Celia Pearce responds in turn

Celia Pearce responds in turn

2004-01-11

Celia Pearce’s position - anti-isolationist, but also anti-colonialist - derives from her understanding of “the unique properties of games themselves.”

The plethora of literary references in Mark Bernstein’s remarks merely calls attention to my point that games are not literature, and as such, should not be measured by the same metrics. His closing notion that a game should “bring us new understanding of sexuality” or “[tell] us about surviving the moment we learn that our father… is not the man we once believed” reveal the fundamental problem with using the tools of literary criticism as a means of measuring the effectiveness of games. The function of a game is not to “tell” us anything, and that is perhaps the great schism between literature and games. Granted, the reader must interpret and construct the narrative in literature, but they cannot change or control the narrative in any way; in literature, the narrative is not theirs but the author’s. Games do not ask the player to construct or interpret what the author is trying to “tell” them. Rather they function as a kit of parts that allows the player to construct their own story or variation thereof. Bernstein’s points about abstraction in literature are well-taken, but I still contend that the role of abstraction is different in these two media. They are alike in that they invite reader/player projection, but they differ in that in games, the formation of character is the largely the domain of the player. Thus the player does not merely empathize with the characters, but ultimately has the power to influence and change them. Regarding Bernstein’s final question, I think it is as futile to ask games to serve the same function as literature as it is to ask music to serve the same function as poetry. And implicit in the question is the gleeful triumph with which literary theorists maintain that, “see, games will never be as good as literature.” But in fact, games are not the same thing as literature, and should be appreciated for what they are, not what they are not.

Mary Flanagan’s comments provide an interesting counterpoint to Bernstein’s. She points out, and rightly so, that it can be useful to draw from other critical disciplines in looking at games. I think a number of theorists have done this to great effect. Janet Murray is perhaps the best example of a theorist who has taken ideas from literary theory and transformed them into a relevant game-centric critique. Flanagan obliquely criticizes the implied isolationism of the game-centric theory of game that I propose, and in one sense, she is right. But it is important to realize that to a certain extent, games have evolved in isolation from other media. The practice of using critical theory tools from literature and film to discuss games is a fairly recent phenomenon. Indeed it has really been the mainstreaming of the computer game that has caused these other disciplines to sit up and take notice. In spite of the enormous role of games in popular culture, the vast majority of critical theorists from these disciplines still take the more typical stance of regarding games with either disdain or indifference. Nonetheless, it has become trendy in some circles to throw literary theory at games to “see if it sticks.” Most of the time, this form of theoretical colonialism only serves the purpose of proving the artistic inadequacy of games-as-literature, which is not very useful to anyone. It is equivalent to the Western practice of interpreting other cultures as “primitive” or “backward” compared to European culture, rather than evaluating them on their own terms. So although I agree that it is useful to draw from many discourses, as an “indigenous” game person (i.e. someone who has not come out of another discipline), I will continue to argue that games warrant the further development of an indigenous theory, though not necessarily an isolationist one. In the same way indigenous cultures can benefit by incorporating tools from other cultures into existing cultural paradigms, I think game theory can benefit from other critical tools. However, I still believe that the core theory needs to arise from the unique properties of games themselves in order to develop an approach that is both appropriate and useful.

GAME OVER

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