What Is This New Fangled Contraption?!

The issue of The New Yorker with Nicholson Baker’s article about video games finally staggered into the mailbox the other day, so at last I was able to read what a smart outsider has to say about gaming. For one thing, it’s pretty great to see this level of engagement with games in the pages of such an iconic magazine. I enjoyed Tom Bissell’s coverage of Cliff Bleszinksi from Epic, but that was a profile piece, rather than about games specifically.

So what does Baker have to say? Unfortunately, not as much as you might like. He finds games occasionally beautiful and too often horribly violent. That’s fine, of course, because it’s more or less the truth about games. On the other hand, it borders on the utterly uninformative. Baker simply doesn’t contribute much to how we can think about and experience games.

This presents a larger problem to the extent that Baker’s real audience isn’t gamers like myself, but more likely people who don’t play games. The one “pro” offered, games’ beauty, is easily outweighed in the article by Baker’s observations about violence, treatment of women, and, crucially, the sheer difficulty of playing the game at all. If we were to summarise his experience and the article most succinctly it might be, “Hey, that’s quite beaut… oh. I died. Again.”

I’m certainly not going to claim Baker’s wrong about games being hard to pick up and violent when you do, but the problem with sending someone who can’t play to tell the world about games is pretty obvious. Pick your metaphor. It’s like getting a 98 pound weakling onto a football team to tell us what it’s like in the NFL. Interesting, but only from a strange, jarring, and depressing perspective. The article’s not good PR for games, because there’s a real sense in which Baker didn’t have the chance to “really” play them. That’s fine, of course, and it points out the glaring problem that games exclude all who aren’t literate (or incredibly devoted and patient), but it misses more or less every aspect of what is wonderful about playing these things.

When I think back to the various magical times I’ve had in games, it seems impossible to me that Baker would have been able to experience them – they all required a basic competence in those digital worlds. My lack of “staying frosty” in Modern Warfare 2 was tied to my otherwise not awful ability with FPS games. My epiphany about being an outsider in a modernising world in Red Dead Redemption meant getting through as much as twenty hours of play. And so on.

I’m not suggesting that it’s a good thing that games set the bar high and take forever, these things could be handled better perhaps, but I do think it’s an important feature of games that we earn our experiences in them. Having games interpreted for us by someone who doesn’t play is like the New Yorker’s film critic being someone who’s never watched movies before. The criticism will be novel, sure, but not particularly deep or interesting.

Baker ended his piece a little condescendingly with the quip that he would now take a walk outside, feel the breeze, avoid the ticks. I think I’ll return to the world of Legend of Zelda, push a few blocks, open a few chests, save the world. You know.

22 August 2010
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