by carl wilson

Gaming Aesthetics: Arguing With Tears


Sorry, no time to compile Thursday Reading this week, though I highly recommend Torontopians pore over the fine Fembots feature in Now today. Otherwise:

Came across a Clive Thompson video-gaming column from Wired a couple of weeks ago that's at least tangentially relevant to the games-as-art/culture discussion: "Can a Game Make You Cry?". As soon as the question is posed, the answer's pretty obvious: Sure. Clive provides some intriguing examples and survey data, but then comes round to his conclusion, "You can't argue with real tears." And that seems patently untrue. Imagine if the title of his column were "Can a Long-Distance Telephone Commercial Make You Cry?" The answer to that one (if you are as soft a touch as I am) is also yes. But I don't expect any wave of profoundly artistic Bell commercials.

A better question might be "Can a Game Make You Reflect?", using reflection as shorthand for the concerted working of intellect and emotion that art is able to call forth. I think games can do that, too - also on Clive's site, I note with intrigue the new Nokia game Airport Insecurity, which is "about inconvenience and the tradeoffs between security and rights in American airports," as well as a machinima (game-based animated movie) about the riots in France that Clive (who wrote about the form for the Times Magazine this summer) says is the first machinima he's seen that had more going on than mere parody. No doubt you could even convert that film back into a game that involved you vicariously in the riots but also raised empathic, social and other questions along the way, the same way an action movie with a political subtext can do. And, finally, this meta-discussion about game censorship.

For now a commercial game seems more likely to go manipulatively for the waterworks - by killing off a sweet, cute character for instance, and backing it up with swelling synthesized strings. Now, even that may seem a leap forward for most computer games (ever read about the high rates of autism among kids in Silicon Valley?), and more complex emotional experiences might come along in time. But tears? They're not enough.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 01 at 10:20 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)



Try playing 'Shadow of the Colossus' and not becoming emotional after killing the magnificent colossi for no apparent reason other than to bring your dead girfriend back to life.

The art direction is stunning and the moral ambiguity is completely intentional.

Posted by josh on December 2, 2005 11:55 AM



Unfortunately, I don't think Thompson's piece further advances the "games-as-art" argument.

Rather, Thompson and Bowen focus on the narrative within the game. "Envy", "sadness", and "Schadenfreude" are all superficial products of narrative, found within any book or movie. Clive and Bowen are essentially asking, "Can a game be emotionally manipulative?"

They're not really off-base in their study. Most videogames try and make the interface between gamer and protagonist as close as possible, allowing the plot of the game to directly affect the player. It's nothing more than good storytelling.

This is certainly the case with Final Fantasy games, specifically Aerith's death (although I was far more affected by Cyan's family boarding the Death Train in FF VI). Most of gaming's most memorable moments have been a result of the narrative. The first instance of "game makes user cry" was, I believe, due to a certain self-sacrificing robot in Planetfall, back in 1983. In other words, this is old news.

There is, however, an artistry in gaming that transcends narrative... and this is where I believe games become art. The sense of futility in Tetris addiction. The vertigo of Zelda and Mario's never-ending quests. The computational grace of Galaga's aliens (and every shoot-em-up following). The architecture of Ico (and its blinding non-ending!). The deliberately repetitious and yet-so-compelling gameplay of Shadow Of The Colossus. And Katamari Damacy, whose goal of "rolling up objects into balls" is somewhat erotic.

Bowen's research rates a game by "how intense the emotional reaction". Bullshit. Art and literature aren't quantified in such simplistic terms, so why should videogames be subjected to such a reductive study?

Posted by Owen on December 2, 2005 11:36 AM



David Byrne explored something to this affect back in June. I'm not a gamer, but it's hard to deny the fact that many lives are going to become increasingly invested in these worlds, and necessarily emotionally affected by them. The more we build it ourselves, the greater the prospect of tears ...

Posted by Andrew Rose on December 2, 2005 10:19 AM



Love the Man Ray/Meret Oppenheim picture, Carl. I've got it above my TV-set at home.

Posted by Chris on December 2, 2005 7:37 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson