Monday, December 5, 2011

Read a Good Book: Ian Bogost's "How to Do Things with Videogames" - Ch.1 Art

We are approaching a horizon. This media we engage in is growing more quickly than we imagined. Growing out of our control.

In the beginning it was just men and boys; cavorting about with their dull spears and sharp rocks, deciding upon whim whether to strike hard and fast or slow and steady. In the beginning there were no invisible walls or finite damage tables, but rather a watchful eye and a medical team on standby. In the beginning, we were all just playing a game.

Then, creation. An explosion of technology and calculated progress that sought the ultimate convenience for humanity at large. The drive for automation, for gratification, and for indefinite consumption. The key to eternal life. The point of no return. The creation of utopia.

Of course, this dream hasn't yet been realized. For some, it's been cast aside as an impossibility, while for others it's simply been delayed for a bit, biding its time, waiting for the one who will unlock its cage. For these people life continues as usual: we are just playing a game. Otherwise, we must continue to work.

Ian Bogost writes about video games in a manner not unlike the rest of academia, with strange words and dense vocabulary, but does so in an interesting, if vulgar way. He is not attempting to convince us of one stance or another, nor is he interested in defining boundaries within which to travel; rather, he's seeking an answer, searching for truth, and hoping to uncover the fulcrum upon which the medium currently balances upon, so as to make sure that we, those of use who carelessly gallivant to-and-fro upon it, frolic with a bit more clarity.

So, let's play a game.

First, you play a cross; I will be the circle. We stamp ourselves on a hatched sheet, vying for dominance. Whoever clones themselves more often wins. You stamp; I stamp. Stamp, stamp stamp, stamp, stamp. I've won.

What determines the end of such a game? A boundary. Beneath every game there is a ruleset, arbitrary and non-negotiable, mutually agreed upon and impartial. Dominance is not self-sufficient. Dominance, in this hatched sheet only.

It's with this simple example that I begin to understand the clarity with which I'm contending with. When the skeletons of my imagination of so deftly laid bare, I can't help but sit up and listen. Games, once, twice abstracted, are rulesets. Anything else is extra. Anything else is external. Anything else is not really a game.

So I've won the game. You've lost, loser. You are a loser, after all, having lost the game. I may call you that now. You're a loser. Me, I'm a winner. We may go even further and say I dominate you. I have dominion over you. Subservient. Servant. Sub. Sub-human. Loser.

I'm a winner. Dominator. King. King of the hatched sheet, for now, perhaps. But who knows where else my dominance may stretch to, having dominated this hatched sheet. Upon this sheet you are dominated by me, it is evidence of my superiority, not abstract, but existing in the real world. Dominator. I have dominated you. I win.

Beyond the rulesets, life happens. People happen. Games are just abstract pieces on a page, or in a brain, or hidden in the roll of a die. But we become attached. We impute meaning. We cherish victory and recoil at failure. These abstract rulesets have become yet another canvas upon which we throw ourselves, and with a great and colorful splash our emotions and thoughts materialize once again.

This is why games are art. Games are not art because of their visual fidelity, though it may assist. Nor are they art because of their aural beauty, though it may assist. They are not even art because of their ingenious complexity, thought it may assist. Games are art because they are a human creation; resulting from and subsequently radiating out an expression, a thought, an emotion, or a person. They are art because they are human.

A medium is not moral or immoral, juvenile or sophisticated, elegant or crude. A medium is simply that; a clay, a surface, a slate, a paper, a rock, a piece of film, a canvas, a tree in a forest, a forest itself. An abstract ruleset. Games are a medium as any other, and what they do as effectively as any other is conform to the manipulation which we impose upon it; it speaks back to us when we yell, it presses upon our pens as we write, it kisses us back when we kiss it.

The danger is when those who stare into it forget what they are seeing, and when those who manipulate it forget what they are doing. The danger is when creation fails to acknowledge the balance, and when consumption flees too far afield of the fulcrum.

I believe in the fulcrum. I am hoping that by the end of Bogost's book, I will have found it.