Me and Video Games, or, How To Write Meaningfully About Things
As a fiction writer, I really only know how to write meaningfully about feelings. When I write about objects, I write about the feelings they evoke. They’re symbols or metonyms, as well as literal objects within the fiction. In fiction, I write about The Legend of Zelda (1986) as an artifact in a life, not as a series of layered systems.
In the past, I’ve tried writing about games as I might write about books. I addressed games as literature, which is obviously inappropriate. So I stopped and returned to writing about literature or writing literature.
But I enjoy talking about games. I enjoy thinking about them. They excite me the way books do. I’m invested in movies (especially “film”), and I love music, although that’s sullied somewhat by a sentimental streak. But books and games communicate to me in a specific way, because both require interaction. Reading a book is no more passive than playing a video game, or vice versa.
My goal is to write meaningfully about video games. As a goal, this sounds as bland and cliché as a bad sandwich. And I don’t want to serve bad sandwiches. My writing will not always be fresh or innovative, but it will have meaning. It will not be “content.”
I also want to draw a distinction between writing meaningfully and writing well. You can write well and not meaningfully - I’ve done that for over half a decade in marketing. And you can certainly write meaningfully and not well. I’ve done that on-and-off for decades.
My goal is always to write well, but my goal here is to write meaningfully about something I don’t fully understand, which will consistently make writing well a challenge. Games are extraordinarily complex media. They’re made by teams with disparate departments and roles with tasks and skills that (from outside) wouldn’t seem to overlap and yet must. Where does the work of a voice actor, AI programmer and UX designer meet? How can this work layer and interweave? And then there’s the player, him or herself.
I. The Designers
Liz England tackles the question of “Who are game designers?” in a brilliant, concise piece called “The Door Problem” first published on her blog and later on Kotaku. In “The Door Problem” England imagines a video game in which there is a virtual door. That door being the known asset, what questions must be asked about it? What will the tens of programmers, artists and designers need to know about that door? What about the game producer, a foreign localization team?
To drastically oversimplify England’s thesis: Game design is infinitely complex and infinitely mundane. A door is one in a million threads that makes up a game, and yet it is as intricately woven in as all the other threads.
And how do players appreciate the individual threads themselves? How do they notice them?
In a March 15th 2017 episode of the video game podcast Idle Thumbs, the hosts discussed 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s scale and sight lines. Specifically, the hosts posited that the world of Breath of the Wild is designed so that towers, peaks, and general areas of interest viewed from a distance are closer than they initially appear. This accomplishes two things: 1) The ensuing adventure to that area of interest from your location feels epic, but 2) Doesn’t take nearly as long as actual traversal would, eliminating the potential for boredom. The hosts, game designers themselves, offered a few theories as to how this might work - for instance, scaling the world into a bowl-shape. It’s an interesting conversation - a rare conversation. But they struggle through it.
The scale and sight lines of Breath of the Wild are what we call “good design” without being able to go deeper. Even game designers themselves often lack the vocabulary to write about games. This isn’t a critique but an observation: Games are complex, they require literacy in multiple languages.
II. Egalitarian Design, Authorial Design
Game design and game making are more egalitarian than ever, thanks to open-source engines and friendly game-making tools. Anna Anthropy’s seminal Rise of the Video Game Zinesters (2012) was and remains a call to arms for amateur game design. This isn’t amateur in the sense of homespun, and although Athropy’s title implies a more underground approach, it doesn’t necessarily need to be revolutionary either. It’s about diversity of voices, diversity of game designers - and the strength of those voices.
This is exciting, and it takes us a few steps closer to being able to talk “meaningfully” about video games, even if game design isn’t a ubiquitous hobby. Parents won’t give up scrapbooking or car tinkering for tooling with Unity. Still, in the five years since Anthropy released her book, we’ve seen a rise in auteur games. Some of which have been stellar and received deserved acclaim: Stardew Valley (2016) and Undertale (2015) are two games each completed primarily by single creators.
I think games made (primarily) by single creators do wonders for demystifying the process of game design and game making. As do books about game design and game making, as rare as those remain.
But as a player, how do we approach thinking and writing about games “meaningfully”?
That’s a really dumb, silly question, and I’m sorry for asking it. The answer is obvious: Pay attention to them.
III. Meaningful Play
i.e., I don’t think the answer is to become more educated in design, to become “game literate” so-to-speak. This doesn’t hurt, but the one essential step is to become a more conscious consumer of the media. To borrow trendy, Zen phrasing: Be present when playing.
This is the key to writing meaningfully about any media: Be present when you engage. As a thesis, it’s not revolutionary, but it remains rare. We are a generation bred to multitask. When was the last time you listened to music and did nothing else? Have you ever just sat and listened to a podcast?
Remaining “present” when playing video games is surprisingly tricky. As I said earlier, games and books share commonalities, because both have an input-output relationship with the reader/player. But unlike (most) books, games work in systemic loops. It’s easy to lose focus.
By “lose focus,” I obviously don’t mean the transcendent state some of us enter during a challenging run of God Hand (2006) or Doom (2016), where the light dims and we are suddenly alone in the void with only the controller and the screen. That’s hyper focus. By “lose focus” I mean the state of play in which you meaninglessly repeating loops inattentively, your mind wandering, with the constant temptation to turn on a podcast or Netflix to supplement your attention. This is what most people call “the grind.” It’s familiar to MMORPG players and anyone who’s logged 1K+ hours in DESTINY.
What is “Grinding”?
Grinding is video game terminology for repetitive systems engagement to yield the same resources over and over in the interest of improving stats rather than skill. Grinding is seen as a necessary chore - i.e. “the daily grind” or grinding grain to bake the bread.
Grinding is an activity for people who find themselves mistakenly beholden to the games they play.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with grinding, or with listening to podcasts while grinding, but it is not a meaningful interaction with a media. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “Grinding is bullshit” - but take the case of Dark Souls (2011), in which grinding is bullshit. DARK SOULS beats the player over the head with one message: Improve your mechanics. It goes out of its way, from the literal to the cleverly integrated, to show you how to improve your mechanics. You must be able to dodge and weave. You damn well should know how to parry. And yet, when the going gets tough, you can always grind away and improve your stats. You can beat a boss through shear attrition rather than taking a breath and watching. Every enemy, every boss in Dark Souls has tells. If you observe (and maybe die a few times in the process of observing), you will find the tells. You will learn to parry them. You will win. And you will save a lot of time.
Most importantly, you will be present. You will be meaningfully engaging with Dark Souls, which (no exaggeration) is true joy.
Grinding is just one example of losing focus, of course. And by no means does actual focus require you to be melding with your controller or keyboard, that one navy vein popping from your forehead like the blue Danube across Europe. You’re going to want to hit me for this, but focus is more Zen than that. Focus is just attention. It’s playing, and sometimes asking, “How do I feel playing this right now?”
Beyond attention, there’s also reflection. Reflection, while not particularly Zen, is not a word you hear associated with video games. We reflect on books and films, but games, so visceral in nature, you are either in or out of. Reflection can be walking through a level in your mind the way you might a route you took around an old city neighborhood, or the rooms of your childhood home. Reflection is noting authorship and questioning it. It’s curiosity for the game, but also for yourself. Because games, like other media, do not exist in a vacuum. Take Jonathan Lethem’s very short 2002 essay about Star Wars, published in The New Yorker (2002). It is entirely about Star Wars and the monumental importance of Star Wars, and yet only tangentially about Star Wars. Reflecting meaningfully on games is entirely about the games themselves, but also about you, your environment, your context.
(In a funny sense, even repetitious, un-focused game actions like grinding can be meaningfully reflected on. Tom Bissell does so writing about binging on Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) and cocaine in his book Extra Lives (2010). Because, of course, binging is another way to not engage meaningfully with video games. Although what constitutes a binge, I’m not sure. But if you’re taking a few lines of Overwatch a day and rubbing the candy-sweet residue along your gum line, you might be binging.)
As to whether one can be present, be meaningfully engaging with video games, while streaming on Twitch or another service: I have no objective opinion, but I suspect not. There is a verve in streaming that can break gaming inertia, but it is performative. It seems separate from the game itself. But I’ll leave this to the scholars.
One final suggestion all of us should take to heart: The HUD is a best friend and worst enemy.
What is a HUD?
An acronym for Heads-Up Display, the HUD’s earliest iterations are a score counter and extra-life tracker. Modern HUDs are considerably denser and more complicated. They might simulate cybernetic implants or the dash of a car.
Common HUD features include mini-maps, radar, compasses, health percentage/bar, stamina, equipped items, various environmental factors like temperature or weather, timers, in-game currencies, etc. etc.
HUDs, ideally, are a game design feature for people who really want to go to space.
HUDs, at worst, are for people who want a smartphone glued to their face.
Consider reducing it or getting rid of your HUD, when possible, and especially in visually lush games that require a lot of travel. This is a common suggestion from players, journalists and designers. In reality, the closest corollary to a ubiquitous HUD is probably your phone. When you’re without your phone, you might feel an initial pang of anxiety. But that soon fades, and suddenly you’re feeling fine. In fact, you’re either consciously or unconsciously engaging more with the world. It’s nice.
IV. Manifestos are stupid
These are the themes and thesis I’ve come to, thinking and writing about video games. These thoughts mark up the map I’ll be using writing about games, wherever that writing appears. As a manifesto, it carries no cultural import, little energy, mostly just earnestness.
It is so hard to write earnestly about video games - more difficult than it is to write meaningfully. In every moment here, I feel the need for irony, for a wink. Too often, in writing about games, I fold to this.
A manifesto is meant to be a touchstone for people, plural. A declaration of policy and agenda. This is perhaps a lonely manifesto. A stupid manifesto. But if you’re reading it or my writing on games, at least you have a meaningful sense of what you’re getting into.