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Apr 25, 2012

DIALOGUE with Paul Callaghan, Part Two: The Enemy at the Gates

As I noted earlier in the week,


As I noted earlier in the week, Paul Callaghan and I are having a dialogue this week on Game On about the cultures surrounding videogames. Paul is the director of Melbourne’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival, a writer and a game designer. The first part of the dialogue can be found here. The final part may be found here.

To: Dan Golding
Paul Callaghan

Hi Dan,

I totally agree that we’re not all in this together. Lumping in a group of people, whether players, developers, academics, or critics, who enjoy a particular activity as sharing similar traits is problematic. Every individual evolves their own particular taste—or as William Gibson recently put it, a microculture—you only have to have a conversation with someone to uncover vast gulfs in that same taste.

This mindset is very much exacerbated by what you’ve observed as The Common Enemy. You don’t need to go far to find commentary from The Other about those who play video games as misfits or maladjusted or as living in their parents basement or any other number of inaccurate stereotypes. You also don’t need to go far to find comments about the games themselves as juvenile pastimes, incapable of art, or the product of ordinary minds.

What I find fascinating though is not necessarily those external pressures that create that binding force, but the internal pressures and the metaphors of thought that the medium & games themselves create—essentially, how much of our propensity to reduce the discussion to a binary decision of yes/no, inside/outside, art/not art, ludic/narrative is a part of human nature and how much of it is a property of video games, or even games in general.

Lynden Barber, the Australian film and music critic, wrote a piece on ABC’s The Drum arguing that video games could never be art because they are games and games require competition and competition implies a winner and a loser. Art, on the other hand, has no winners, no losers, and is therefore quite a different beast. Semantic arguments aside, this binary view of video games exists because of the perception and the values of the word game itself. A game has X properties; to engage in games is to explore said properties; those properties are defined by the need to win or lose. Here, Barber is essentially arguing from his own embedded view of what games are, which is a view cultivated and reinforced by the medium itself.

Videogames are, because of their underlying facilitating properties of technology, far more expressive than the sorts of sports and games Barber references, but I do think there is something inherent in the medium, at least as explored through the expanding mainstream, that creates and encourages certain critical metaphors. Education and Serious Games specialists take great pride in talking about how some of the inherent properties of games—planning, experimentation, failure, exploration—are positive and create useful metaphors of behaviour and thinking, but increasingly, I wonder if there are others—beyond the easy agitation of violence—that aren’t so helpful.

Going back to All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Curtis’ central argument is that we have evolved a systemic view of the world heavily informed by technology, and it’s easy to apply that to videogames. The early days of videogame development were defined by optimization problems, essentially systemic and technical in service to creative goals—how do I do this with fewer circuits, with cheaper parts? How can I mass produce this? These restrictions bred creative thought and experimentation, but still feel defined by the desire to solve interesting problems rather than express something artistic.

The echoes of these early days still sound in the complex wash of contemporary videogame culture and development, in the belief that if we can build and optimise systems, we can change the world—see the Gamification movement which too often subsumes the human in favour of game-like activities and behaviours—or that a sort of systemic balance will always be found as in discussions about political engagement and gender where the all too common refrain of ‘if we wait long enough, it will change’ can be heard—or in the endless debates about what games are rather than what the possibilities of the medium might be. These echoes remain essentially about systems and about solving problems, which is frequently at odds with the messy process of creativity, but they infuse videogame culture in a way that, right now, feels out of balance.

I’m currently reading The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, which explores similar ideas from a storytelling and archetypal perspective, digging into not only what stories tell us about the human condition but how the types of stories we tell ourselves colour our thinking in the personal, social, and political domains. It’s an interesting, ambitious, and occasionally deeply flawed work, but it does contain a quote about what the role of art is that resonated with me and this conversation.

The underlying purpose of all art is to create patterns of imagery which somehow convey a sense of life set in a framework of order. From music to painting, from architecture to poetry, from a finely worked piece of jewellery to the disciplined exuberance of folk-dance, any effective work of art always combines these two elements: on one hand, the imagery of movement, vitality, imagination and colour we associate with the energy of life; on the other, that sense of pattern, rhythm and harmony by which it is structured. Whatever its outward form, the aim of any artistic creation is to weave these essential elements together in a way which gives us a sense of a perfect resolution.

Videogame culture seems to have found an easy peace with the values of the latter, but feels frequently like it still struggles with the former.

To: Paul Callaghan
 Dan Golding

Hi Paul,

This is a captivating idea. Are the properties of videogames common to the properties of videogame culture? If we play games that let us, the protagonist, save the world over and over again, does the culture of videogames become individualist? Does the systemic nature of games like Sim City or even MMOs push us to understand the world in systemic terms?

There are several points to be made here. Videogames, generally, are poor representations of reality. In fact, for the most part, they are not even trying to be good ones—as Ian Bogost has argued, it is in fact the difference, the gap between what is simulated and what is real that makes videogames expressive. If I make a city simulation like Sim City, it is what I choose to exclude from my schema that makes the game interesting rather than what I choose to include.

Yet there are a number of seductive parallels between videogames-as-texts and videogames-as-culture. Most obvious is the culture of labour in the videogames industry. The relationship between play and work is a narrow one in videogames—think about how we grind away in MMOs, or how competitors in professional FPS tournaments practice set plays in training sessions at pre-appointed times. I even know a few friends who, for periods of unemployment, videogame play has come to replace their patterns of work.

This translates to industry culture, too. The idea of making videogames for a living is sold as play by the industry and surrounding cultures. The confluence of play and labour is rarely so strong. Game developer jobs are advertised as the coolest sector of digital labour: pizza fridays, extensive game libraries that employees are encouraged to borrow from, in-office drinks fridges, vinyl toys on office desks, etc.

What this often seems to mean is that developers are expected to work harder and longer. Crunch time is notorious, but it feeds off the myth that game design is a fun job: you are so lucky to have this amazing career in this amazing industry that you should do your dues by working absurd hours. It feeds outward into greater games culture as well. It is no coincidence that an industry so predicated on the idea of crunch also valorises hectic and punishing game jams. And let’s not even bother with the ingrained reluctance of the games industry to unionise.

On the other hand, I find it difficult to believe that all aspects of videogames are filtering outwards. Videogames are often thought of in terms of systems: not just the complex structures of a Sim City, but the relationships between balls and arenas, of rifle fire rates and enemy movement.

Perhaps proponents of the persuasive powers of videogames are right when they suggest that games can be used to draw attention to systemic issues (we’re talking newsgames, educational games, possibly even gamification here).

Yet it strikes me as unrealistic to suggest that videogames culture thinks in general terms of systems. There is little self-reflection here, few attempts to understand games cultures in relation to the outside world. Videogames, videogames cultures and the videogames industry are cogs in greater systems in ways rarely considered.

Ultimately, I think that any attempt to characterise a singular, global videogame culture is deeply flawed. As I said earlier, a medium is not a culture, and a media form as big as the videogame simply cannot sustain a singular set of cultural practices.

How people respond to the videogame is different the world over—even different in local, concentrated hotspots like San Francisco, Copenhagen or Melbourne—and so what people want out of the videogame will be correspondingly multitudinous.

The real question is, is the videogame a potent enough form to shape each of these cultures in certain directions?

Look for the final instalment of this dialogue to be posted at Game On on Friday.


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One thought on “DIALOGUE with Paul Callaghan, Part Two: The Enemy at the Gates

  1. Mr Ak

    I’m liking these. But it’s also a little weird, as a dialogue is, by its nature, a little exclusionary. That said, I’m joining in anyways. (I’m like that).

    Point I wanted to raise was the extent to which the production skills in games also affect the nature of the cultural output. By which I mean the notion that to make a game you need programmers of one kilter or another, and being a good programmer means developing a quite specific viewpoint, a viewpoint which can often carry over into your non-programming headspace. I mean, I know a lot of clever, funny programmers, but they’re still almost always linear thinkers, and often fairly literal as well. I guess you might be able to make the same argument that any skillset has the effect of embedding certain methods of thought, but I think the case is a little stronger for programmers than it is for, say, musicians.

    Anyways, just a random thought. Looking forward to Friday.

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