A few days ago I put up a piece about the authorship of games. In that post, I responded to the profile of Jonathan Blow that Taylor Clark wrote for The Atlantic.
The short version of my post is that focusing on single individuals as fonts of creative brilliance is bad for the industry and the art form. Of course, the rest of the internet had things to say, so Taylor Clark has responded to the responses with an opinion article that Kotaku put up.
My impression of his response is that it is a great acquiescence with a gritty tone. While Clark seems to be throwing ‘bows all over the comments to his original article, in reality he is mostly making an appeal for a little room. He just seems to want a little bit of space for his point of “Some games are dumb!” to be allowed. I am willing to grant him that. He never responds to the fact that his original article seems to be a head-nodding mouthpiece for Jonathan Blow’s grand, sea-change point that “video games are stupid when Jonathan Blow isn’t making them.”
The strangest thing about the whole ordeal is how Clark comes off as having no teeth in the whole ordeal. He placates those who were angered by his original piece by listing off a seemingly random set of titles, most of which resemble the total field of games as to suggest that all games are at least fairly smart.
In any case, my small dislikes of the article aside, he makes two specific points in the Kotaku bit. The first is:
My issue, then, is with what we might call the intellectual maturity level of mainstream games. It’s not the design mechanics under the hood that I find almost excruciatingly sophomoric at this point; it’s the elements of these games that bear on human emotion and intellectual sophistication, from narrative and dialogue right on down to their core thematic concepts.
This is literally nonsense, and if “maturity” is really some kind of quantifiable thing that we can levy against a piece of art, we should probably trash every goddamn thing ever produced by our species. What especially irks me about this point is that there is a distinct air of snobbishness about the whole thing–video games are only as emotionally deep or as smart as you want them to be. We can see this exact same goddamn argument being made around the concept of the readymade art object. It draws meaning, and significance, from a web of historical relations and an implicit acceptance that it “means” something. There is nothing “in” a Kandinsky painting that makes it a beautiful piece of art that beats us over the human condition; rather, we each experience it, and some of us find deep meaning while others do not.
The idea that a video game should be mature and ART at the core is faulty because it means that the masses, the people who are playing the games on the ground, begin to put their faith in tastemakers who tell them what art is. Video games, and video game studies, are in a great place right now because it is fundamentally open to discourses about every kind of game. No games have more inherent worth than others, though some certainly are more rewarding to analysis.
Taylor makes an additional argument, suggesting that playing long, boring segments of games are the equivalent of “wasting time.” I can’t say anything other than stop playing those fucking games. It is not a problem with the medium of video games that Taylor Clark thinks that some games have boring parts that he does not find intellectually or emotionally stimulating. I have a close friend who only reads generic sword-and-sorcery novels. I don’t like those novels. But the project of the written word is not worthless, or even dumb, because of that. The games that Taylor finds “dumb” have their own audience that find them rewarding; there is a reason that generic power fantasy has managed to be popular in every medium since the time before fucking writing.
Clark closes with this:
This situation frustrates me (and Blow, and I’m sure quite a few of you as well), because it’s clear that games are capable of so much more than they’re doing now. The video game, as a creative medium, has the potential to provide us with experiences every bit as rich and meaningful as those we’ve gotten from books, visual art, and film; for all we know, it could even surpass them. At the moment, though, the vast, overwhelming, crushing majority of that potential is being wasted on frivolous digital toys. These toys may be fun to play with, and we might have an especially warm place in our hearts for them, but that does not change the fact that they, by and large, are emotionally and intellectually unfulfilling-which is precisely what I meant by the word “dumb.” Saying this doesn’t give me pleasure, since I wish it weren’t the case, but I still believe it’s true.
I honestly cannot understand why video games are not already at the place where films, music, and books are currently. In fact, the video game industry mimics those industries in all ways: there are big budget productions that a lot of people love and there are smaller productions that appeal to different niche audiences. Transformers, The Da Vinci Code, and Call of Duty: Super Blops 5,000 all have the same drive: a political economy driven by desire and capital. More than that, people LOVE those things, and lots of people find them both “emotionally and intellectually” fulfilling. If Taylor Clark isn’t into those games, fine. But that isn’t to say that they are not full to the brim with meaning and significance and intelligent commentary.
To me, it doesn’t seem to be a problem with the products. It might be more of an issue with Taylor Clark.
For a much better critique of the whole bit, check out Magical Wasteland’s post on it.