November 4th, 2007

quote - B5 avalanche

The evils of videogames

So I have been thinking a lot lately about videogames, and people's attitudes toward them. This is actually a subject of great interest to me on a number of levels -- as a gamer, as a librarian, as a consumer of media, as an educator at a school that teaches game art and game programming. So it's not like this is a new topic for me, but a number of things have gotten me to thinking about it more specifically. First was madlori's post last month about her unapologetic love of television, then an article that heyheyrenay sent me about getting boys to read that gratuitously insults games, and last, but definitely not least, an entry on the Annoyed Librarian blog that blasts public libraries that circulate games and sponsor gaming events.

There seems to be a media hierarchy in our society: Books are at the top, followed by movies, then television, then games. So why is that? Why should form matter more than content? Why should a game be inherently inferior? T and I just finished Super Paper Mario this afternoon; it was enjoyable, a challenge, and I had fun playing it. Would the 30 hours we spent playing it been better used reading? What if I'd spent that whole time reading trashy romance novels? Or watching television? That's probably about the amount of time I've spent watching Heroes so far; is that a better intellectual exercise than playing a game? What if I were to tell you that Super Paper Mario had a plot, and a complex backstory that led to some significant character development? I'd hardly call it the Citizen Kane of games* but it wasn't mindless fluff either.

It seems to me that most of the people who dismiss games, and their potential as learning tools and/or quality entertainment, have probably never played. Do they really understand the complexity of a good game, the way it rewards learning how to do a task more efficiently, the depth of story and character that some of them contain? A couple of years ago, Roger Ebert (whom I normally adore) famously dismissed the possibility that video games could ever be an art form:

There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

Leaving aside the question of whether art "requires" authorial control (can't improv theater or interactive multimedia be a type of art?) I think this response hits the problem with that belief on the head: even if the progress of a game can be influenced by reader choices, all the various paths that the game can take were created by an author. Quotes like the above show a fundamental lack of understanding about what games are.

All of this is problematic, but it's the librarian's attitude that drove me over the line to post. She (I assume, the blogger uses a pseudonym) keeps harping on the point that games are "only" entertainment, and that the library's mission is to educate, not entertain. Really? I guess we should get rid of all the novels then. And the music, and the DVDs (except for the documentaries), and all the Internet access except for the scholarly databases. Seriously, in what world is this the mission of the library? Especially a public library. Fiction, in whatever medium is an important part of the life of the mind. That's what the library is about -- the pursuit of all human knowledge, not just the parts that someone somewhere has deemed "educational".

I don't think it's any accident that the hierarchy I listed above orders the media by age (books are older than movies are older than TV is older than games). If Pong is the first videogame, then games have only been part of the popular consciousness since the early 1970s. I wonder how the view of games will change when the people who write cultural criticism -- and write award-winning books for teens, and run libraries -- were not only gamers themselves, but were raised by parents who played videogames. We're approaching that era with television, and already I'm starting to see more people taking TV seriously as an artistic medium. Will games be far behind? It'll be interesting to see.

*Which raised an interesting question: what is the Citizen Kane of videogames? Has it been created yet? Will we look back on the history of games some day and be able to point to some game and say "This game changed everything"?