Samuel Johnson’s Grand Theft Auto

“Playing for the first time, it’s very challenging to try to figure out how to get out of the situation that you’re in. Which is great,” says Harrison Ford, mostly to himself and maybe to the camera, in the trailer for “Uncharted 3,” a video game that came out in Japan last week. He stutters, with an air of unrehearsed authenticity, as a shot of his character fighting in the base of an aircraft carrier plays on the TV: “I mean­ — it’s — it’s an adventure.”

And throughout the seven-minute, ‘real-feel’ documentary trailer, he gesticulates and yells and sings banal praises (in both English and Japanese) to the game’s graphics, storytelling and unparalleled capacity for riveting entertainment.

The trailer’s artificial construction of reality also makes it a meta-commercial, which is well-suited to gaming’s own hybrid form. He gives his awkward soliloquy in a kind of nonspace, sitting next to a big Victorian timepiece-clock (?) but the wooden bookshelves are empty and stacked with office papers. (Who knew he wore studded silver earrings?)

He doesn’t even forget to note the positive socializing benefits of games: “How fun would this be with more people.”

“It’s very much like being in the movie,” the actor says. “Except in the movie I always win. In the game, sometimes, I don’t win.”

It’s a lot to squeeze in there but, all in all, Mr. Ford has actually hit on some important truths. That the pleasures in video games are not merely visual but also kinesthetic, emotional, engaging and cognitively challenging. That the gamer’s gaze is not the same as the as the gaze of the camera. That the spectator and actor are fused.

And modern video games, even to younger players, can be baffling, disorienting and mysterious, favoring complexity over instant gratification in situations that demand users’ concentration and 40-hour patience.

Harrison Ford isn’t the most articulate source when it comes to talking about these things.

The way that theorist Stephen Johnson puts it, the challenges of playing a video game today are “about finding order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order.”

You only need to spend five minutes watching a Rockstar game to recognize that video games today are large scale cultural and intellectual phenomena that deserve to be taken seriously.

You only need to read about game designer Jason Rohrer to believe that video games are art.

“More than any other game designer, Rohrer embodies the idea that games can be ends in themselves, expressions of the ineffable,” wrote WIRED this summer profiling his newest game. “His most famous title, Passage, simulates an entire human lifespan in five minutes. Inside a Star-Filled Sky is a shooter that explores the idea of infinity.”

Rohrer elevates the game to its highest mythic function.

And in the way that most games are able to transform the world, allowing us to imagine new spaces in which we could live, these games begin to sound a lot like poetry.

“In the last few years,” media theorist Epsen Aarseth writes, “games have gone from media non grata to a recognized field of great scholarly potential, a place for academic expansion and recognition.”

But where is the Samuel Johnson of video games?

All-around cultural theorist Chuck Klosterman argues that the void of intellectual gaming criticism makes games too commercial.

Although it may be true that the direction of gaming suffers from a lack of cohesive agenda, this stance presupposes that criticism is a necessary component of genre definition. It also, strangely enough, counterposes criticism against commoditization, which, if Quinn Zhang’s ’14 argument is any example, isn’t always the case.

“There doesn’t seem to be a definite dichotomy between public critical scrutiny and academic critical scrutiny. I’ve read many articles on Smash which blur this superficial distinction,” he says. “To that end, I’m not worried about an academic criticism or lack thereof — once video games become more accessible and [are] acknowledged as more than a mindless diversion, I think all kinds of criticism, be they academic or popular, will naturally follow.”

If, in a game-world, our own playing experience creates meaning from content, then extra-diagetic criticism might not be all that useful.

The relatively small volume of critical work mostly falls under the umbrella of bestselling pop culture treatises, along the lines of “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” by Tom Bissell.

The push towards critical analysis might come from games now being harder, better, faster, smarter.

And yet these long, defensive critiques are necessary steps in the historical development of any new artistic phenomenon. For criticism to get off the ground and running, there needs to be a consensus as to the type of ground we stand on and why we’re standing on it.

The evolution of video games is fast and loose — and it seems that no one really knows what games will become. In a discussion panel featuring three of video game’s biggest commercial developers (as a friend put it: “Think Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Chris Nolan or something”), visions presented for gaming’s future bordered on confusing, at times conflicting. Everything is up in the air; everything is exciting. Games are developing into reward-pathway stimulators, crowd-solving biological puzzles, real-life simulators, social-life replacements, superlative storytelling vehicles, aesthetic art experiences, mechanized entertainment. And the gaming community, as sales show, keeps asking for more. Consider the popularity of gaming sequels.

If this isn’t the Golden Age of gaming, then it’s the tanned optimistic one (Bronze?) that comes right before it.

Just through the diversity of Rohrer’s portfolio we can learn that games don’t have to be one thing.

“Sleep is Death,” another Rohrer game, unpacks what it means to create a two-person role-playing game allowing one player to be the author within the world.

“The entire gaming experience is immersive and profound,” Zhang continues. “None of this requires intense reflection or scrutiny – discourse isn’t necessary for video games to have meaning, just as movie critics aren’t necessary for movies to have meaning.”

Plus, by nature, games do not lend themselves as easily to formal analysis as films do.

To review a game you have to play it and, when we play games, we take an active part in their creation. Recently, an attack circulated the net criticizing a reviewer who appeared to have played only the game’s first three hours. Game commentary necessarily incorporates the same self-reflexive and self-defined user experiences inherent to the course of game-play. Implicitly: to analyze a game is also to be self-critical. That isn’t to say you can’t dump on a game for its objectively bad playing experience. But, unlike other reviewing processes, the subject’s presence — and imprint on the object — carries more weight. And to dump on a game without dumping on yourself, you have to be good enough to know when to remove yourself as an ‘experimental variable’ in this shared-authorship picture. In summation: the good critic must be an Ideal player (and just Angel) who knows how to properly ascribe fault.

In game-world, the traditional lament of criticsm (“All critics are failed artists”) is turned on its head: to be a critic is to be a supremely skilled, experienced, analytical player.

Still it’s never that simple. Consider the crazy reveal at the end of Bioshock: you are told to do things and you do them. But then the game reveals that you have been a slave, doing evil work. It’s basically a commentary on how games are designed: you usually trust that the game is having you do the right thing. Crazy.

The “What is art?” search should be in the spirit of an inclusive rather than an exclusive definition.

If Rohrer is Homer, then Roger Ebert’s is the face that launched a thousand trolls: “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers and novelists.”

Adrian Ryan ‘09 pointed out what he called a humorous “Swiftian response to Roger Ebert’s anti-video-game screen a year back” on a gaming blog: “Me angry ’bout current societal acceptance of cave paintings as art. Art no painting on cave wall. Painting on cave wall practical communication between non-verbal tribal group.”

It’s time to invent a new framework for thinking and talking about games. One that matches gaming’s incredible intelligence and speaks to its sophisticated thought- and pattern-processing.

“Art is something created by the artist, when he takes his medium and presents something totally wild [within the constraints] of his craft. Games are no different,” Eric Moy ‘13 explains in an email.

“Whenever the final sacrifice [causes] a forced checkmate in chess, [whenever] the final ball sinks into the hole for a 147 in snooker, [whenever] the final strike [scores] a perfect game of baseball, there is a sense of accomplishment on the part of the artist and on the part of the observer for being [witness to] such a rare occurrence. People feel astonished, people feel proud, people feel surprised when they see something so utterly amazing, something so difficult to achieve, accomplished in their presence. And that is why you know that these experiences are art: the observers do indeed emote.”

“Any definition of Art that excludes video games also excludes many things commonly understood to be art,” writes Brian Coppedge.

There are many dimensions, including that of time, that Ebert fails to take into account. Largely because, as he later admitted, he has never played a video game nor does he ever intend to. He judges the games off their trailers.

“I have books to read and movies to see,” he writes.

So do we all. But it’s precisely in this logic that we all might be going wrong.

Many of us learned and took to heart the lesson that video games, grouped under the junk food ethos, are bad for us but are entertaining as a form of guilty pleasure.

Where are the video game critics amidst a school with so much theoretical thought?

Does it follow from supply and demand?

This doesn’t seem to be the case: a lot of people play and are willing to talk about playing. Besides, even as popular trend, games could use the spotlight.

That said, there really isn’t a game culture at Yale. At least, not in the same way that there’s a theater scene, a banking culture or journalism initiatives. And it doesn’t have to do with gaming’s virtual nature.

One gets the impression that video games, for the people who really care, are not something people talk about a lot.

“I cannot even BEGIN to describe all the wonderful artistic endeavors in video games,” writes Zhang.

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