Notes on video games as culture.

My co-Gent Barrett, in his post “Computing in virtual worlds,” writes:

“…there exists a faction represented by such people as Roger Ebert who believe that one may refer to one’s self as cultured while knowing almost nothing about the state of gaming…”

Some thoughts from a gaming outsider:

1.) Gaming is worth taking seriously, but this also means being ready to criticize. Plenty of what gamers do is, from my perspective, a waste. There’s a common perception that gamers spend a lot of time trying to get away from reality, to lose themselves in worlds which aren’t this one. There’s truth in this. It’s sad to me when someone masters Guitar Hero instead of actually learning to play guitar. On the other hand, judging gaming culture by its best-selling franchises would be like judging film by Michael Bay or contemporary literature by James Patterson. That is to say, it’s an exceptional community where the most interesting stuff doesn’t happen mainly on the fringes.

2.) Barrett’s exactly right to zero in on “sandboxes” as the most impressive sector of gaming culture. About once a year I go on a Conway’s Game of Life binge, marveling at, say, the Universal Turing Machine built on the grid. This “game” was one the earliest demonstrations of gaming culture’s impulse to wring as much complexity as possible out of constrained environments. I’m continually amazed by what happens when game designers set up open environments and let players loose to create. I’m delighted to see what talented puzzle-makers come up with when they pick out an interesting scenario — say, playing with time in a 2D platformer.

3.) However, games often stumble when it comes to narrative. There’s at least one sharp critic on this point in the gaming community: Ben Croshow, a.k.a. Yahtzee, the verbally dextrous and consistently NSFW voice of Zero Punctuation. While Croshow has a handful of examples of effective game storylines (e.g., his write-up of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time), he spends a lot more time lambasting games for awful writing, stupid characters, and contrived events. My limited experience with major-release games is that there’s a constant give-and-take with interactivity: the story-driven game may or may not give you choices, and if it does you’re going to be constrained and herded toward the handful of endings the developers had in mind anyway. The stories work better for me when they’re minimal, more suggested than spelled out, as in, say, Shadow of the Colossus. One caveat with regard to stories and games: I’ve never played a MMORPG, so I’m not sure what it’s like to be part of one of these huge game-wide narrative events.

4.) Another major tension in story-driven games is that between the story’s need for a protagonist and the gameplay’s demand for continual violence. This got quite comical in Grand Theft Auto IV, where you were expected to somehow summon sympathy for Niko Bellic’s emotional turmoil between tasks that required you to guide Niko to commit mass slaughter. To return to the film analogy, you get a lot of the video-game equivalent of Michael Bay, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get Peckinpah or Miyazaki. But could you ever have an Antonioni? I’m not at all sure if this will hold up, but I’d posit for the sake of discussion that in film the relevant axis is stimulation-meditation, whereas in games the relevant axis is destruction-creation.

5.) The fanboy approach to gaming will continue to keep knowledge of gaming from functioning as cultural capital. If the gaming community wants to be taken seriously by the Eberts of the future, it should generate more of its own thoughtful critics.

6.) I would seriously love to play Miegakure.

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55 thoughts on “Notes on video games as culture.

  1. I agree with everything you’ve written here. I would note that although the majority of games are without any merit whatsoever, but one can say the same of books, television shows, films, magazine articles, mass e-mails from Michelle Obama, and editors. When I talk of the virtues of games, I should probably note that I am speaking specifically of a certain subset of games, and that my fanboyish praise is intended only for such things as Morrowind and Dwarf Fortress. You are certainly correct that gaming needs better critics if the medium is to be taken seriously. I can offer a bit of insight into that. As a freelancer, I’m capable of getting a response from the editors of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s, but I’ve been unable to make contact with any editors of any of the major gaming magazines to save my life. I don’t know if they are glutted with e-mails from would-be gaming writers or what, but at any rate I am not aware of any writers such as myself who have successfully made the transition from such things as Vanity Fair to any of the gaming publications. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to convince the editors of the prominent yet stupid publications for which I write that an article on a game could potentially be better than an article on some worthless actor.

    Having said all of that, there are indeed some fantastic game reviewers of which I am aware despite not reading much of the gaming press insomuch as that I am a niche gamer who plays such things as Victoria: Empire Under the Sun and other geopolitical simulators. Rock, Paper, Shotgun, for instance, is a fantastic website that employs a largely English cadre of writers, but not the idiotic sort that invaded Vanity Fair in the ’90s and who ought to have been immediately deported, but rather the sort who are actually comfortable with the English language and, more importantly, have something interesting to say in that language. I would absolutely recommend that site even to those people who don’t play games themselves but would like to get some sense of the best that the industry has to offer. Of course, many of the best games are now put out by independents such as Tarn Adams, the creator of Dwarf Fortress, whom I’ve been conversing with over the past few months and whose answers to some of my questions I’ll be running on this blog soon.

    Anyway, thanks for posting on this subject.

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  2. Computer gaming as a defining Cultural movement?
    I have a hard time buying into that.

    Culture, by definition, is a collectively social endeavor: visual arts, performance art, musical arts. PC Gaming is no more socially inclusive than its cardboard predecessors, and no more remarkable to puzzle solvers than Sudoku or Crosswords.

    I’ve no doubt that today’s gamers/development entrepreneurs contribute to significant tech advances. God Bless ’em. But specifically affiliating computer gaming with culture and its influence? To my mind, this seems a rather extreme obsequience.

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    • “Defining Cultural movement” would be putting it too strongly. Anyways, I think your definition of culture is narrower than mine — that is, it seems that by “culture” you mean specifically “high culture.” On top of that, I doubt that your “collectively social” criterion does what you want it to do: even if we disregard the intense multiplayer aspect of contemporary games, I don’t see why a narrative game couldn’t be “collectively social” in the same sense that novels are.

      If you think video games don’t bring anything new to puzzle-solving, you might want to click through on (6).

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      • An interesting comparative point you raise, specific to novels.
        But I’m not sure how gaming breaks cultural ground– it’s simply a contemporary iteration of story-telling, no?

        As to puzzle-solving: the last thing I need is one more internet string pulling on me, so I’ll pass on (6). I’m pretty sure I already took your inference seriously– I readily concede that puzzle-solving serves a worthwhile purpose, as it always has. I just don’t see how ‘new and improved’ versions of puzzle-solving suddenly translates into a cultural phenomenon.

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    • Culture, by definition, is a collectively social endeavor: visual arts, performance art, musical arts

      I’m trying to reconcile this sentence with the fact that many (most?) of the great and/or famous musical and visual artists in history ran the gamut from socially awkward to misanthropic to to completely bat-s(tuff) crazy.

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      • I think you’re conflating the artist with their art.

        You’re correct, in that many artists are not, well, socially ‘adept’. (I’d count my own son — classical musician in grad school — among the socially inept, which is not the same as anti-social or batshit crazy.)

        Nevertheless, the appreciation of art, as a cultural phenomenon, is a collective exercise. It was never my intention to speak to the emotional or mental stability of any artist in particular, nor artists in general.

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    • That’s a really narrow definition of culture as just “art”. Lots of culture is not “art” – advertising is definitely culture, for example. Crosswords, especially the British cryptic ones but American ones too, are culture. And I’m not sure what’s “collectively social” about some guy making a painting and another guy paying a bunch of money for it so he can look at it that isn’t social about some guy making a game that another guy pays money for so he can play it.

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      • You’re unnecessarily parsing the definition of ‘culture’.
        My comment was meant to speak specifically to the author’s (and BB’s) thoughts on gaming as a [presumptive] cultural phenomenon.

        But I take your point, and agree, in that Culture extends well beyond art.
        However, cultural bents are uniquely, collectively social endeavors. Meaning that Acknowledgment is required. Heck, in a twisted turn of fate even counter-culture requires a form of acknowledgement from mainstream culture.

        Contrary to your point, culture has nothing to do with the exchange of money.
        But we are a capitalist society, so the exchange of money necessarily enters virtually every aspect of our lives.

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        • My point wasn’t about money, but about how painting is more “social” than gaming. Both involve at a minimum two people, although commonly many more. Gaming rather more than painting, on average, I’d have thought. So what makes one “social” and the other not?

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  3. “It’s sad to me when someone masters Guitar Hero instead of actually learning to play guitar.”

    i’m mostly with you, but this is kinda like saying “man, people play simon instead of learning to effectively play hand drums”. non-overlapping magistrates and all that.

    “Gaming is no more socially inclusive than its cardboard predecessors”

    if the biggest games weren’t mmorpgs (not my cup of tea, but the cup of tea of millions) you might have a point.

    related, but not: minecraft!

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    • if the biggest games weren’t mmorpgs (not my cup of tea, but the cup of tea of millions) you might have a point.

      Gawd, I hate to sound like an old person, but might you unpack your point?

      How is it that a singular obsession — shared by millions perhaps, but certainly not a social endeavor — is characterized as a cultural influence? Hell, millions also played solitaire — with a deck of fucking cards. No one ever suggested they were cultural trendsetters.

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      • MMORPGs thrive on the societies they create, and die if those societies fail. The social aspects of the games underpin most of the design and the important features. The content, the interface, the basic architecture all strive to make it easy and interesting to play with other people. People form groups to play, long-term ones (guilds, companies, whatever) and short-term ones (groups, gangs, fleets). The joy comes from putting the groups in situations that require genuine teamwork, and overcoming the obstacles in the way. Each guild/company that people join creates a small society that lives or dies by the human interaction within it.

        MMORPGs can be improv theater, when the group decides to role-play (the R in MMORPG) (1). In some games, groups are an economic endeavor (2). One MMO requires the players to build artworks (3). People design and build virtual buildings together in some MMOs (4). Some involve intrigue and betrayal. The scope is vast.

        MMOs are a place to experiment, or a place to be free. And they are, by definition, a place to meet other people. Players make friends. Players fall in love. Players get married (in real life). Not social?!?

        (1). Nearly every MMO has people who role-play.
        (2). EVE Online provides a sophisticated version of economic play, as well as intrigue. The company making EVE Online even employs an economist to help the game economy function well.
        (3). A Tale In the Desert is one of the more unusual games. It has none of the combat normally found in MMOS, focusing instead on puzzles and social interactions.
        (4). A Tale In the Desert and Istaria: Chronicles of the Gifted have complex architectural systems. The latter had/has players building large-scale structures together in order to advance the story.

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        • Okay. But all of this is RPG/Virtual, right?

          So some number of these peeps actually get married?
          Wow. A common interest should never be underestimated, but c’mon. Bottom line, gaming is not a social exercise. Interactive, yes, as you portray it. But social? No. How many of these players are ever in the same room? (Interestingly, I’m reminded of my college soph daughter texting/tweeting her roommate not 3 feet from her. I both laughed and yelled at them for their ridiculousness.)

          Just like our online presence at TLOOG. Interactive. Not social.
          There’s a HUGE distinction. How do I have that wrong?

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          • If people are forming emotional bonds, joining in communal endeavors, and building communities, it’s social. Jealousy, love, hatred, pride, the gamut of human social emotions are on play in these games. It doesn’t get a whole lot more social than that, even if the activity is mediated by virtual reality. You’re mistaking the medium for the activity.

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              • It’s a social reality, like money or property. There’s no reality to either of those, independent of human society.

                The feelings inside the heads of the people who play these social games are real, the friendships are real. The coordination and teamwork that make the groups work are real, even if the ultimate objective is no more than electrons dancing in a database somewhere (much like our bank accounts these days).

                We’ve had insubstantial social realities for millennia. What exists in peoples’ heads is real, with strong effects on the people sharing it, even when there’s no physical manifestation (beyond human behaviour). You will undoubtedly be surprised to learn that there are black markets in the currencies of the various games, so players can buy them for dollars or euros. And that the virtual items can be (in violation of the game rules) bought and sold for real money. A few people even make a real-world living buying and selling virtual items from games like World of Warcraft and Everquest. No physical tangibility, but as real as your dollars in the bank.

                Not to forget that these are games, like football or chess. Some people take them seriously, and they are a bigger business than Hollywood. But in the end, they’re social entertainment, like the summer softball leagues.

                Is it social? Is a telephone call social? A letter? An argument through a door? An argument somewhere on the internet? I’d say yes. There’s a person behind the words, someone real. There’s the back and forth that makes it reality, existing in both the minds of the disputants and other witnesses. Important? Not in the grand scheme of things. Not like a bank account, or a CDO (the mortgage-backed security). But just as real.

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              • That’s probably for the best. You’ve just asserted that some particular form of interaction between humans is not actually social and then topped it off by apparently asserting that such a medium exists outside of reality.

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          • Just like our online presence at TLOOG. Interactive. Not social.
            There’s a HUGE distinction. How do I have that wrong?

            Because the League IS social. Think about it — in the pre-Internet days, is this a critique you would ever have made of newspapers? And yet reporters often filed stories from faraway cities with minimal “social” interaction, by your definition. Is the telephone social? Is the illuminated manuscript? It seems SO many things fall to your critique that I can’t possibly take it seriously.

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  4. Somehow, this thread reminds me of the mainstream press reviews of “Lord of the Rings”; a bit condescending, yet mystified, with an uneasy feeling that something important is going on.

    There’s a subculture that enjoys both LotR and games, and it is rapidly spreading. You can join, or mock it as shallow, as before you the aristocracy mocked the bourgeois. The people in it recognize each other, whether they’re Japanese, Indian, or Anglo; it is global. We are, perhaps, seeing the rise of a new social class.

    Some games have gone very near to art: text adventures have ceased to be commercially produced at all, and now are strictly the province of amateur artists; Braid, one of the recently acclaimed games, plays with time while exploring the protagonist’s motivations; the visual art in games can be stunning and beautiful (e.g. Guild Wars, EVE Online).

    Something, however, is going on. There’s a cultural ferment going on outside the stale environs of the haute bourgeois society that has brought us such greats as Andy Warhol and John Cheever.

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  5. I second the impression that much of what passes for our culture’s creativity doesn’t amount to a hill of bug-infested beans, but I do love me a good videogame, especially one with a spectacular narrative. I’ve a soft spot for the Final Fantasy series, but the best ever game, in my under-informed opinion, is Vagrant Story. What I particularly like about the videogame medium is its capacity to tell a long, complex story through visuals, sound, music, and other film-type qualities without the time constraints of film. Alas, I have not the time to play them these days.

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    • I agree, and it completely amazes me that 10 years later, few have been able to surpass or even build on Vagrant Story. It was like Nolan-lite at the time, before I’d even seen a Nolan film. And as books don’t always translate well into movies, it would be misleading to say that it was simply the story, or the artwork, music, etc. that were worthwhile. All these things came together as a whole, predicated on a certain form of gameplay and interactivity that just would have been a completely different experience in another medium.

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      • I think just the juggling of different plot lines with different characters whose motivations were all different and rarely what they seemed. The revelation of Ashely’s past, Sydney’s changing role as the seeming antagonist, with cut scenes to the past inter spliced between entering/exiting rooms. It was all enough to blow my 12 year old mind. Though I’m sure it didn’t have quite the same mind blowing effect on older players, hence Nolan-lite.

        But FFVII’s twists did the same thing to me. I’ve always wondered whether the genre just died out, if the people developing them now just aren’t as talented, or I’m just a cranky nostalgic who can’t evolve with the industry.

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  6. Have you looked at Super Columbine Massacre RPG, I think it will challenge your view of sandbox games as gaming pinnacle. Here is a linear game with a taught narrative structure and in-depth research that’s more evocative than any other attempt at capturing that event. Moreover, it’s the most effective device I’ve seen to interactively demonstrate the Stanford prison experiment by having the player almost completely associate with the horrific acts of the main characters because there’s a standard game structure involved. I think it would be tough to identify some actual “masterpieces” in the video-game genre, but this one surely hits it.

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    • If it’s a demonstration of the Stanford prison experiment, isn’t the right response to refuse to play?

      In the post I posited a dilemma for narrative action games: you need a decent protagonist on the one hand, but for the game to flow there needs to be continual action, which means virtual violence in a lot of settings. Does SCMRPG have value beyond rubbing the player’s nose in this dilemma?

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      • I do think it goes a bit deeper than just self-referential exploitation. It’s a meticulously well-researched game that essentially follows the narrative structure of the events themselves, primarily with rendered photos and diary clippings of the two real-life protagonists. But, most importantly, it places you into their mindset much more effectively than other mediums. This is partly because video games are just a naturally interactive form but also because it specifically uses the RPG structure and look that is practically in the collective unconscious of the average gamer. Of course, it also deals with all of the meta issues concerning what effect violent video-games had on the two, who were also average gamers. Compared to something like Elephant, which is also fascinating but entirely observational, I think that kind of experience has a lot of value.

        The structure you describe seems befitting of a true game – something you can play over and over for pleasure – rather than a narrative that happens to use the video game as it’s delivery device. But I think one aspect cannibalizes the other and I’m not sure they’re both achievable. We certainly don’t make the same demands of film or books (as much as Dan Brown has tried).

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  7. It’s a hobby.

    The video games I most enjoy are RPGs… not the strategy ones, either. The ones like Oblivion, Fallout 3, New Vegas, and so on. I am self-aware enough to know that these are digital versions of sorting m&ms. Finishing a quest (of which there are only a handful of variants) gives me the same thrill as looking down and seeing all the yellows together with all of the ms facing up.

    With that said, the argument that I could be doing something useful with my time instead of doing something that makes me feel good is one that irritates me.

    Hey, why aren’t you volunteering at the local whatever instead of posting to the net? That’s different, I’m sure.

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      • I shouldn’t discount the joys to be found in criticism, I guess.

        Which brings me to Yahtzee. He has said, come out and said!, that he gets better responses when he tears up the games rather than saying what he likes about them. The readers have shaped the critic, in this case.

        My problem with him is that I’ve likely beaten the game twice before he gets around to reviewing it and he points out all of the things that I should have disliked about the game.

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    • “It’s sad to me when someone masters Guitar Hero instead of actually learning to play guitar.”

      After posting this, I realized that what I wrote in (1) should have been aimed more at myself, because I am not actually sad about what other people do with their time. There were, however, stages of my life where in retrospect I wish I had spent my time differently.

      I didn’t mean to irritate you.

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      • Dude, you didn’t irritate me. I spent today drunk.

        My day was enviable by all.

        However! When I encounter screeds dedicated to the idea of “some hobbies suck more than others”, I must get involved (and doubly so when “some hobbies” happen to be mine).

        For the record: the only thing that might possibly irritate me about how you spend your free time is if you spend it in ways that don’t make you either happy or better off in the long run.

        Seriously. You need to spend your free time better. Make yourself better off or MAKE YOURSELF HAPPY.

        There ain’t no afterlife, dude.

        Be happy.

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  8. Great piece Will.

    With regard to video games and there lack of “social endeavor,” well, it remains to be seen how how playing them is any different from reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to music (all when done alone).

    Perhaps a lot of confusion has followed from a poor definition of culture, or for that matter, art. But rather than argue over whether VGs are either, it seems easier to see first if and in what ways they are any different from traditional objects/instances of culture/art.

    I completely agree on the lack of sophisticated/rigorous/interesting critique on the part of gamers and writers entrenched in the subculture. The longer they let outsiders, that is, people who don’t play video games, describe and define the phenomenon, they are doing themselves and the industry/medium/form a disservice.

    Which brings me to what I’ll call the Ebert Fallacy, an underlying flaw in his critique that he readily admits: rendering an analysis without any first hand experience or the experiences of those they know.

    I’m not suggesting that it is always necessary to partake in something in order to speak authoritatively on it. For instance I think murder is often wrong, but I don’t rely on first hand experience in order to make that declaration.

    But still, flaws in the arguments of “outsiders” is often most apparent because of a lack of shared grounds from which to reason.

    Though I could be wrong, and I’ll be corrected if I am, ktward makes it quite clear she has little to no experience playing, watching, or reading about video games when she makes repeated claims that video games are not social, based on her forgone conclusion that video games are no social.

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  9. “5.) The fanboy approach to gaming will continue to keep knowledge of gaming from functioning as cultural capital. If the gaming community wants to be taken seriously by the Eberts of the future, it should generate more of its own thoughtful critics.”

    As a lifelong gamer I cannot tell you how much I agree with this statement. Back in the eighties, there really were no game reviews. At least not for a kid in a small town in South Dakota. You bought games that looked like they were cool and hoped they didn’t suck. These days, with several magazines and websites that offer game reviews, I buy games that look like they might be worth the money and hope they don’t suck. That is how worthless video game reviews are.

    First off, the major gaming websites get their money from the big game companies, so you won’t see a major release get below a seven out of ten no matter how much the game sucks. When Jeff Gertzman(I may have his name wrong, I’m going off memory here) gave Kane and Lynch a six a few years ago, Eidos pulled their advertising off of Gamespot and Gamespot fired Gertzman for writing an honest review. That sent a pretty clear message. You do not give bad reviews to major releases.

    But thats only a part of the problem. A lot of reviews spend most of their time on features that are included in the game, not if they work or not. The review ends up reading more like a more in depth preview, with very little critical judgment about the merits or lack there of the game. I had this problem with Dead Rising 2. I had a serious love/hate relationship with the first Dead Rising. Half the time the game was a blast, the other half it was one of the most frustrating experiences of the early Xbox 360. So naturally, I was unsure if I wanted to drop sixty dollars on the next game.

    I read several reviews of Dead Rising 2 including Kotaku’s just after they switched review styles. None of them were the least bit helpful. I ended up not buying it not wanting to waste another sixty dollars on a Capcom title. I had no idea if the game had fixed several of the serious flaws that turned the first game into such a Jekyll and Hyde game. All the reviews spent time talking about what was in the game and hardly anything about if it worked or not.

    Another problem is the gamers themselves. There is a great article over at the Brainy Gamer about this. A reviewer for G4TV.com called out Metroid: Other M for its extraordinary sexism. The story in Other M sucks. They turn an independent, quiet bad ass into a whiny, crying daddy’s girl and completely destroyed the character some of us grew up loving. Yahtzee also brought this up in his review of the game. The gaming community attacked the reviews of G4TV.com savagely in comment threads and forums.

    The consensus view is that sort of criticism doesn’t belong in video game reviews. Reviews need to objective and not subjective. This makes absolutely no sense to me. This is exactly the kind of criticism that video games need. There is a strong backlash against any thing that disrupts the violent power fantasy of gamers. Criticism of a game’s intentional or unintentional sub-content and what sort of message it is sending to the player is defiantly disruptive of that violent power fantasy.

    There seems to be a willful rejection of critical thinking in the gaming community right now the scares the hell out of me at times. The fact that we’re playing the same space marine character in the same drab, brownish landscapes over and over again under different titles doesn’t matter. The violent power fantasy of mass killing is what matters. To them, all that matters is graphical and technical performance. No sub-par graphics or glitches and slow down to get in their way of mass slaughter. If you want to talk about story, character and themes then gamers think you should just STFU.

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  10. Regarding point one:
    I often hear this “waste of time” argument made, and it always strikes me as completely hypocritical when taken in the context of the amount of time that sports coverage, commentating, and viewer-ship currently take up.
    Is it similarly ” sad” to you when people watch sports on TV rather than play them? Ridiculous.

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  11. As far as the “wasting time” argument goes. What if we did a Children of Men thought experiment where in no future generations would be born.

    Would the idea of “wasting time” even make sense?

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    • OK, it’s not just “wasting time” that I wanted to get at. I like idleness; I think engaging with narrative is generally worthwhile; creating and planning is good. The thing I was trying to criticize — and I’m having big second thoughts on the way I expressed it — was that people put a lot of work towards becoming excellent at Guitar Hero, and that a similar amount of work would make them decent at real guitar. It’s not just enjoying the game casually; it’s practicing and developing skills. But to expand the point I would have to think through the psychology of level grinding.

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      • I’d love a post to develop a psychology of level grinding. It’s something that turned me off to video games, feeling like I was wasting my time for little reward when it came to story, aesthetic experience, or competitive play.

        Then games started getting really easy, as a “mainstream” audience developed that demanded easy to pick up and play games from developers. At which point the lack of “work” or effort made a lot of games feel uninspiring. I’d be interested to get your take on how mindless grinding (work), repeated attempts (challenge), and successful completion (achievement), all interact to yield pleasure or a “waste of time.”

        But on a philosophical note, I’m really going so far as to challenge whether “waste of time” is a statement that can be made objectively, or must necessarily be subjective. Maybe after six hours, I say, to hell with this dungeon, this stopped being fun a while ago, in which case I might decide I’ve been wasting my time, vs. a second person or society saying from an external viewpoint, without any knowledge as to my mind or internal experience, that such and such is a waste of time.

        Needless to say the whole thing gets into issues of what we owe other people I think, in terms of what I owe society or other people. Is all that is required of me that I don’t do actively do harm (vs harm arising from my inaction), in which case playing video games or any hobby would be fine no matter how obsessive or time wasting it was.

        If however, I owe the world some meaningful contribution, whether in producing some artistic/cultural product of my own in return, or contributing to technological/economic/humanitarian progress, then the “wasting time” issue becomes real and beholden to objective/external, General Will like criteria.

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  12. >people put a lot of work towards becoming excellent at Guitar Hero, and … a similar amount of work would make them decent at real guitar.<

    If by "decent" you mean anything more than stringing together some basic first-position chords with some facility, then I think you're wildly overstating the amount of work that GH/RB require to attain excellence (at least, given a little rhythmic aptitude).

    More broadly, I think the basic problem you're identifying is just the temptation to substitute an easier, shorter-time-horizon goal for a harder, more long-term goal, and it doesn't really matter whether the particular choice of the former superficially resembles the latter. I'm skeptical that there's any significant number of people who would have learned to play the real guitar had they just not gotten GH or Rock Band — more likely, the time not spent playing those games would be replaced by time spent mastering some other video game.

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