Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Read a Good Book: This Gaming Life – Chapter 1: How Games Make Gamers

Welcome to the first installment of “Read a Good Book”, a feature in which we’ll be traveling through a hopefully respectable volume (or at least, a well-reviewed one), gleaning what we may from its faceless, soundless text, and trying to make sense of it all in the “real world”.

I like text a lot, because it takes a special kind of finesse to make it effective. Text is often only read and never heard, seen but never “watched”. The benefit is that it requires a degree of engagement to experience, but therein lies its biggest obstacle too: nowadays people just don’t care enough (or are simply too busy) for such an engaging endeavor.

But you, my fair readers, are stupendously different. You are thoughtful, engaged, critical, and patient, people who enjoy wrestling with meanings and questioning ideas. Right? Right? Right!

The first book to grace this written page then is Jim Rossignol’s This Gaming Life.

Chapter 1: How Games Make Gamers

Rossignol begins the book with his own personal story of gaming-inspired change and triumph. I identified closely with his descriptions about the dissatisfaction (but obvious necessity) of a “proper job”, and he brings up a few interesting perspectives during this retelling.

His own gaming muse was the legendary Quake III, specifically the online multiplayer. Through this particular mode of this particular game, he found a sense of camaraderie, community, and purpose. He describes the satisfaction he derived from being part of and managing a Q3 team as equivalent to doing such a thing in “real life”. He spent countless hours scouring forums, talking to expert players, and of course playing on his own to refine and develop his skills, which he then took back to his team. This de facto coaching position gave him a very real sense of purpose; so much so that it caused him to lose his proper job.

It’s here that I stop for a moment and realize: this is my greatest fear. I enjoy video games. I really do. I almost might say that I love them. I may even love them enough to be surrounded by them 40, perhaps 80 hours a week; watching them, playing them, writing about them, living amongst them. But is it possible? Is it a proper job? Am I even good enough? Is it a reasonable, practicable, meaningful thing to do? Is it the “right” thing? I really don’t know.

It’s easy for Rossignol (or perhaps it is not? Perhaps he was a bit tortured as he recounted this story in text?) to say now that it was for the best. The book even begins with this paragraph: “In May 2000 I was fired from my job as a reporter on a finance newsletter because of an obsession with a video game. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” This same section ends with the following text:

                The hallelujah chorus sounded. I felt the rush of sudden freedom: now there was nothing between me and pure indulgence. I could concentrate on the team seven days a week, without interruption, without tortuous journeys into the heart of finance. It was a moment of thrilling emancipation. I plunged into it, headfirst, playing for long days and late nights. Dawn was a familiar sight at bedtime. The team grew and became more cohesive. We found like-minded teams to spar with, allowing my players to grow more confident. Soon they could play and win.

Part of me understands and exults in that “emancipation” he writes about, another part sees the obsession, the “pure indulgence”, and the emphasis on “play[ing] and win[ing]” and thinks, god, what a selfish loser. Would I give up a financially healthy, relatively simple, consistent job just so I could play and win a videogame? The truth is, only if I knew I could still put food on the table. At the same time, that other part, the one that exults and understands is saying god, that’s AWESOME. And as that part reads on and sees that Rossignol’s passion and investment in this game fortuitously bears fruit, it’s galvanized that much more. Still, that nagging voice just says what makes you think that’s going to be you if you tried?

And to be honest, I just don’t know. But this isn’t my story, it’s Jim’s. And Jim’s life was irrevocably changed by his unrelenting pursuit of video game satisfaction. And what he’s saying is that this isn’t an isolated experience. Gaming changes people’s lives everyday. But what’s interesting in Rossignol’s analysis of his story isn’t that he admits he was living a lie; it’s that he never knew he was living a lie until he got a job which validated his obsession. It’s almost as though he would have never taken the job in finance journalism if he had known he could have made a living in games journalism. Or maybe it just means that he never knew he loved games that much. He reaches back into his childhood in an attempt to describe where his love for video games came from, but to me it just sounds like another example of a young boy exercising a repression from years of living with the idea that “video games aren’t a proper hobby, and could never be a proper job. “

But, like every good evangelist, this turning point not only gave his life a new direction, it gave him a clear and distinct purpose: to convince the world that games “are worth paying attention to.”  Of course, he is in a sense preaching to the choir, but what he does very artfully in the next section is create a foundation for making the argument that games have been unfairly stigmatized for a number of reasons, which I will attempt to summarize here:
  • Playing games “feels like a waste of time”
  • “We lack ways of justifying or explaining the value of games as a meaningful form of activity”
  • Society treats this form as “debased or unproductive”, and gamers in turn “internalize these descriptions”
  • Identified with “nerdy subculture”
  • “they stimulate no  ratiocination, discover, or feat of memory” – Boris Johnson, UK Parliament
  • “Whereas real-life experiences bear long-lasting friendships and memories, video games do not. The only pictures that come from video games are screenshots, and the memories that are created from playing those games are ultimately meaningless.” – Jon Henshaw, editor, FamilyResource.com
Ok so that wasn’t so much a summary as it was copying the key phrases from Rossignol’s book. But still, it gives us a starting point. And Rossignol, perceptive as always, notes that while games changed his life by getting him a job, there must be something deeper, more profound than simply making it through life because of games. He believes games, all games, and the act of playing them have meaning, and this meaning indeed transfers over to computer and video games.

Strangely though, his first proof for this argument kind of fall flat for me. He names Brody Condon, installation artist, as someone for whom video games  gave direction and meaning because he uses video games to inspire his art. But to me, it sounds like Condon is simply using video games as a means to an end, and in that sense video games just happened to be the thing which he latched onto as a young child. He is still an artist at heart, video games were simply the only thing that stuck in his memory. In this case, I think the argument of the importance of video games is actually subordinated to the already-established power of early childhood experiences. What’s worse, this argument basically trails off into discussing the nebulous “video games are art” discussion, which really ends in a even more nebulous “well, that just depends on how you look at it”. Fortunately, this divergence does bring up some good points about the prejudices of both art critics and gamers about the perception of games and art. Rossignol, quoting Professor Henry Jenkins (director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program) says the “resistance is coming…from partisans of other arts…it comes from those whose notion of art is so narrow that very few works qualify…it comes from gamers who worry that calling games art means that they are going to become too obscure and pretentious. It has to do with our totally messed up notion of what constitutes art.”

His next proof involves the research showing that playing video games results in quantifiable increases in useful intellectual skills such as the scientific method. Due to its somewhat subjective nature, teaching intellectual skills has always been hit or miss in the traditional teaching method. What Rossignol attempts to (and quite nearly does) prove is that video games are extremely good at doing just that. They stimulate the brain, improving not only overall cognitive function, but also exercising specific types of thought processes that are useful in all areas of study. Beyond this, engaging in video games also increases motor skills, muscle memory, and spatial memory. Of course, all of this information is presented through examples like rocket jumping, strafe-jumping, leading, and learning how to use a railgun. But there are even stronger examples he uses which remove the perceived distance from education and play; like the use of the game School Tycoon to teach children how schools are run along with reading comprehension. The capstone to this argument is the idea of the “Nintendo Surgeon”, that a well-known surgeon required weekly play on Super Monkey Ball by his residents to improve their motor control. These examples are much stronger than the first, but still, I think it demonstrates the power of virtual environments and technological advancement more than the benefit of what I see as “pure gaming”.

Luckily, Rossignol is as determined as I am to pinpoint and clarify just that. What benefit does gaming, that is, gaming for its own sake, have for the human race? Beyond the cool things like motor skills, learning how to learn, and keeping young people engaged in studies, what is gaming really good for? All of those things can be accomplished handily by a number of other well-established techniques and media. It just so happens that gaming has become useful in those areas too. But “just so happens” isn’t really a good enough explanation for the popularity and proliferation of, and the fanatical adherence to video games in recent history. What does explain it adequately then, is where Rossignol takes a sure stand:

I believe that boredom is a far greater problem than most people are willing to acknowledge…Games represent a uniquely modern response to the proliferating phenomenon of boredom…But the extent to which our experience of games is an experience of [Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s] psychological flow goes some way to explaining why we value it. And in my opinion, this experience is more than enough. Notwithstanding all the other ways games might change us, all the improvements to cognitive skills, social well-being, and welfare they can offer, the best - and ultimately only necessary - defense of games is that they keep us engaged and entertained. From extended engagement in hypnotic pattern completion to punctuated moments of joy in victory, we get something from gaming that feels important. As games proliferate and become still more sophisticated, we may well find that the [J.G.] Ballardian idea of the future as inevitably boring becomes unthinkable. Gamers, I think, are already there. [emphasis added]
The value of games is in their ability to stave off boredom. I honestly think it’s true. It sounds a bit misleading, but he spends a lot of time redefining the term “boredom” so that it isn’t confused with all the negative connotations that word conjures up. But this assertion in itself brings up a whole slew of questions too: can’t other things do the same thing? And what about the people playing this game solely to stave off boredom? Isn’t that not contributing to humanity at large (something that other media forms purport to do)? Does staving off boredom really make people “better”? Of course, the answers to these questions can’t be found simply by grasping in the air; they require us to ask questions of those people who have engaged and are engaged in gaming. Which is exactly what we’ll do next week!