Problems of interactivity and intimacy in videogames

While we seemingly get lots of choices in a game about how we get from place to place, how to kill enemies (and with what weapon), and even how we make moral decisions, when the game prompts us we usually get down to doing what it tells us to do.  Even if we don’t, if we really want to play the game, ultimately we will have to.

If the player blows the right moves or says the wrong thing or chooses the wrong place to eat, intimacy is a no go.  “Intimacy” becomes an activity in which a potential lover is acted upon, not a complex system of mutual interaction.  It is also seemingly antagonistic.  The paramour is competing with him- or herself or the desires of their intended lover in order to engage with them intimately.  Failure means that the lover is displeased, transforming them into something more of a threat or obstacle to be overcome than a potential partner.

Quick Review: Extra Lives, by Tom Bissell

Experiential writing and anecdotal evidence can be worthwhile additions to discussions of meaning. However, I remain unsure if either stands all that well on its own. Personal perspective can help others come to see how we view something, but if we desire to convince others of why that something matters, we need to do more. This might be my main issue with Extra Lives, by Tom Bissell. Rather than doing more, Bissell does more of the same. He engages in revelry, not revelation. As this is a book intended for a mainstream audience, perhaps this is okay, but I found significant portions of the text lacking.

Bissell's account is personal, but not unique. Anyone reading this review has had comparable gaming experiences, perhaps even attempted to relate them to friends and colleagues who just don't understand. Countless blogs and forums are further testaments to a certain commonality of experiences in videogames. No one can say Bissell doesn't like, or even love, what games like Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV provide, but if it was the author’s intention to go beyond that and support the “why videogames matter” subtitle, success is questionable. 

If it had been “why videogames matter to me,” I would have had different expectations as a reader. I wouldn’t have been disappointed about the missing definitions of “character,” “narrative” and “story,” terms that Bissell throws about in an irresponsible manner. Bissell does refer to others who play and/or make videogames, like Cliff Bleszinski, Jonathan Blow, Clint Hocking and John Hight, but these references most often regard problems of the medium. Given how many words and paragraphs given to these problems, a better subtitle might have been “why videogames don’t matter” or “why videogames don’t matter yet.” 

The main title, “Extra Lives,” fits well with the content of the book. The idea/argument that part of videogames’ appeal involves exciting escapism, the opportunity to experience additional lives is one that Bissell makes accessible and appealing. What gets in the way of this argument, though, is Bissell’s writing, which I don’t think is very strong. It reminded me of something Marci told me about Julie & Julia, how distracting the book was because the author thought she was so self-aware, self-referential and funny and that the movie was much better because all those attempts at humor weren’t present. In other words, Extra Lives reads like a series of blog posts; some good and/or interesting ideas are present, but none get fleshed out because there isn’t a comment section. 

Related to this is how Extra Lives just kind of stops. The last couple lines of the last chapter resonate well, but I wanted to turn the page to something more conclusive. After all the personal accounts of various gaming experiences and conversations with assorted industry insiders, I hoped Bissell would perform some kind of a wrap up. It isn’t that I wanted everything together in a neat, little package; I just had an interest in Bissell returning to the introductory “Author’s Note” in which he states that we are in a “golden age of gaming.” That Bissell never revisits this statement is unfortunate and, for me, supports the idea that many of his ideas are unsupported and/or incomplete.

I don’t think Extra Lives can or should be the text to validate videogames to the masses or to, as Entertainment Weekly put it, “make you feel better about spending 50 hours on Call of Duty." 

"if people in the future are going to understand what this society is like, they need to understand gaming" #wymhm

Ars: Why do librarians and archivists want to preserve games?

JM: The really simple, one-sentence answer is because games are important. In the United States we're looking at about 80,000 people who are directly employed by the gaming industry and maybe another 240,000 people involved in related, tangential industries that rely on gaming companies for their existence. So just as a monetary phenomenon, games are important. You probably saw the sales for Modern Warfare? We're talking a single game that realized over a billion dollars in sales. Sort of shows on a monetary level the importance that games have taken within our economy.

This has certainly made librarians take note of games, but also they've become important culturally. There's a long history of wanting to say "popular culture is lower culture and therefore we should not be preserving it." For all of us in our project, we're rejecting that point of view. Popular culture is the most important culture we need to preserve. It shows what people were actually interested in and what they were doing.

Further ammunition for those arguing for the validity of videogame studies as well as their preservation.

Also: on this here laptop, I have Fallout, World of Goo and two emulators, one for DOS and one for NES.

"Open worlds are so popular now, but only a few developers know how to make them truly work." #wymhm

Non-player characters are very important when creating this kind of world. BioWare can get away with having everyone stand around forever, but in an open world, the people must be moving and acting. It’s surprising how many games fail at this. Assassin’s Creed, The Saboteur, and Red Faction: Guerilla are all high-profile open worlds filled with people that do nothing but wander aimlessly. They feel like artificial obstacles in our path. Rockstar is great at creating emergent moments of NPC interaction, moments that occur regardless of our presence. From the spontaneous gang wars in GTA to another gang dragging some poor sap through a town in Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar uses these NPC interactions to make their worlds feel persistent.

I look for opportunities in games to forget my responsibilities to missions and NPCs. Accelerating along the San Fierro Highway with the radio blaring was one of the most memorable experiences for me in San Andreas. Wandering the Capital Wasteland was often more engaging than searching for Liam Neeson. Riding the rails in Empire City was a consistent exhilaration. For some reason, knowing I was the lone non-NPC in the gameworld was a comforting freedom, too.

"“I write games for old machines for the sheer fun and sense of freedom it gives me" #wymhm

One of the main motivations is being able to concentrate on gameplay. The programmers understand the age-old languages well. “I write games for the Commodore 64 because it's very simple and quick to learn,” admits a coder who calls himself, rather ironically, Richard of The New Dimension. “It also shows support for the retro gamers who still love this retro machine today.”

The guys who code retro games (they're invariably all men) also know the technology inside and out and it allows them to push the boundaries of what the machines can do.

“People are pushing the hardware to do things they never did back in the 80s and 90s,” says Jason Mackenzie, owner of retro label Psytronik. He explains that people are not just interested in creating the very best games and says some also want to hack the hardware too. A new graphics mode for the Commodore 64 has been created called NUFLI. It displays high resolution, full colour, bitmap images on a standard machine.

I admire and appreciate this kind of nostalgia much more than what Nintendo churns out on a regular basis.

"The Rock Band 3 story deals with every aspect of embargoes" #wymhm

One site has information that could endanger the exclusive going to someone else, so they're threatened in order to have it removed. Other news outlets ignore a story they know is true because it might break their embargo, only to find out that USA Today has the exclusive, so their own stories are going to feel like yesterday's news by the time they're allowed to publish. In some cases, writers go see a game, only to have the details, images, and gameplay details published by the developer before the embargo drops, destroying the value of the pre-release briefing.