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Humanity and Video Games: the Pressing Irrelevancy of Gaming
by Parker Scott Mortensen

We’ve come a long way in gaming. But not that long.

I don’t want to make another reference to Roger Ebert and his beaten-to-death statement that games will never be art, but I have to. One of the best lines that came from Ebert’s diatribe was actually from a post on his blog about using the word “nigger” in Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn. Ebert wrote he would “sacrifice every video game in existence rather than lose Huckleberry Finn”.

That line has stuck with me more than any criticism I’ve heard labeling video games as a pointless past-time. A lot of the backlash Ebert's received from the game community contains the argument that the video game industry and its fans shouldn’t waste their energy trying to please Ebert, who is far from knowledgeable when it comes to video games. That line of thinking burrows itself into a bitter and isolated hole, one that sacrifices the perspective of outsiders for the comfort of navel-gazing. Roger Ebert is not an idiot. His purview over the literary and cinematic worlds stretches farther than most of us will ever have the time to challenge.

I have trouble justifying an intense interest in video games. In video gaming, fun trumps all. It is paramount to story; more important than art design, more valued than communication. Many games will sacrifice logic and instead parade inanity, as long as it serves the gaming community's need for fun above all other things.

Our most celebrated and discussed works in video games are arguably the most irrelevant to regular people, and we’re fooling ourselves when we make arguments otherwise. Call of Duty is not a worthwhile war saga; it’s about shooting people in the face and feeling great afterwards. Bioshock is about creative killing. Mario is a giant playground. It may seem unfair to boil these games down so simply, but at their core gameplay, the distinguishing factor between games and other media, there is simple and crass heart.

Fun in video gaming is usually defined by rewards, which is why so many video games of today employ some sort of progressive reward system like that of Call of Duty’s multiplayer mode: everything you do is rewarded in some way. You shot someone in the head? Excellent! You got a kill from fifty yards? Awesome! You ran thirty feet? Incredible.

There's a parallel here to any artistic medium where there’s a challenge to gain an audience. Creation is all about communication of some idea, whether it be a story, an experience, or even just a feeling. But, at the end of it, if there's nothing to tell, then there's nothing to do. In video games, where gameplay is our conduit to the experience, the communication is usually engineered to make the player feel awesome, and the more awesome you feel, the more successful a game is. This often results in a struggle for the author(s) between including enough to keep people interested while not sacrificing the work's purpose, its communication to the world. In video games, we do so much to keep people interested that we don't even consider the idea of communicating an important theme or idea.

Of course, maybe all we want to communicate is a sense of fun. Playfulness is not something you typically find in other mediums, and video games do it well. But how long can we ride that wave? Ebert wrote of his idea of an “art” film, “They are not mechanical constructions of infinitesimal thrills. They depend on intelligence and empathy to be appreciated.” How many examples do we have in video games that fit that definition? I can think of less than five. Video games are not built on intelligence and empathy but instead reward and empowerment, where very little work is exchanged for maximum payoff. It’s escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with escapism, but if that’s all video games have to offer, how long can they possibly stay relevant?

I don’t really care whether or not Roger Ebert accepts gaming as something adult, much less as a legitimate past time. What sticks in my craw is that I know deep down that I myself would sacrifice every video game I’ve ever played in order to keep my favorite book, Catcher in the Rye. That said, when it comes to my relationship with video games, there’s no turning back - we’re in this together. They’ve been a part of my life for nearly twenty years now. I’ve grown up a lot since first playing Super Mario Bros.. But where are video games?

Technically, video games have grown exponentially. Technology has drastically changed the nature of what you see when you think of “video gaming”. Mario has grown from the simple coding language of an NES platformer to a complex, 3D, directionless world with wireless motion controls and analog sticks. The effort put into fine-tuning our ability to manipulate a virtual world is astounding, and it’s paid off into some of the most engrossing experiences.

Emotionally, video games have remained largely stagnant. For all the effort poured into the minutia of game design, its attention into the spectrum of human experience has remained meager. We’ve spent so much time pressing buttons in the name of fun that it’s hard to believe there’s room for much else. Being a gamer means always sniffing out the next high of excitement, searching for that same sense of empowerment wherever it can be found. It has rarely meant more in any substantial way.

When I fan out the experiences of my life, there’s only so much room for remembering the feeling of constant reward, constant empowerment. Humanity's palette is more diverse than this. Video games have fed us almost nothing but sweets our whole life, skirting the salty, the bitter, the sour and the savory and heading directly for dessert. There are tinges of other flavours sometimes, experiences that deviate from the norm and touch on wider or even universal appetites. But we don’t validate these deviations. They aren’t accepted by the community as “real” games. As a result, that community, and the rest of the world, end up missing something.

Where is our salesman desperately planting his garden? Where is our orgastic green light? Where do we find our mockingbird? Where are our princesses in another castle? We don’t need to please Roger Ebert, but we should be concerned that an increasingly larger number of people find the heart of gaming to be hollow.

We owe it to ourselves to reexamine the way we determine the worth of video games and the role they serve in people's lives. There are questions worth asking. Is it useful, in a larger sense, for us to pursue some constant high? Are we destined to be a derelict corner of escapism from that real world, or is there something more, a broader, cathartically diverse realm of interaction that we haven’t yet explored, just waiting for us? Until we start looking for it, we’re on a collision course for that day when we return from escape, only to find ourselves alone, hollow and unhappy.

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- Parker Scott Mortensen

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