Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Who you callin' dumb?! What makes some video games smarter than others?

What makes a game smart or dumb? A recent article in The Atlantic has raised gamers' hackles, forcing players and developers alike to consider what we mean when we talk about intellectual sophistication and learning in games. This article is the first of two parts.

Are today's video games dumb?  Taylor Clark's recent article highlighting the eccentric video game innovator Jonathan Blow makes the brutal claim that most games are exactly that. Of course, developers and gamers immediately took to their Twitter accounts and their blogs to defend their beloved video games, some even going so far as to make exhaustive lists of "smart" games to counter Clark's accusation.  But in the rush to defend certain specific titles as exceptional in their sophistication, an important problem raised by Clark's criticism has been overlooked: what does it even mean to call a video game "dumb" or "smart"?
Clark's language in describing the dumbness of todays' games is colorful, to say the least.  But for all his purple prose, he doesn't really paint a very clear picture for us of what it means for a game to be dumb:
"...video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb. Aside from a handful of truly smart games, tentpole titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Call of Duty: Black Ops tend to be so silly and so poorly written that they make Michael Bay movies look like the Godfather series. In games, brick-shaped men yell catchphrases like “Suck pavement!” and wield giant rifles that double as chain saws, while back-breakingly buxom women rush into combat wearing outfits that would make a Victoria’s Secret photographer blush. In games, nuance and character development simply do not exist. In games, any predicament or line of dialogue that would make the average ADHD-afflicted high-school sophomore scratch his head gets expunged and then, ideally, replaced with a cinematic clip of something large exploding. 
Even the industry’s staunchest defenders acknowledge the chronic dumbness of contemporary video games, usually with a helpless shrug—because, hey, the most ridiculous games can also be the most fun. (After all, the fact that the Super Mario games are about a pudgy plumber with a thick Italian accent who jumps on sinister bipedal mushrooms doesn’t make them less enjoyable to play.) But this situation puts video-game advocates in a bind. It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated."

The interesting thing about Clark's description of dumb games is the abundance of different games and game types which he cavalierly sweeps into this bloated category. Super Mario Bros is dumb because it is non-sensical. Call of Duty is dumb because it gives pride of place to explosions over narrative.  Bad dialog in games is evidence to Clark of an intentional dumbing down of games for the Ritalin-addicted masses, and it smacks of vapidness. And yet, Clark also indicts the overly serious engagement of "puerile" topics as equally, nay excruciatingly, dumb.

Dumb or subversive?  Who's to say?
When dumbness as an analytic category is painted in such broad brushstrokes as it is in Clark's article, it quickly becomes useless for understanding where today's games can and do go wrong. Clark treats it as self-evident that non-sensical game worlds are dumb,  but would he make the same assumption outside of the context of a discussion of video games?  Could we rightly dismiss the work of Dadaists and Surrealists as lacking in intellectual sophistication simply because their images are non-sensical? And what about another kind of dumbness Clark describes: the dumbness of taking fantasy too seriously?  Lord of the Rings and Elder Scrolls fans alike are de facto dumb for relishing their "silly" fantasy worlds, despite the fact that poetry, heroic tales, and myth-making are all well-recognized forms of human cultural expression that date back centuries and span the globe. In short, Clark's portrait of "dumbness" its at once overly broad and deeply elitist.  The popular and the low-brow are categorically treated as intellectually sterile, and any modern attempts at expressing cultural ideals through fantasy are lambasted for being inherently juvenile. "Dumb" becomes a black hole that indiscriminately sucks nearly every game ever made into its insatiable gravitational well.  In Clark's portrait, nearly all engagement in fantasy seems to fall into the category of dumb.

Such an all-encompassing term serves no useful role in any critical discussion about either the content or quality of video games.  Splitting the world of games into the categories of smart and dumb, independent of genre, purpose or intended audience, makes for a hollow assessment that simply doesn't tell us anything about a game. Within every game, there is the good and the bad, enjoyable features and frustrating interfaces, immersive moments and annoying interruptions, moments of pure adrenaline and moments of boredom, times when the game meets or exceeds our expectations and times when it disappoints them. Almost every published game is a mix of things that work and things that don't. It's only by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of those discreet parts that we can turn mere opinions like "this is fun," "this is stupid," "this is hard," "this is boring," into the basis of a critical conversation about the content and meaning of games.

Of course, Clark didn't write his article with the intention of making either a subtle or nuanced critique about contemporary video games, he wrote the article in praise of Braid developer Jonathan Blow.  And what journalist wouldn't be tempted to use an intentionally inflammatory style in order to put his article's subject in the best possible light, and to distinguish him as a lone innovator elevating the craft of game-making out of the muck? But in a response from Clark published at Kotaku, it's clear that even as he now equivocates to angry gamers by making face-saving assurances that he, too, is a "chronic" and devoted gamer, Clark continues to write as more of a stuffy pedant than a loving, thoughtful critic.

Clark's response does at last acknowledge that all games are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses.  "I don't mean that literally everything about [dumb games] lacks intelligence," he writes. "It should go without saying that there are countless smart things going on in even the most outwardly silly games, or else they'd have no reason to succeed."  But Clark doesn't see the need to talk about "the design mechanics under the hood." He wants to divorce mechanical sophistication from intellectual content. Of course, this is problematic in itself.  As any film-maker or film critic would readily tell you, even a "smart" script can be turned into a "dumb" film if the staging, lighting, cinematography, editing, sound editing, or any other technical component of the film is not aesthetically in-line with the film's narrative content. To say that we can separate the story or the intellectual/emotional qualities of a game from its mechanical components is sadly naive.

But even if we pretend that we can do as Clark proposes and ignore the complex technical and mechanistic aspects of a game and focus only on narratives and themes, Clark's attempt to redirect the terms of the debate from a question of whether games are dumb to whether they lack "intellectual maturity" still gets us nowhere.  When Clark finally unpacks what he means by saying that games are "emotionally and intellectually unfulfilling," it becomes obvious that Clark is doing little more than rehashing a critique of games that's as old as it is tired.

The main points of the argument are:

  • Games are too escapist.  
  • Their stories are uninspired at best and incomprehensibly convoluted at their worst.  
  • The dialog and voice acting are bad.  
  • They're over-sexualized and gratuitously male-fantasy oriented.  
  • There's too much over-the-top violence.  
  • Video games are totally immature.

In finally giving some precision to his criticism of games, Clark makes obvious just how trite and elitist his argument  ultimately is. All of these criticisms have been made before about video games. Moreover, there are few who would deny that many games do still fit into the escapist-fantasy mold.  But this is no different than is the case with any other artistic medium: writing, film, television, music, etc. And for each of these industries, there have always been an abundance of critics wailing about how the ratio of wheat to chaff is deplorably low. Why video games strike Clark as being unusually or uniquely plagued by this problem defies explanation.  For every Chinatown, there are a dozen Transformers-like films raking in the box office earnings.  And for every great work of literature, there are thousands of forgettable titles making their way to the bottom of bargain bins as we speak.  There really isn't much reason to worry that the video game market is any different or any worse.

But if Clark's articles offer nothing in the way of new insight into video games, why have gamers bother responding to it at all? Perhaps Clark's vivid language made it seem as though the criticism had more merit to it, like it wasn't just another "geez, you guys are soooo immature," kind of claim.  Undoubtedly, tucking the inflammatory criticism into an article lauding a figure of the gaming industry practically guaranteed that it was on the express route to gamers' hearts and minds, and no one likes to be insulted on their home turf.  But it's also possible that while Clark's category of "dumb" was hollow and hardly worth attention, it provided just enough provocation to make many gamers realize that themselves have a lot to say about what makes a game "smart" in their eyes.

Next week, I will turn to the idea of "smart" games and explore the impassioned and thoughtful discussion that gamers have generated over the past weeks as they describe their own encounters with intellectually and emotionally gratifying video games.

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