Mark Bernstein's response

Mark Bernstein's response

2004-01-10

Mark Bernstein explains that games have many lessons to learn from other artforms that speak to, and teach us, what it means to be human.

The bidding has hardly begun, but the cards are tricky and the players, unless they communicate precisely, are headed for trouble. Before we rush toward a theoretization of games, we might wonder whether games are a coherent category.

Celia Pearce tells us that the highest aspiration of narrative in games is “to engender compelling, interesting play.” It is, of course, no small or simple task to coax a smile, yet surely the artist might sometimes aspire to more. To assume that games cannot hold a mirror up to nature, that they cannot move us or change us, is almost to assume that they are hardly worth discussing. Children play games, but the games we study are not child’s play (and child’s play, to children, is deadly serious). Children like to dress up as kings and to undress, but drama is not merely playing house or playing doctor.

Though Pearce believes that “games are weaker at character development, whereas they excel at adventure,” surely it is character that makes us remember a knight of the playing field: Kerri Strug, Babe Didrikson, Jackie Robinson, or Pelé. It is character - humanity - that leads us to watch (and to care about) games.

1. e4 Nf6 (1. P-K4 N-KB3)

The players have barely entered, yet already we sense their characters. It is the players that interest us, not the kings. There are kings, to be sure, on the chessboard as in Macbeth, but Macbeth is a king (though he never existed) and the chess king (though here, solid, before us) is merely a symbol, an abstraction no more closely related to kingship than is “X” to the spot it never marks. These moves took only seconds, but in those moments we can already guess at the characters of the players: White’s opening conventional, Black’s hypermodern Alekhine a brash retort. (Perhaps I once was Black, and White is my old Russian tutor, a man who once shook Lenin’s hand, who must have arrived in Chicago around the time Alekhine beat Capablanca, and who soon taught me a thing or two. Patzers, kibbitzers, lost language of a vanished world, memory of an age when hypermodern meant 1927.)

Pearce calls our attention to the importance of abstraction. The value of abstraction is not new or specific to games. Excess detail is always ineffective; communicating character and narrative is achieved by describing the crucial details and omitting the rest. If we perceive characters as “abstract personae,” the game designer has failed, just as details piled up because Management wanted more backstory, or Marketing wanted more bodice, won’t help us understand joy or haunt us in our sleep.

Someone set us up the bomb…
All your base are belong to us

Tolkein does indeed hold an important place in the development of computer games, but Pearce utterly misunderstands The Lord of the Rings. Tolkein’s importance has little to do with the maps that adorn his endpapers. Yes, Tolkein spoke of writing as a journey through imagined worlds, but this perception is not uncommon. Neither is it necessarily helpful in understanding either Middle Earth or interactive art. Yes, he kept elaborate notebooks. This is not uncommon, either: we know many of the War Poets through their notebooks. (Tolkein on the Somme was 24, and if no poppies bloom in the Dead Marshes, we still recognize the muck and thirst of Flanders refracted through the memory of the Burma Road and Stalingrad and That Fucking Island, the land even Marines would not name.)

These are the saddest of
possible words:
Tinker, to Evers, to Chance.

Lara Croft is an unformed character, an archetype, but she is hardly less formed than Sir Percival - how could she be? - and if Tomb Raider is not entirely successful as a film, surely Parsifal is not entirely unsuccessful as an opera. Percival is a rite of passage, a memory of a puberty initiation mystery, and so Percival’s unformedness grows organically from his story. Croft is simply not thought through.

You are in a maze of twisty
little passages, all different

We need to keep our eye on the ball, and pay attention to the Man behind the Curtain, for in games (as elsewhere) things are seldom what they seem. Mysteries are not about detection or problem solving; they are about a damaged, fractured world, and the struggle to make it whole.

But down these mean streets a
man must go who is not himself
mean…. He must be the best
man in his world and a good
enough man for any world.

- Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

Game designers who see only Sherlock Holmes’s puzzle-solving are missing the point, just as game designers who think the story of war is the struggle between two generals have forgotten the lessons of the last two centuries. They have forgotten The Naked and the Dead and Catch-22, or for that matter Run Silent, Run Deep and Apocalypse Now. James Bond isn’t about espionage (for which, see Le Carré, written in response); he’s a fantasy of masculine good humor. If genre makes the game (which I personally doubt), we ought to get the genre right.

And somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in
Mudville:

We have known for decades that the reader constructs meaning, that stories are a negotiation and the text is never quite the Text. We have always known this. Narrative begins with performance; the theater never dies; we all tell stories after dinner. Our oldest story begins in the tenth year of the great war, as the Directors meet to discuss the next dividend and discover that they are themselves at war. Our oldest story begins again in the mysterious light in the eyes of two young lovers, newly met, in a time of impossible difficulties.

We can now look back on two decades of computer games. We’ve filled a bookshelf with game after game. But what on this shelf speaks to us of that strange, terrible, irresistible force that brings these lovers together? What brings to us new understanding of sexuality? What have games told us about surviving the moment when we learn that our father (or our daughter, or our spouse) is not the man we once believed? Theater does this; it always has. Film, print, verse, painting, sculpture: they all do it.

Where are the games?

Mary Flanagan responds

Celia Pearce responds