Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

The Other Blogger: My unedited thoughts re a game I have not played

Posted by flagg49 on November 22, 2009

So Tom and I were having an email exchange about the now-infamous (by design, of course) “No Russian” level from MW2.  I thought about writing a blog entry about it, but

a) I’m too lazy

c) I will never actually play this game, unless Tom buys  it and the whim strikes me, and it somehow seems wrong to devote, you know, a whole real blog post to something I don’t even care enough about to play

b) My thoughts are off the cuff and probably wrong, so why formalize them?

In light of all that, I figured I’d just post my semi-articulated thoughts as they appeared in our email argument.  I still think I’m right, basically, but am obviously an impoversihed debater about this for reasons b), c). The conversation commences after the break:

Quoth Tom:  “Alright fucker, here’s what I think, essentially:

I agree with you that as an exercise in confronting the player with linearity, false choice, and the structured nature of a game narrative, the scene has some merit (although way less than Bioshock – which you won’t play because you are a snob – which did this much better). Other than that, it’s dumb people being dumb.”

Quoth me:  “I read that… I agree that it’s obviously a “tonal shift” from the action-adventure silliness that’s preceded it, and to that extent the game doesn’t quite “earn” its moment of cultural relevance, although “earn” is probably the wrong language.

I will say that it seems very silly and video-game nerd to critique at length how a terrorist attack would “really” look, as in, duh, everyone knows that cops would never attack you like that!  I think this guy misses what everyone who makes a big deal about it is picking up on–that it’s not just a portrayal of a morally dicey situation, or not even a “realistic” one necessarily, but one that models a kind of terrorist violence that’s absolutely central to the cultural discourse right now, in a viscerally believable enough way to strike people as a) convincing in the moment if nothing else and b) alarming because it packages that sort of undeniably distressing cultural payload in the context of supposedly interactive game controls.  Much in the way that geeks like to put irrelevant “more gamer-ish than thou” details into their video game reviews (this game wasn’t hard enough!), I think that attacking the scene for being intragenericcally inappropriate (in terms of the levels that came before and come after) or somehow slightly deficient at the level of craft is to miss the “reading experience” that the level is intended to and probably does produce for most gamers–even those who think of themselves as too savvy to be affected by a gameplay experience that’s somehow less than 100% perfect.  It makes gameplay shocking, and I think that’s a) inescapable and b) worth something in its own right.”

He:  “I don’t like something about your argument, but I’m not sure what it is. I just don’t think that it makes that much of a difference. I don’t care that it’s culturally relevant, or whether it elicits a response: how do you know it makes gameplay “shocking,” aside from the fact that you know it has shocked other people. I don’t like thinking that way. Other people are often dumb. Just like Bioshock, I’ll need to play this before I believe/care.

It seems like what you are saying is that you (by some metric) value this scene more than the similar (in its themes of player agency/lack thereof) scene in Bioshock, because this scene depicts something that a bunch of “aware” people are very worried about right now. Bioshock’s scene was about free will/ how games trick you into believing in player choice, and this MW2 scene is about that in a more oblique way. I just don’t think you should be valuing it as you are. What do you mean that what it does is “inescapable?” do you mean that we can’t ignore that it has made gameplay shocking? I guess I think that Bioshock did this (shocked you by confronting you with the artificiality and lies behind the game experience) without being dumb and falsely “intelligent.” According to some interview, the MW2 writer thinks that Hollywood should be taking notes from him, because of how he mixes “relevancy” and “meaning.” I think he should be shot for being a moron.”

Me:  “a) Yes, it’s easy in one way to be a provocateur, and it’s also relatively easy to be proficiently provocative without having a particularly good or interesting theory of what it means to be provocative or why.

b) It may not be good qua game, but I’m prepared to say at least that it’s relevant and new–>thus interesting, as art.  What other game has made the experience of video game killing seem morally troubling, not just in the “you have come to care about these characters” kind of way, but by taking the spectacle of fantasy violence and making it seem real again?  Or at least remind us of real violence?

Taking video games and hooking them back into thoughts about real life, rather than an endless genre hall of mirrors where every game is the bastard child of three or four forms of pop culture, is very hard.  And I think one of the reasons people don’t get or particularly like video games outside of the sizable mainstream that plays them.

You should hear academics talk about them–many, for instance, can’t get over the fact that video games seem very obviously to play out fantasies of endless warfare, which on the one hand is true but on the other misses a whole series of points about the way that the thematic material of the medium has evolved to fit the ludic constraints–how to build representation onto a game mechanic.  Gamers get that this stuff is very far abstracted from real violence–i.e., counterstrike is about your l33t awp skillz and not about global conflict, but people used to other kinds of representational art don’t, and one of the problems that games have is that they haven’t yet found a good way of applying the special technical qualities of their structure to real human experience, in the way the, for instance, novels very obviously have.  Games don’t have anything more than their wallpaper to do with reality–their interest and innovation is largely in the gameplay itself–but outsiders can’t see that, and just see really bad thematic stuff, really childish stuff that’s actually just an epiphenomenon of what’s really interesting.

So even if it’s really “cheap,” a quick connection of a game experience to reality in a way that’s a little more serious than most can only be a good thing–it connects real gamers’ experience of the techniques of gaming directly to a represented world (or at least, contemporary media environment), and it shows non-gamers that video games can make kinds of reference to serious contemporary events that, while they might be exploitative, have a special weight & heft that comes just from their being video games.  So, no I don’t really have a problem with the fact that the guys at infinity ward are pretty obviously douches.”

[End Email Argument]

That last point about the areferentiality of games is probably wrong, but I’d stick to it in a milder form.  I think that many of the claims made by old-school lit critics (like James Wood) about the referentiality of forms like the novel are far too strong, on the other end of things, so I’m not quite sure what it is that I’m envisioning as a neo-realistic renaissance for video games, if “realism” has been more or less a critical term of false consciousness all along… I understand that Simon F writes about newsgames and could probably school me about all of this stuff anyway.

One more thought:  I think that one of my actual insights (as opposed to inaccuracies) is the observation about games and genre fiction.  The thematic/representational frame of most games comes from a sliver of the pop culture universe, and people are scared to leave it.  Maybe, for instance, that’s an explanation for Ubisoft’s packaging of a pretty thematically daring setting (in some ways) in two successive games (AC 1 and 2) in a drier-than-hell pseudo-scifi thematic “wrapper.”


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