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Features

Gaming for grown-ups

Andy Robertson

Violent and addictive shoot-em-ups, or a new art form with power to take us deeper into our life narrative? Self confessed convert Andy Robertson fires up his video games console and goes in search of grown-up answers.

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I've been playing Bioshock Infinite all night again. Booker DeWitt's instincts to shoot his way out of trouble as he misguidedly tries to rescue Elizabeth have merged with my own. That he is as lost as her is obvious from my sofa, but in the game he is slow to realise.

But then everything is made clear. His powers and marksmanship are suddenly impotent as Elizabeth's childhood guardian drowns before our eyes. It's the abused girl rather than the hero who responds here, whispering comfort and transforming the empty ending into something meaningful.

Unable to push past the emotion of that moment I sit silent for a few minutes before saving the game and heading to bed with these images swimming through my head. The next morning I'm still haunted, not by the violence and shooting of the night before, but by Elizabeth's ability to be present in the face of death. The kids come down for breakfast and in I realise the reason for last night's tears: my desire, in spite of whatever might transpire between us in years to come, to be as present as Elizabeth was in their best and worst moments.

 

WHAT WAS IT?

We don't really know what video games are, beyond our suspicions of them being an ill-advised love-child of popular entertainment and technology. While many look to justify the video game's presence in wider culture through educational, sociological, or therapeutic qualities we are in fact better served by a long hard look at how they function in the lives of the people who play them.

Despite writing about games for many years, I only recently succumbed to the wiles of big narrative-driven console experiences. They used to scare me, although I'm not completely sure why that was. Being infected by their violence and questionable body image maybe, or having reoccurring nightmares of their horrific scenarios perhaps?

Carefully and selectively at first I picked my way through particular experiences, Alan Wake, Limbo on the Xbox 360 and the Uncharted series on PlayStation 3. The shooting-people-in-the-head was still a problem, but at the same time I discovered other things were happening in these games, and in me, as I played them. They became a place to discover new perspectives on the world and ruminate on my old ways of seeing. Although I'm not sure I should admit it, they became the place I found God. Much more than on a Sunday morning, this unspoken inner emotional journey with pixels and outward ritual of tapping plastic buttons was my secret encounter with the divine.

 

ABOUT SOMETHING

My journey with games has been fed by my instinct to interpret rather than just play them. This has transformed what they mean to me, from entertainment to experiences that are about something.

This may sound a little odd if video games bring to mind violence, addiction, lethargy and obesity. Even if you have a more positive view of games the idea that they mean something beyond themselves and their entertaining quality is likely to be a new one.

My video game reviews in Third Way have aimed to describe this process as I've looked hard at recent games for some greater (or lesser) purpose. Admittedly I'm cherry picking console games with big stories here, but the more I look the more I find meaning above and beyond excitement and adrenaline.

 

LEGITIMATE CONCERNS

Before we get to this though, there are some legitimate concerns. The video game industry is worth billions and with half our homes having a games console, children aged 12-15 are averaging 11 hours game playing a week. Although not clinically addictive many reports blame an increase in this screen time for childhood obesity and obsessive behaviour.

Perhaps a bigger concern is video game violence and how, in an era of attack drones, this rewires what we think of killing, desensitising players to the realities of war. It's not just seeing heads explode at the touch of your trigger finger, but the choices we are invited to make. It's not just that we can choose which particular sex act we want from a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto, but that we then decide whether to pay her or bludgeon her to death.

The big-story console genre that started with games about survival through killing rarely finds the maturity to escape these bounds. One way or another the shooting continues. So on the surface, trying to find meaning in games like these seems like a category mistake, looking for life lessons in a Big Mac.

 

DEPTH EXPERIENCE

Faced with what appears to be nothing more than a celebration of violence, it is no surprise that video games are rarely considered in depth, or interpreted in terms of meaning. Imagine then my surprise as these same games (Bioshock Infinite, Uncharted 3, Alan Wake and Limbo to name a few) have become treasured experiences for me with as much meaning as any book or film.

I've never been to the Pacific Northwest, but since playing Alan Wake it's a place on the planet that gives me chills just hearing the name. Running scared through the dark wooded mountains of that game, pursued by the 'Taken' villagers, created a deep connection with the landscape. The mountains became a blanket to wrap round myself and spoke of hope and life amid the night's temporary terrors.1

As I mentioned I usually steer clear of horror stories, but Limbo's intriguing world and hypnotic soundscape got me past my usual hang ups. It led me to a moment unique in all my media consumption where darkness was transformed into a hopeful place not by escaping to the night but through the presence of another person like me.2

If, to quote Rob Bell's 2010 definition of good news, 'Every little bit of hope you stumble across is real'3, games have become both very real and very hopeful for me.

 

DARK STORIES

It is a hope unlocked by interpreting the things that scare me in video games rather than running from them. I know that some will protest that this kind of engagement is misguided and not worth the risk, particularly when focused on experiences as outwardly violent as these. But this is unfamiliarity and fear talking rather than the resources of faith. We are better served by leaning on this long practice of dealing wisely with dark problematic stories.

The violence in the Bible may seem far removed from a graphic video game, but intimately shares the need to be discarded or interpreted. This is where my gaming and faith collide. I find myself equipped to discern and interpret games not least from a history of dealing (and failing to deal) with difficult books of scripture. We merrily use the flood and conquest narratives in Sunday school, surely these skills also mean we can decipher and differentiate Call of Duty from Bioshock?

As well as keeping children safe from inappropriate games, perhaps we should be connecting them with experiences that have real ongoing value. Games like Flower, Let's Catch and Journey create a context in which to learn how to process these experiences while also raising questions about life. Like difficult passages of the Bible, games can help us avoid inoculating our families from any talk of loss or danger or fear.

 

ENGAGING KIDS

I tried this with a group of 12-year-olds at Greenbelt a few years ago. We played Flower together, and as we played we talked about who was the hero and the villain, what was wrong and what we needed to do to fix it. By the end of the session they had not only gained some skills in how to understand a video game but had also instinctively taken ownership of the narrative, interpreting for themselves what it might mean. Although for some the instinct to still make the answer 'Jesus' lingered on, they were now doing this in a much more imaginative way.

Engaging with games in this way reveals, much like a close reading of the Hebrew scriptures, that there is more going on than death and destruction, genocide and regime change. Some games may simply be gratuitous in their use of killing, but others employ it intelligently.

This can mean that the shooting is used to emotionally underline the story in a way that non-violence wouldn't. Like in films like No Country for Old Men, game violence can be intertwined with meaning. Or it can be used to shock or repulse in an intentional way that has consequences in the game world and player's experience. We serve our communities and young people best by being able to direct them towards the meaningful experiences rather tarring all with the same brush.

 

GUNS & RELATIONSHIPS

While video game financing and publishing still seem reluctant to escape the lucrative bounds of the shooting genre, that doesn't eclipse the intentional humanity here. Ken Levine, talking about his recent and super-violent game Bioshock Infinite4 at a BAFTA Q&A session pinned his success on the relationships in the game rather than the shooting. 'How I'm going to judge my personal success is: Will you feel any sense of a relationship? We are really good at interacting with guns, but can you get to a place where you are interacting with people?'5

Hollywood also hasn't been slow in recognising the potential for storytelling. Many serious writers are now looking at video games as a legitimate art form. Even a cursory browse through IMDB throws up video game writing, acting and directing duties for names usually associated with movies. Alex Garland, first known for his best-selling novel The Beach, subsequently became a screenwriter (Sunshine, Never Let me Go) and more recently co-wrote the video game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe both star in Beyond Two Souls and these actors are involved as intimately in the game creation process as they would be in a film. Game directors are looking for that same emotional delivery from them, and are willing to pay and push to get the best performances they can.6

Game developers too (like Ubisoft's narrative team, codenamed Alice) are investing not just in faster technology, better graphics or cleverer programmers but in the narrative arts. Talent scouts, motion capture masters, research and development engineers, sound mixers and narrative guides are now an integral and closely guarded resource of the video game industry.

 

SHARING STORIES

The double-realisation that video games are not interactive films but an entirely new way to share stories in the broadest sense of that word - and that many games intentionally aim to be meaningful experiences - paints them in a new light.

Unfortunately you can't tell beforehand (with any certainty) which games escape being purely gratuitous. So while I used to avoid any disturbing experiences for the sake of my sanity, recently I've taken more risks and played more games, violent or not.

Sometimes this leaves me feeling like I've wasted my evening on something juvenile and frustrating. Sometimes, I'm simply disgusted by the violence and have to put the controller down and walk away. Sometimes, however, I encounter a moment of quiet revelation that paints life in a new light, or I come away feeling challenged about my priorities, or I discover something about myself that I once knew but that had faded over the years.

Having been encouraged into this questionable territory by my faith, I have also benefited from my gaming peers' insights into how to make sense of the experiences I find. In particular, Tadhg Kelly on what games are and Tom Bissell on why games matter.

'Games are an art form' Kelly explains 'but that art may not be what you think it is.' Being used to interpreting books and films hinders as much as it helps here. '[Video games] convey the feeling of a story, glimpses of key moments, develop a theme and a metaphor. Like impressionism compared to formal painting, they hint rather than show or tell.' (Emphasis mine.)7

Playing a game is to experience a world in motion rather than the snapshot of a book or journey of a film. Although a novel may also create the sense of overhearing a story, the whole novel is doing story work. A game gives you this sense of overhearing because it spends time working at other (interactive) elements. The story is experienced in a haphazard way with a real potential to miss things or linger on minor inconsequential matters - not dissimilar to how we experience life.

 

DOUBLE VISION

In fact, as Bissell describes, there are often two stories at work in a game, the overarching narrative driven forward in scripted dialogue and the interactive story driven forward by the choices of the player. Although a game's overarching narrative can make it seem like a book or film, its experienced whole needs very different interpretation. The game's meaning is a combination of the world in motion, my actions in it and the response of other characters.

Our instincts are right; killing in a video game is very different to killing in a book or film. 'When I read a novel' writes Bissell, 'I am allowing my mind to be occupied by a colonizer of uncertain intent.' We give ourselves over in an almost trance-like state to films and books that perform their stories on us without asking or waiting for consent.

For Bissell playing a video game is not like this because 'the surrender is always partial'.8 Games, by their nature, are more easygoing and gentler on their subjects than books or films, which  dominate and direct our thoughts. Their interactive quality means that ideas and themes are interrupted by moments that break the 'suspense of disbelief'. They offer space for our own response and opinion, they invite us to interpret. This means games, as much if not more than books and films, help us see ourselves more clearly, particularly around subjects we don't face elsewhere.

OPEN & PLAYFUL

This is how religious texts function in healthy traditions, offering safe spaces where cultural taboos and dangerous or frightening topics can be interpreted (often differently) by each subsequent generation. Games have an advantage in that their interactive nature foregrounds the link between the player's interpretation and any particular meaning gained. Unlike books that are prone to proof texting, burying interpretation under a weight of what the majority say about a passage, games keep the conversation open and playful.

However, unlike other media, big-story console games are singularly lacking in any ongoing or sustained critique that looks to interpret and discuss what they mean or might be about. It's no great surprise when you consider the violent first impression of many of these experiences, something else they share with how religious texts are perceived in popular culture.

Let me be clear, I don't want these games to stay as they are. I still look away during certain head-grinding moments of Bioshock Infinite, or wish I had looked away when I shot-gunned the contents of an enemy's head all over the screen in The Last of Us.

The day one of these games lays down arms mid-stream in a sustained and thoughtful way will be a very good day not only for video games but for mankind. But until that day, I want to be knee deep in this growing tradition of story making that is becoming an ever bigger part of the air we breathe.

 

EMERGING MEANING

As Tom Bissell says in his author's notes to Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter, 'It may be years before anyone arrives at a true understanding of what games are, what they have done to popular entertainment, and how they have shaped the expectations of their many and increasingly divergent audiences.'9 I want to be part of the grass roots interpretive work that starts putting these pieces together, to understand how they function in our lives sooner rather than later.

Like any tradition in the making, there are no certainties about where it will lead, to health and hope or anger and violence. Equally though, traditions develop in positive directions through individuals and communities willing to honestly engage with the realities of their texts and interpret, rather than discard, them.

Without this process and these people, there is no Bible and no tradition. Without this we run the risk of letting games become as synonymous with violence as graphic novels are with superheroes. Of course, that doesn't sound like a huge loss because we haven't been confronted with what we're missing out on.

Even just peeling back a few corners we can see there is plenty to lose. Video games have the potential to be a completely new way to share hope and commiserate loss. They offer cutting-edge, ground-breaking experiences that intimately connect meaning with actions. Playing a video game gives us privileged access to new imaginative ways to tell our human story. They create new possibilities, introduce undreamed-of constructions and equip us to cope with the challenge of a complex, contested and provisional existence.

Yes they are violent, but as with the Bible and God there is clear justified hope that they will one day escape these questionable tendencies. It's time to start getting ready for when they do.

 

NOTES

1  Alan Wake (Xbox 360) Reviewed in Third Way Dec 2012

2  Limbo (Xbox 360, PS3, PC/Mac) Reviewed in Third Way June 2012

3  http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/media/talks/14467-rob-bell/

4  Bioshock Infinite (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) Reviewed in Third Way June 2013

5  Ken Levine filmed at a BAFTA Q&A www.youtube.com/watch?&v=Efv9Mgwk8SU

6  Ken Levine directs Courtnee Draper's emotional moment in Bioshock Infinte https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Efv9Mgwk8SU#t=29m11s

7  Storytsense defined by Tadgh Kelly http://www.whatgamesare.com/storysense.html

8  Bissell, T: Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Vintage Books, 2011)

9  ibid.