Monday, August 30, 2010

Video games and person

This morning I read Alexander Nehamas' opinion piece about Plato and popular media. The piece was comparing the critical analysis of video games to the same sorts of analysis in ancient times. He lumped in video games with other popular media in a way I found to be typical of someone who doesn't play video games. As analysis by non-game players tends to, it failed to note important differences between video games and other forms of media. The most important of which is, IMHO, person.

All traditional media no matter how they are painted, written, acted, or performed are actually in the third-person. Only a psychotic person confuses actions written in a novel as "I ran" or "I said" as actions they, the reader, actually took. No matter how you try to frame a book or movie, you are not confused by who actually took the action. They took the action -- you observed it.

In all video games the opposite is true. No matter how the fiction is presented, it is actually in the first person. Only a psychotic person would say: "And then Pac Man decided to turn left". A rational person says, "I made Pac Man turn left" or more usually, "I turned left" because Pac Man is not your agent but rather your avatar.

Of course literature, movies, etc. can induce sympathy and strong emotions as if the scene were happening to you. Indeed, they are surprisingly capable of making you feel those emotions more intensely then if the situation had actually happened to you. And conversely, just because some video game is in the first person doesn't mean that you must have a deep emotional connection to it -- many video games try and fail to create such a connection.

But that said, there's a dramatic difference between games and narrative. Analysis that doesn't bother to note that games are real actions taken in a simulated world while narrative is simulated action in a simulated world is missing an enormous piece of the critical puzzle. Play is a complicated emotional state where you are taking real (but possibly attenuated) actions while staying aware of the fact that your motivations are pretend.

Regardless of where one stands in terms of video games as art, if one is going to analyze their role in society one one should at least be familiar enough with them to understand that they are a profoundly different form of art. As in the article in question, I find direct comparisons to literature and literary criticism tend to be overly simplistic.


brian said...

Have you done much reading research on play? I'd like to really learn more about it since it is, as you say, such a complex state (and very nuanced, lots of very subtle transitions into other very distinct states) but it's kind of a hard thing to google, being such a common word.

Harvey Smith said...

Great expression of this concept.

capital L said...

How about Dwarf Fortress, or the SimCity style of direction giving games. I would consider them third person omniscient.

Zack Booth Simpson said...

cap L... that's a nice example. I'd argue that they are still 1st person -- your role in those worlds is clearly as some sort of god character or authority figure who gets to see and decide everything.

By the way, I didn't mean for the person-argument to be taken super literally. I meant for it to illustrate the principle of agency.

Thanks for your comment.

capital L said...

I think that's a fair point, but it doesn't seem entirely satisfactory. I don't have any more control over the action when I'm reading a novel written in the first person versus one written from the perspective of an all-seeing all-knowing narrator. Nonetheless we are able to draw a distinction between those two modes.

I feel as if there is an analogous difference between the typical video game and the examples I cited. It might just be the case that I am generally terrible at Dwarf Fortress and Sim-style games, and therefore have typically felt as if I were merely an informed observer of interesting things happening outside of my direct control.

capital L said...

I should note, though, that I completely agree that there is a fundamental difference between video games as a medium versus other, less explicitly interactive, forms.

Zack Booth Simpson said...

cap L ... Ha! When I play SimCity I don't feel like a passive observer. Although it is a good point that so much of the simulation is beyond your control that I can see why you feel that way.

WCG said...

Great post, with an important insight. Nice job!