Through the Lens of Gaming

I have a habit of second-guessing myself. This can work as a blessing and a curse: I do very little without thinking through the pros and cons, which I suppose results in fewer mistakes made overall. Then again, it also means I do very little. I can spend days agonizing over ideas only to find that I haven’t taken action after a month of mulling things over. I took deliberate steps to remedy this problem recently, but it seems that the last bastion of my own insecurity lies within time spent writing.

In some ways, this is a comfort to me. I have always loved writing because I consider it to be the most beneficial way to seek and share truth, whatever it may be. Since I started actively writing and editing years ago, I believe I’ve become a better, more well-rounded writer. And yet, what still plagues me is the days of agonizing that come with any 500+ word piece. I’m terrified that I will write something untrue, hard to relate to or boring. I type sentence after sentence, deleting each one, starting over every time until I finally get a paragraph down. I delete that paragraph and try again. Five nights of this go by until it’s 2 a.m. the night the article is due. I hammer something out that’s magically decent and start the cycle again. I will have you know, this is a writer’s hell.

I type sentence after sentence, deleting each one, starting over every time until I finally get a paragraph down. I delete that paragraph and try again.

Writing about games is particularly difficult, because the games writing community is both close-knit and extremely opinionated. It’s not just that every writer has their own particular perspective and opinion about what makes a game good, bad or not a game at all – they have their own thoughts about games writing itself. So often, those opinions clash.

This is a largely beneficial exercise, as games writing must mature as fast as the medium of videogames itself. Still, it results in a lot of hand-wringing, especially as a general consensus starts to unveil itself that feels, to me, as if it’s kicking down my own door, threatening to come inside and tear down everything I’ve built up as a writer over the last few years.

This is the kind of thing I imagine and react to internally (and one unfortunate time, externally – in the form of a slightly misguided Twitter rant) as I read various iron-sharpening sentiments often meant to build up other writers. Take, for instance, Cameron Kunzelman’s insistence that:

We need fewer [Tom] Bissell imitators. Ninety-nine percent of the readers of this blog know exactly what I’m talking about – cloying attempts at being smart, shallow readings of games to find some meaning that “speaks to us all,” and assertions that, yes, Final Fantasy VII actually is the best game of all time.

The way we get out of this pit is rigor. We have to play games and actually pay attention to how they are structured. We need to understand how they are assembled.

Oh, and then there’s this deceitfully cordial pondering from Kill Screen’s former editor, Ryan Kuo:

Perhaps the issue is that wishful thinking, such as the notion that one is important or magical or smart or even interesting, or maybe Batman, still pulls a lot of weight in making videogame systems appealing to play with. These fantasies are as thin as the skintight costumes of Silver Age superheroes. The mouse click in Diablo III transforms you into a cool demon slayer, but also a vegetable with arms. The nature of videogames is that we are not currently able to decide which one matters more. 

Finally, there’s this punch in the nuts from Michael Thomsen:

It is a particular sickness of writers to want to make sense of everything. Writing about a game requires a logical and linear sequence of ideas to be connected. Criticism says that works are important, but that one’s interpretative understanding of a work is even more important—even in praise it is a defeat at the hands of the audience. Videogames agitate this phenomenon to an unusual degree because of the discrepancy between their functioning as systems and their signification as art, which critics like me hasten to interpret with stern attention. 

None of these necessitate the reaction I had to them: utter rage, followed by despair and frustration at myself. After all, I had proposed and started writing a column called “Navel Gaming,” where I inject my own experience and perspective into a game experience, not to mention my other weekly column about mobile games, wherein I do things like draw a direct analogy between the bird in Tiny Wings to myself and my own failures. If these guys were right, I was very very wrong. Right?

———

Still life study of a Holy Bible on an antique leather top deskThroughout my misguided academic career, I have acquired two theology degrees: one bachelor and one master. In both programs I had to take classes on hermeneutics, which is the art and science of interpreting a text. In this case, the text in question was The Bible, considered by the institution and myself to be the infallible word of God. Needless to say, we were taught to interpret with as little subjectivity as possible, to consider the author’s background, the context of the audience, the context of the rest of the canon of scripture. We were taught, most importantly, the difference between exegesis, which was the approved method of interpretation, and eisegesis, which was forbidden.

In exegesis, which means to “lead out of,” the reader diligently examines every aspect of a text in order to discern the actual intended meaning. The reader then applies the actual meaning of that text to his or her own personal life, whether it is instruction, a type of life philosophy, or some kind of biblical warning. Eisegesis, on the other hand, means to “lead into” and refers to the reckless appropriation of a biblical text to one’s own assumptions and whims.

Practiced readers will recognize this as a helpful distinction for reading any text; it is better to get something out of a text than it is to read something into a text, particularly when that text is meant to be an infallible guide to life, the universe and everything. Even when a text is mere entertainment or art that implies a subjective response on the part of the consumer (and videogames certainly fall into this category), simply reading into that artifact whatever meaning I like is self-serving. Much like doing a crossword puzzle, it may be personally stimulating, but it is little more than a type of intellectual play.

———

When we play a videogame, we’re playing already, aren’t we? The writer doesn’t need to spend time toying with different arbitrary meanings, because the game itself involves every player, writer or not, in intellectual and emotional interplay. When a writer feels the need to draw strained analogies and forced metaphors from a videogame, he is providing a redundant service for the reader who has already done that work and who is, in reading the piece, essentially watching the game being played in front of him rather than playing it himself. That reader is either bored or lazy.

Personally-skewed games writing doesn’t have to be that way. Paramount to writing any kind of good personal essay is the necessity of absolute honesty on the part of the writer. The reader needs to be able to trust the writer, or else the piece becomes a deceptive and useless hypothetical. The ironic nature of the personal essay is that through the sharing of a subjective experience, the reader stumbles across some form of objective truth. This may not happen if the writer is lying or stretching the truth, and it will not happen if the reader discovers or senses the lie.

The key danger in writing personal essays about videogames is that the writer might read into a game in order to have something to write about. This is not bad writing – it is a lie. Unlike lies we may read in news and journalistic pieces, these are lies that the writer themselves may believe. It is an insidious danger and it’s worth agonizing over on the part of the writer.

As I started writing more frequent and consistent personal pieces over the last month or so, I felt this danger becoming more and more prominent, and eventually found myself face-to-face with the inevitability of the thing. One week, maybe sooner, maybe later, I will find myself with no real sense of how the games I’ve recently played have directly impacted my life. I will do what I have to do to make it happen or I will conjure up some imaginary impact a game has had on my relationships. I will compare a game to my struggle with busy-ness or loneliness, and the comparison will not exactly be apt.

Tiny Wings

I have taken to asking my girlfriend what she thinks of my articles after she reads them. Sometimes she volunteers constructive criticism or tells me specific reasons she likes them. Lately, as I have started thinking through the pros and cons of personal games criticism, I have started asking her: “Does it seem like a stretch?” Usually, she answers, “No, not really.”

About a week ago, I asked her the same question about that piece wherein I compared Tiny Wings to my struggles with personal failure. She hesitated. “Well…”

I still say Tiny Wings is actually about graceful failure (even its designer speaks of a “tiny metaphor hidden within the game”), and I insist that the game served as a subtle and consistent encouragement to me in the midst of my own. But one crucial rule of writing is that if the reader doesn’t buy it, it’s not going to be effective. To not convey a sense of truthfulness in my writing: that is failure.

———

The jury is still out on the “proper” way to write about games and I think this is the way it’s supposed to be – there is no agreed-upon method for movie or music criticism. As games writing matures, it will become broader, more varied and more confident.

I believe strongly that personal games writing is an essential style for a medium that relies so heavily on subjective personal experience. When even the most linear game experience can vary so dramatically from player to player, it only makes sense to indulge in a little bit of self-centered subjectivism in order to convey a broader truth about how the game works, whether it works, and yes, what it might mean.

That question of meaning in games is one that has yet to be explored enough to be fully answered, despite the naysayers who may balk at the attempts. Games mean things to themselves, to our industry, to our culture and, yes, to individuals. Each of these meanings matter in their own way and the effect a game has on a specific person is particularly important, because it often sheds light not just on the potential of games, but on the ways in which we “play” with difficult and complex issues in our own life.

Faith, friendship, death, loss, loneliness and ambition are all themes we benefit from being able to experiment and play with.

Games are a safe space to explore all sorts of things: faith, friendship, death, loss, loneliness and ambition are all themes we benefit from being able to experiment and play with. Games also have a host of inadvertent effects on the player, beyond simply distracting them from their real life. Games can dominate our headspace, they can haunt our dreams and they can make us feel loved or hated. They can make us feel, when nothing else will.

The personal interactions we have with games are profound and meaningful enough that writing about them is not just an interesting exercise, but also a way of conveying truth about the world and human nature, whether intentional or not.

Like a mosaic, though, we can’t see the entire picture by simply looking at one tile. It takes all kinds of subjective experiences to illuminate a broader truth, which is why I think the best thing that could happen to this genre of games writing is for people like me to indulge in it a little bit less and other people to try it out a little bit more. At the end of his aforementioned provocation, Cameron Kunzelman writes that he’s “just tired of reading article after article about how Final Fantasy makes straight white men feel.” And I agree with him. As a straight white man myself, my desire is to read more from a broad spectrum of thoughtful writers. I want to see the whole mosaic.

What game writing needs isn’t less personal writing, but more voices, more brutal honesty and more grappling with diverging viewpoints and perspectives. More than anything, we need a community of writers who are open to second-guessing themselves, in their writing and otherwise.

———

Richard Clark tweets stuff like this all day, every day on @DeadYetLiving.

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  • http://twitter.com/WombatofDoom42 @WombatofDoom42

    I hate that moment when you've written out a large, personal essay and then find yourself faced with the question: "Is anyone else going to care about this?"

    It's a difficult balance to maintain– the difference between self-gratifying fluff and deep, personal commentary is sometimes a thin one.

    But I think you're right– a lot of the time, I tend to write less personally and more pseudo-academically, but that very personal element in games-writing is very important, and, when done right, can be quite powerful.

  • stevensukkau

    This punched my in the proverbial nuts: "When a writer feels the need to draw strained analogies and forced metaphors from a videogame, he is providing a redundant service for the reader who has already done that work and who is, in reading the piece, essentially watching the game being played in front of him rather than playing it himself. That reader is either bored or lazy."

  • saneman

    If the artist does not fling himself, without reflecting, into his work, as Curtis flung himself into the yawning gulf, as the soldier flings himself into the enemy’s trenches, and if, once in this crater, he does not work like a miner on whom the walls of his gallery have fallen in; if he contemplates difficulties instead of overcoming them one by one … he is simply looking on at the suicide of his own talent.

    Honoré de Balzac

    There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys; they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves.

    Søren Kierkegaard

    • saneman

      Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.

      Fyodor Dostoyevsky