster Wallace and Tom Bissell is that they are willing to do that work, to subject themselves to the passions of the age with real understanding. The moralistic dismissals of video games from cultural scolds are vapid in comparison. They haven’t done the work.

The story Wallace told about television is, in the end, a devastating one. But it is complicated by his own love, his own pleasure, his own desire. The same is true for Bissell. More so, even, than Wallace, he wants to salvage something from the wreckage. He wants to believe. His honest, almost childlike desire for video games to deliver meaning rings out in the hollow and empty room where he’s found himself, alone with the controller. • 15 July 2010