Interlude: why games matter, and what Jane Austen has to do with it.

The purpose of this blog is to reflect on “Majora’s Mask” as an important work of art in the general realm of aesthetics; yet as the first month of analysis comes to a close and Cyber Monday looms, I am as aware as ever that many people view video games much more as toys than as serious works of art.  In light of this, without dwelling on it too long, I would like to dedicate one post to an attempt to convince the cynic that video games deserve to be taken seriously as aesthetic works.

Austen

When I was studying Jane Austen a few weeks ago, I came across a passage from Northanger Abbey, the first novel she wrote (written roughly 1798-99, and published in 1818).  Austen was a pioneer of the novel as a medium, coming out of a world where it was considered a lesser form of art, and it was this ignorant dismissal of novels that she treats in the passage in question.  I quote from Chapter 5:

Although our productions [i.e., novels] have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.  From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.  “I am no novel reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.”  Such is the common cant.–“And what are you reading, Miss–?”  “Oh!  It is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

What Austen so eloquently illuminates is the unwillingness of a people to legitimize a new medium as aesthetically valuable — something that I believe is equally applicable to the reticence felt by some towards video games today.  I offer my own reworking of Austen’s language to emphasize this to the skeptical reader:

Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other aesthetic corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.  From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our gamers… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the game designer, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.  “I am no gamer–I seldom look into video games–Do not imagine that I often play video games–It is really very well for a video game.”  Such is the common cant.–“And what are you playing, Miss–?”  “Oh!  It is only a video game!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her controller with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only ‘Final Fantasy VII,’ or ‘Kingdom Hearts II,’ or ‘Majora’s Mask’;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen form.

With all the value I see in video games, I still experience something like “affected indifference, or momentary shame” the first time I explain my analytic pursuits of video games to someone, and this is why Austen’s narrative resonates with me.  A major part of the cultural zeitgeist surrounding video games is the sentiment that video games are designed for children and meant to be outgrown.  It’s built into our very language, referring to the medium as “video games”:  there exists within the concept an element of play and imagination which is considered to be “less-than-adult.”  Compound this with the fact that most people who have not played video games would probably only have two reference points available for understanding video games:  games designed for and played by young children, if they interact with children who game; and the archetypal first-person shooter, like “Halo” or “Call of Duty.”  So the available examples from the medium for the uninitiated reinforce the stereotype that video games are either for children, or “senselessly violent.”  They remain unaware of the capacity for games to weave a rich storyline through narrative and aesthetic elements unavailable to any other kind of media — the sort at play in a game like “Majora.”

Beyond the video game itself, there is the further question of what it means to be labeled a “gamer.”  Those who play video games are encouraged to assume that are part of their personal identity, and to tacitly endorse the minimalist conception of video games as a “mere pastime.”  Imagine, as a thought experiment, if we lived in a world in which people who read books called themselves “readers.”  This feels, I submit, strange, because it endorses the view of literature as something of an optional personal interest, as opposed to a cornerstone of aesthetics and human discourse.  If we moved away from a “reader” paradigm of personal hobby and towards a “literacy” paradigm of expected aesthetic engagement, I think it would be far more difficult to maintain the perception that video games are mere toys.

A few years ago, I wrote a more involved piece on why video games deserve academic treatment; within it, I considered how one might respond to the charge that video games, like children’s literature, are in some sense a prototypical medium, and ought not to be equated in complexity to the novel.  I recapitulate my response to that charge below.

“We might initially think it curious to value some media as more ‘valuable’ or ‘complex’ than others. Each medium offers unique characteristics by definition, making the validity of inter-medium comparisons extremely difficult to prove. Nonetheless, many would probably agree that it is inappropriate to teach a college level course on a children’s book, unless the course were specifically on early childhood development, or the writing of children’s books. Some media, then, may be said to lend themselves to a certain purpose or audience; thus, we may allow this argument provided we interpret it as an assertion of the following: ‘video games are an inappropriate medium to convey involved ideas and theory; even if they are conceived to be of substance, that substance is better presented and assessed in a different, more fitting medium, such as the novel.’

Yet the claim is equally fallible in this form. We need only consider the graphic novel – or, more appropriately, the comic book. The line between comic book and graphic novel is largely arbitrary, with the graphic novel only being truly distinguished by a sense of self-containment, whereas comic books series may be propagated ad infinitum. Yet even this is arbitrary, as certain story arcs of comic books are often compiled together and read in a manner closely akin to that of a graphic novel. It is plausible, then, that the term “graphic novel” is in some sense used to legitimize a medium with a long history of being judged juvenile and recreational. The comic book is gaining traction in this new incarnation as a medium that can be treated in a way similar yet separate to the traditional novel. More and more, teachers are acknowledging that the unique dynamics afforded by visuals and their juxtaposition against text provide insight into substantive concepts in a manner which cannot be achieved by text alone. A similar, longer-standing disposition has evolved towards film:  the study of it as a medium is now well established and accredited. Seeing as both of these are relatively new media, we see that there is no relationship between the length of time for which a medium has been established and its capacity for involved treatment of high-level concepts; we need only establish that the medium has a unique and compelling way to present such concepts.

…[‘Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time’] carries the same format as the most classic of myths, yet only in such a game can the classical format be presented in a participatory manner… this dynamic allows the player to enter the [content] of the game in an associative manner, thereby understanding it with inherently greater depth. There is, therefore, nothing ‘prototypical’ about video games as a medium; if anything, their dynamics suggest that the distanced nature of approach offered by a novel is prototypical by comparison.”

As the blog continues, I will aim to draw out more of the aspects of “Majora” that reflect the special capacities of video games as a meaning to convey aesthetic value and nuance.  Yet without having explicated it thus far, it should be apparent to the reader that such aspects as sidequests prompting players to counterfactually analyze the game’s universe are uniquely realizable by video games.  My hope here is to invite those who might not otherwise find themselves interested in video games to explore and engage in the discourse — we live in an age where a new and powerful form of art is taking shape, and it is a mistake to write it off as the domain of children.

3 thoughts on “Interlude: why games matter, and what Jane Austen has to do with it.

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