July 23, 2008 8:00 AM |
[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand who spent the last 5 and a half years working in the United Kingdom. He's just emigrated to Sydney, Australia, and spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]
Why as gamers do we undervalue fun? This is the flipside of the search for Citizen Kane: we associate fun with juvenilia instead of serious purpose, childhood dreams instead of adult aspirations, the clumsy, awkward-limbed gracelessness of youth that we stand apart from in later years.
Ironically, as game players and critics, we are the best position to write about how fun is important in our world. But instead we are somehow embarrassed by this, as if fun is not the highest achievement we should strive for.
Danc of LostGarden.com points out that 'Games... are all about learning skills'. That is, games can have a direct impact on who you are as a person. This is an unqualified given for this medium.
For art and literature, there's been a centuries-long debate about this exact notion: that art can improve who you are as a person was resoundingly answered in the negative, post 1945. The humanist theory of art, arising out of the Romantic movement, was that if you were exposed and uplifted by sufficiently powerful and influential works of art, you would become a more profound and moral human being - not someone capable of genocide.
This is not to say that gamers cannot be bad people. But game playing has immediate and measurable effects in a way that viewing art does not. The Brain Training-s and Cooking Mama-s promise to be gaming's path to the mainstream, resulting in a low level, incremental approach where individuals improve their daily life skills as opposed to the critically acclaimed magnum opus that game critics crave.
As far as the gaming hardcore is concerned, homemakers raising virtual pets are at the opposite spectrum of fun, but both kinds of gamers are still experiencing fun nonetheless.
Will gaming end up just being a better-thy-self opiate for the masses, a kind of Television 2.0, where Tyler Durden's declaration that self-improvement is masturbation replacing a middling amount of gamer masturbation with a middle class of gaming self-improvement?
It is a sad fact that the world cannot support 6.6 billion revolutionaries. So we will always need an opiate for some people. And as far as opiates go, gaming is a mostly inoffensive one. It contributes to bad posture and a sedentary lifestyle (if you ignore the Dance Dance Revolutions of gaming), while saving the livers, lungs and septums that other popular method of distraction put at risk.
If the occasional street robbery and thuggish Xbox-related homicide brings gaming into disrepute, these acts are only a pale shadow compared to the brutalities inflicted to bring harder stuff from Columbia's cocoa or Afghanistan's poppy fields to the American main street. (A notable exception may be the increase of misery in the Congo caused by the rise in demand for thallium for manufacture of the PS2). Even gaming addiction, while potentially pulling apart relationships, does not inflict financial misery on the scale of gambling.
But we will not win arguments about the positive influence of gaming by arguing 'games are less bad than drugs'. A historical perspective on gaming shows Dungeons & Dragons survived a similar cultural outcry in the early 80s, and there is an established tradition of fêting excellence in mankind’s longest surviving games: Chess and Go.
Game theory, while only an adjunct to game playing, helped navigate the treacherous waters of confliction resolution during the Cold War, with the balance of power and stratagem of Mutually Assured Destruction, and modern military exercises are games all but in name. South Korea on the surface is the modern gamer’s paradise, with arenas full of cheering onlookers celebrating success in Starcraft.
Fear of fun is defined in part by the view of gamer as someone living in an extended adolescence. The child-men of their 30s and 40s, living in their mother’s basement, pale skin coloured only by an PlayStation tan, are still very much part of a culture of gaming, but these kinds of men have always had their obsessions, be they beetle collections or Beatles collections.
What has changed, to an extent, is the framework around them – with online gaming levelling the playing field of the socially recluse, and casual gaming, and especially the success of Nintendo’s DS and Wii platforms, widening the pool of potential game players. Fun becomes a guilty pastime, with solitaire windows minimizing the moment the boss walks by, and the Westernized and especially Americanized view of success creating a culture of neurosis around pleasure (Those long holidaying Europeans have always had their social(ist) board games).
Why do we feel that gaming is wasting time, when no one disputes Bobby Fischer’s legacy? The Cyberathlete Professional League would disagree with the assessment that fun is frivolous – and even if you are no athlete you can always argue you are training your hand eye coordination, practising your hand brake turns, golf swing, or even ability to move your mouse around the screen (The best argument for why your IT department should never remove that Minesweeper preinstall).
And if fun is not clinical enough a description for the range of emotions you feel, you can celebrate your fiero or understand your opponent’s yomi or commiserate the fun to be had at a forfeit at your expense.
Distributed intelligence points a way forward that elevates human understanding through play. From image recognition, to Free Rice, to intuition about folding proteins, harnessing the power of fun for collective gain promises to allow gaming to help solve hard problems in science. Equally, human gaming skills have forced artificial intelligence to update the ante, showing us the deep understanding required to play the simplest seeming of games. While computers can now play at Grand Master level in chess and poker, no algorithm can yet match a middle rank Go player. We just need to be sure we don’t fall into the trap of Fermi’s Paradox – playing games instead of exploring the universe.
Gaming is the crest of the current wave of the intergenerational culture wars, and this wave will abate only when this gaming generation takes political office, heads media and business, and defines the standards our children will rebel against. This cultural battlefield is in part defined by the hypocrisy of defining 'fun being had by other (young) people is bad' - and I would hope we would carry the juvenilia of gaming, the perpetually young at heart onwards to bring an end to this cycle of young vs. old.
Humanity as a species is defined by our neotenous physiology - that is our extended period of youth and delayed onset of adulthood, and it would be a shame to miss this opportunity in a medium that encourages a flexible and adaptive mentality instead of a steady ossification into old age. The secret of longevity, of course, is staying young.
Categories: Column: The Amateur