Monday, October 06, 2003

Computer games and the human condition
This does not start with Mark Bernstein’s question, which he calls “Bernstein’s Challenge”, but it includes that. It also includes the ludology/narrativity debate, the distinction games/interactive fiction and the nature of games.

Mark Bernstein asks what games and teach us of the human condition, and he asks his questions like this:
“Now look over the shelf, and tell me everything we learn about, say, sexuality.” (nov. 1, 2001) and “So let's step over to that big bookshelf that holds our 20 years of games, and start picking out the games that tell us about Fathers and Sons.” (nov 2, 2001).

On Grand Text Auto Mark Bernstein’s rerun of his question spurs an intense debate. I am less convinced that this attention is deserved now than I was two years ago. The questions assume that games are the same as literature, that they have to answer the same questions as literature and in the same manner. The questions also assume that the only interesting things about humans are about sexuality, fathers and sons. Freud would certainly have wanted to know about this, but do we really need to look for Oedipus every time we reach for a joystick?

Noah Wardrip-Fruin comments in GTA that "Mark's query is a dead end. Rather than trying to drum up interest in this old question, I think he'd offer us more by exploring what's wrong with it", and in response to this Andrew Stern asks: "So I suppose I'm interpreting Mark's question as a version of your first newly-posed question — why have human-condition issues, which get addressed in all other media (literature, theater, cinema, TV, music), not yet been successfully addressed in the most popular form of interactive media, namely games?"

I am with Noah on this. The question isn't all that interesting. And the reason I think it's not interesting is expressed by Steve: "I guess I would have to come at Mark's question with another question: which games? Then come the choices." We don't even know the limitations and the potential in this new genre, how can we make sweeping statements about what they say about nothing less than the human condition? At the time when this question was first asked, I offered two quick examples of games that address sexuality and fathers and sons. There are more, the entire Baldur's Gate series is for instance an epic of how the sins of fathers come back to pursue the son - or the daughter. It's equal opportunity evil, unlike Bernstein's questions.

The problem is that Bernstein's questions presuppose that any medium has to, in all its different incarnations, address a very narrow aspect of the human condition in order to be valuable. This narrow aspect of the human condition happens to overlap the interests of a layer of society where it is part of the culture to analyse such things as sexuality and the relationships between fathers and sons. Games are more likely to address different aspects of the human condition, such as the relationship between series of expected events, the response time given a certain interface, the surprise element versus reassurance, the abject, the liminal and order: all of these are very much related to what humans are, how we think, how we feel, how we act, but they are not easily fitted within literature criticism or even film criticism (although the introduction of time and speed makes film theory more directly applicable to games than literature theory).

After the rerun of this question, I am tempted to ask: Why do we have to look for the same things in games as we look for in books? I thought we had agreed that they are different media? I don't expect pens to be used for the same things as balls, so why should games be books?

And to Mark Bernstein's comment at the end: "Scholarship proceeds through dialogue, by finding questions and then finding answers. We're waiting, folks."

Mark: How about listening for a change, and not just asking? A lot of people have answered a lot of questions about games. That they don't answer these questions does not mean there is no dialogue, progress and answers.

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