Computer Games

An article in the London Review by John Lanchester, discusses the place of games in our culture, as they assume more and more economic weight.

His economic terms are imprecise, but I think he is saying that this year, for the first time, video game turnover (£4.64bn) in the UK exceeded books (£4.1bn) and music/videos (£4.46).

But video games have a secondary status in our culture: mainstream media dont review them, people dont talk about them at dinner parties. “There is no other medium that produces so pure a cultural segregation as video games, so clean-cut a division between the audience and the non-audience. Books, films, TV, dance, theatre, music, painting, photography, sculpture, all have publics which either are or aren’t interested in them, but at least know that these forms exist, that things happen in them in which people who are interested in them are interested. They are all part of our current cultural discourse. Video games aren’t. Video games have people who play them, and a wider public for whom they simply don’t exist.”

He then analyses Bioshock as an example of “interesting things [that> happen in games under the cultural radar.” Apparently it is a critique of Ayn Rands ideas.

He also argues that
1. games haved a particular set of conventions, which are often difficult for outsiders to learn, but that gamers actually perfer games not to be too easy: “Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable.”
2. “A persuasive recent essay by the games theorist Steven Poole made the strong argument that the majority of games offer a model of play which is oppressively close to work.” Poole actually tallks about games as “constant, accelerated striving”, which is a good way of putting it.

At the same time Lanchester argues about the target demographic for games (young relatively rich men) “And what do they want? The same thing the audience for any new medium always wants: they want pornography, broadly defined. They want to see things they aren’t supposed to see. This is why video games, in general (and away from the world of Miyamoto-san) are so preoccupied with violence – it’s what young men want to see. (Pornography in the sexual sense is less of an issue: they can get that from the internet, any time they want.) Their rule-bound, target-bound educations and work lives leave them with a deep craving to go and commit imaginary crimes – as well they might.”

So they dont mind the hard work as long as its different?

Returning to economics, he points out that games cost more top buy than videos, so people expect more of them. Also that, “As the tools of filmmaking have got cheaper, those for game making have got more expensive “, leading to all the signs of Hollywoodism – sequels, blockbusters, etc.

The essay is largely preoccupied with the place of video games in culture: “It seems clear to me that by the time my children are adults, video gaming will be a medium whose importance and cultural ubiquity are at least as great as that of film or television. Whether it will be an artistic medium of equivalent importance is less clear.”

He instances some games which encourage creativity, and some others which encourage doing nothing in particular (ie not working or striving) but the main cultural opportunities he thinks games produce are
1. visual beauty – he cites Fallout 3. Actually what interestes me here is “The karma system [this is from Wikipedia> is an important feature in the gameplay. The players actions, including conversation and combat choices, affect the players status in the game world. A player who makes morally good choices will be received more positively by “good” NPCs, and more negatively by “evil” NPCs; however, the reverse is also true: a player that makes morally bad choices will be received more positively by “evil” NPCs and more negatively by “good” NPCs. Quest choices can also have more extreme repercussions on karma; for instance, the player is given the choice of destroying an entire city for a quest, and this single action gives a great deal of negative karma. Extremes of karma have certain effects: a high karma leads to the player being attacked by bounty hunters, and for random NPCs to give the player gifts in thanks of their service. Crimes can also be committed by a player, and whichever faction or group that is harmed by a crime will be fully aware of the players action. Other factions that were not affected by the crime will not be aware of it, and since a town is usually its own faction, news of a crime committed in one town will not spread to another. Factions can range in size and boundaries, however, and may not be restricted to a single area.” An interesting sidelight on ethical debate.
2. encouragement for players to use their own creativity (eg LittleBigPlanet allows you to build your own worlds.

See my earlier posting about false memories and the way that games may develop learning through contact with simulations. The Fallout 3 Karma system, and others like it, may have more impact on 21st century ethics than many an earnest philosopher. I think its in these implicit assumptions that culture is felt, rather than overt statements of intent. As Keynes said, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

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