I once read a suggestion by conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, that you could drop all of culture into two broad categories (I paraphrase): “High culture”, which is best appreciated with some formal education about what is going on with it (difficult literature, opera) and “Low Culture”, which is basically everything in folk, primitive, and pop culture, for which education is not required. Sounds stupid and elitist, doesn't it? Scruton himself admits many caveats, as I recall. It's clearly impossible to create two such categories. But recently, well, I've started to think that perhaps he's right about the education thing. At least when it comes to videogames.
I speak with reference to this FT article about a non-gamer judging videogames, and subsequent defences of the same. Actually, no, I don't think we really need to worry about what non-gamers think of games. And that is because, in this instance, we are the highly educated elite.
I've read a few people suggest that it's important to listen to non-gamers when the speak about our form. It demonstrates, it is said, the overall emptiness of games as cultural objects. It demonstrates how impenetrable our communities are, how obscure game mehanics have become, how difficult their systems are to outsiders.
Which seem like precisely the qualities of the things that Scruton describes as “high culture”. You need to spend thousands of hours read and studying to have a proper understanding of Proust or Derrida, and the same is true of DOTA 2 or Dwarf Fortress. To master either requires research, thought, even experimentation.
What's interesting for me, though, is that people get caught up on games not having anything to say – something which outsiders, with their superficial appreciation of games, are quick to point out. From the New Statesman article:
But what’s most infuriating about Kellaway’s piece is its underlying truth: most video games really don’t have a lot to say. They generally have the lyrical nuance of a Eurodance song, and even a game like Spec Ops: The Line can’t properly critique the horrors of war when the player herself is actively creating those horrors. Kellaway’s favourite game from the selection was Journey, one of my favourites too. But I also love Hotline Miami, an ultra-violent and sadistically challenging title where you dress up in an animal mask and murder gangsters in a hallucinogenic world. I’m not even ashamed - it’s a brilliant game! - but I wouldn’t pretend it had reached a zenith of cultural significance.
I can appreciate all that. As John pointed out recently – imagine if Dishonored had really had something to say. Imagine if Corvo's exploits left us with some deeper, heavier message than “it's great to save the princess.” Now that could have been something.
But that desire persistently misses the point. The great reward from Dishonored was never meant to be the story. It was meant to be taking your existing familiarity and skill with medium of controlling first-person perspective games and using it to explore the systems and challenges laid out by the game designers. Mastering these, performing feats of stealth or supernatural combat, and relishing the results, is what matters here. Perhaps this is little more than having understood tutorials and self-educated a bit with game controller-use in other games, but I think there's more to it. Watching players figure out what is possible in Dishonored is more like scientific method: trial and experimentation. And the reward is both sensual and intellectual. The fiction might have been weak, but who cares when what were were doing was indulging in the atmospherics and toying with the models and processes that make the game world tick?
The games that have really rewarded me – and I will write something connected to this very soon – are the ones where I have had to fail, and then to persist, and to educate myself. Imagine what the FT judge would think when faced with Eve Online, a game I took months and years of extended daily play to master. Would she even comprehend what it meant without serious study? Hell, most MMO designers don't seem to understand it. And I say that from indignant and disbelieving experience in interviewing those people, time and again.
Can you really be expected to understand Day Z without some time in the heartland of first-person games? Even experienced gamers baulked at its difficulty, and at Arma 2's arcane controls and interface. No, it was the people who wanted to learn, and made the effort to learn, and usually had plenty of existing experience, were actually rewarded for their time, or understood what that story-free sandbox of horror and survival was actually about.
The arbiters of cultural value are too used to looking for metaphors and messages. In games, though, the active process is the meaning.
And it wasn't about its message. It wasn't a story that can be analysed and understood for its subtext. It was about how specific systems and fictions can be integrated and then applied to human interaction. It was about what people do when their actions are mediated through a simulation of zombie apocalypse.
The connoisseur of super-hard platform games understands what those games are about, because they have the physical and emotional framework for dealing with them, and appreciating them.
People who haven't played games, and don't have an education in them, usually don't understand that. And that's fine. We shouldn't expect them to.
Hell, people generally understand the rules of chess, but I would rather hear a master chess-player discuss the nuances and process of the thing – for them to really decide what Chess was about – than leave it to casual observation, as casual a game as Chess might be.
I was impressed that the FT subject spotted the combat in Mass Effect is a bit rubbish, mind. Is it that that obvious?