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Apr 27, 2012

DIALOGUE with Paul Callaghan, Part Three: Permanence and the Expression of Design

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. Part one of the dialogue can be found here, while part two may be found here.

To: Dan Golding
Paul Callaghan

Hi Dan,

I absolutely take your point about the non-existence of a global-videogame culture. You only have to look around Australia at the various activities and personalities in each city to see a microcosm of that process in action. Through industrial, creative, economic, cultural, geographical, as well as a million other forces, the values of those localised cultures form.

To explore your question “is the videogame a potent enough form to shape each of these cultures in certain directions?”, I don’t think so. Just as videogame culture is so diverse, so is the expressive nature of the types of experience we can craft through videogames, both reflecting and informing aspects of the human condition.

Art, all art, can’t help but change us. That’s what it is designed to do. We are who we are because of the mix of stories we tell each other, the experiences we have, the values of the culture around us, the geography of the space we grow up in, the endless mix of moment to moment. Videogames are the same. They change us. In the parlance of the mainstream, they rewire our brains, giving us tools and metaphors for thinking and new lenses and ways of looking at the world. But, as with all art again, they can just as easily present ideas that aren’t accurate or true, or that are downright false in order to encourage us to work against our best interests—essentially acting as a form of propaganda. If games can do good, as is so frequently argued in their defence, then they can just as easily do harm.

Creators know this—or should. By using language in a certain way, or lighting a theatre scene in some configuration, or in cutting from one image to another, they can create certain responses in their audience. These responses in turn resonate with individuals and, again to use mainstream parlance, rewire their brain. Through a mix of their systemic and thematic properties, videogames reflect some intent, conscious or otherwise, of their creator.

Are those values a property of the types of things we can create? Or the modes of thinking of the medium? Or the people who make these things? Does a person who reads end up viewing the world through a lens of story informed by turning page after page? Does a film critic only view the world through the metaphor of sound and imagery? I think it’s a mix. People are drawn to art and mediums that resonate with them, but in turn those mediums support and reinforce their ways of thinking, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. American novelist Jonathan Franzen recently said of books and ebooks:

I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.

Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.

But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

I don’t share Franzen’s fear of technology—or of impermanence—but in his own hamfisted way, I think he is asking a similar question that we are here—how much do the properties of a medium inform the way we think, and in turn the values we might share? I  believe that videogames at their best reveal new things about us as people and create new expressive opportunities, but along the way, I think there is enormous value in questioning our assumptions about what we think of them, the metaphors and ideas that surround them, and what does bind us together—not to tear them down, but because in doing so we might uncover some deeper truths about what videogames are and why they’ve become so important to so many of us.

To: Paul Callaghan
Dan Golding

Hi Paul,

I think I’m going to have to disagree with you here, at least in part. Maybe it’s more of a clarification, I don’t know.

On the one hand, I completely agree that if we argue that videogames can do good, as is often asserted these days, we must admit that by the same logic they can also do harm. If using a videogame can improve the hand-eye coordination of a surgeon, then videogames must also be able to improve the hand-eye coordination of soldiers (or worse). The avoidance of this point is a logical fallacy that frequently plagues ‘in defence of videogames’-style articles. Perhaps these arguments about the good and the bad about videogames are so frequently set against each other that they feel obliged to disregard each others arguments. Maybe we would be better off not making these arguments at all. It seems a moot point, anyway, as these things often seem to dominate debates about videogames, but it’s worth considering a more nuanced perspective.

Does that same argument extrapolate to more general contexts, though? Perhaps not. Does playing a videogame shape my worldview? Potentially, yes, but I’d caution that every discussion about culture has to take into account the multiplicity of personal contexts that videogames are used in. It is much harder to make the worldview argument because almost every player will understand any given videogame differently. All cultural texts are capable of being polysemous, at least in interpretation: I might understand the first Modern Warfare as a cautionary tale of the horrors of war (it is, after all, not an advertisement for actually being in combat—the settings would be awful places to physically be), while many others could easily argue for the game as being a fairly unsophisticated glorification of war. How, then, are we to see videogames as shaping worldviews in any set direction? Videogames mean fundamentally different things to different people. Culture does not act like a tap on the kneecap, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall once famously cautioned. It is not a behavioural input.

That’s not to say that the properties of the media form itself doesn’t have an ability to shape and frame culture. This comes back almost to a Marshall McLuhan-esque point: that the medium is the message. This is exactly the question we’ve been getting at this whole time: how much has the videogame itself shaped videogame culture(s)?

I think as this discussion has shown, it’s a pretty open question. The only thing I could be certain of now is the fairly obvious: that yes, the videogame has had some sort of an impact on videogames culture(s). The character of that impact, however, is more open to debate. Mass Effect 3 is a game that is about uniting a universe behind a common and external threat, a fairly common videogame trope. Is it surprising, then, that the recent backlash against Mass Effect 3’s ending took the form of a group of gamers uniting in a similar way? “Take Back Mass Effect 3” was the catchcry, just as “Take Earth Back” was the slogan of the game itself.

It is not surprising that these similarities exist. But it is hard to point to any sort of causality or particularly strong link. These questions are complex, and there probably is no single answer here. For now, at least, I am content to point to these circumstances and draw a line underneath them; to acknowledge that there is something going on here, but that we may never know quite what it is.

If anything, this reinforces the initial point we made here: that we’re not all in this together, that there is such a diffuse understanding of videogames and the cultures surrounding them that some answers are simply not possible anymore.

Huge thanks to Paul for taking the time to participate in this dialogue. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and feel free to add your say in the comments below. We’ll return to normal programming next week.

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