Tuesday, July 1, 2008

May we compare video games to non-interactive media? In response to comments on my post “On the profundity of Halo and Bioshock” (2)

You can find the comments appended here. It seems like a good idea to attempt to summarize individually and then respond individually to what I see as the central points made by those who have my gratitude for taking the time to read my own arguments with attention, however harshly they chose to respond. I think I have good reason to hope that my interlocutors will correct with some rigor any misrepresentation on my part. The nature of the blog form (which I happen to think is in no way inferior to the scholarly-article form or even the scholarly-monograph form, forms that tend towards the insufferably self-indulgent) leads me to divide my response across a few different posts, of which this is the second (the first may be found here). I invite my interlocutors to engage me on each heading separately, in the interest of clarity of discussion.


The next heading represents a charge to which I have to plead “No contest”:

3. The charge of comparing video games to non-interactive media

I’m not pleading “Guilty,” because ancient epic, I am arguing in this blog, was in fact interactive. But it would be disingenuous, and would beg the question (in the true sense of assuming that which must be proven), to leave it at that, because the interactivity I’m talking about in the case of ancient epic isn’t necessarily immediately apparent to the modern gamer (or non-gamer).

I’ve got a bunch more to say on this topic as “Living Epic—the Main Quest” (to be found here) continues, but I think a focussed answer in this context will be quite helpful. Moreover, I think it will lead nicely into the next heading, Choice vs. Interactivity (to anticipate, I’m going to be arguing that choice in narrative games is actually a type of interactivity, and that the apparent conflict isn’t actually there).

So the meat of my response is going to be that although I’m not in fact guilty of the charge, the way in which I’m not guilty is complicated enough that it makes sense not to fight it, but rather to stand partly on the very firm cultural ground that cross-media comparisons cannot be called bad or wrong simply because they cross the lines between media. In classics we make comparisons of epic and tragedy to vase-painting all the time. It’s fun. You ought to try it. If you do try it, and don’t like it; or even if you leave it there on your intellectual plate like so many brussels sprouts, that’s fine with me, though I’d suggest that simple courtesy would urge that you not spit on the brussels sprouts.

Much more important, though, is the specific comparison I’m making, and I suspect that it’s actually the content of the comparison that caused several commenters to reject it with a blanket repudiation of cross-media comparison. What I think commenters on this topic are implying is that they don’t believe me when I say that any other medium besides games is or was in fact interactive.

Adequate definitions of “interactivity” are almost as hard to come at as those of “profundity,” but let me propose one: “permitting a person to participate in, through a measure of control over, the relevant experience.” I have a feeling this is going to be the thing we argue over the most. (If you’re going to argue with me about this topic, I’d love to hear your definition of interactivity—it would be great to have a few to put up against each other.)

If that’s an adequate definition of “interactivity,” the question becomes “Was ancient epic interactive?” Oral formulaic theory (see above all the work of Albert Lord) tells us that the bards made up the tales they were singing as they went along. If that’s not interactive, I don’t know what is—not only for the bard, but also for his audience, who have the chance to influence the way the bard tells the story. I know, though, that you may very well want to argue precisely that—that I don’t know what interactive is.

If you grant me that interactivity, though, the next question is whether that interactivity is susceptible of a comparative analysis that helps us understand epic or games or ourselves or all those things better? I submit that it is, for several reasons:

  • 1) the content of narrative games and ancient epic is also similar, suggesting things we can say about the basic functioning of interactive stories across cultures;

  • 2) very few people think epic was bad, but a lot of people think video games are bad;

  • 3) very few people think ancient epic was bad because it was interactive, but a lot of people think video games are bad because they’re interactive;

  • 4) on the other hand, certain Athenians (notably Plato) did think epic was bad, in large part because it was interactive, and a look at their criticisms, and other ancients’ (like Aristotle’s) criticism of their criticism is a way into a fun new conversation about gaming;

  • 5) epic creates artistic effects that some of us would like video games to attempt;

  • 6) it’s just damn cool to think about how new stuff isn’t really new, and it causes us to appreciate and understand our own culture much more.

See you next time, for the one about choice and interactivity (here)! Thanks for reading.