Fare thee well at once!
The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And ‘gins to pale his uneffectual fire:
Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.
What follows are two different ways of looking at games, two approaches which seem both mutually exclusive and completely correct.
GAMES ARE ARTIFACTS
The green light fades into a dull gray ring, and the controller fades into shaped plastic. The television goes blue.
There are certain desires and feelings intrinsic to the human experience – things like hunger, joy, and fear. Among these is the universal desire to be known while we are alive and to be remembered when we are gone. It is a strong enough urge to make the wandering ghost of a king cry out for justice, regardless of how it might curse the life of his son. Most of us want to be remembered well – some of us settle for just being remembered.
Early in lessons, my ceramics professor told me that clay has memory. Rex was a large, bearded man with a rich fondness for mountain music, and was one of the most alive people I’ve known. His then-recent survival of brain surgery was a major factor in that. He is one of the wisest people I have known, and the only adult that ever told me that I needed to get laid. “Clay remembers each time you touch it. Every press you make changes it.” Each stress on the clay changes a deep part of it. Clay isn’t something you can play with forever; it can only take so much water, so much compaction, and the air is always sucking its moisture away. There’s no instant when clay isn’t changing. In those moments before calcification, before its death, I shaped it and left my literal and figurative fingerprints.
Ceramics are incredibly durable. There are plenty of ceramics from humanity’s earliest known civilizations. It’s an old form. When you make a ceramic piece, so long as you care for it (and even if you don’t, sometimes), it’s curious to remember that the piece will outlive you. It will remain, a testament to your hands, your eyes, your imagination. Your every motion with the clay will be remembered – each mistake. But as I worked with the clay, even if things didn’t turn out as I wanted, and they often did, it was hard to frame anything as a mistake. The clay certainly didn’t recognize when my touch was too hard, too soft. It just became, and was. After I ruined a few pieces on the wheel, I stopped being frustrated and started keeping them; I was curious to see if I could make something beautiful out of the misshapen lump I’d wound up with. I think the result is my most striking piece.
What really drew me to ceramics was the remembering. The clay remembered me in a deep way – it was a product of process, and I felt like I emptied myself into my work. My heart was with it, as was my literal skin. But like the clay, I was always shifting too, and the permanence of my art meant that I could return to it later, when I had become someone else, and through touch recall the motions of my former self. Just like pottery serves as artifacts for the understanding of ancient civilizations, my ceramics are artifacts of a younger self – they are solid memory, memory encoded in object. Touching finished pottery has a ritualistic feel to it. It symbolically mimics the act that created it, physically connecting one to the artist at the moment of conception.
I still own three Magic: The Gathering decks. I hardly ever play anything but practice games against myself with them; they occupy the same space as my ceramics in my life. Occasionally I pull them out and thumb through them, remembering the strategies that I encoded into my cards years ago. Like the ceramics, running through them again connects me to the thoughts of my younger mind. The strategies in those cards are like roads my mind once walked. I see combinations that appealed to me then, ploys that are revealing of who I thought myself to be.
The deck I held closest to myself was a blue-green control deck focusing on stealing creatures and countering spells. It was a quick explosion of life that protected itself at every stage, and once it got large enough it would start to steal my opponent’s resources. It wasn’t the most competitive deck; it was a bit slow if I didn’t get the right cards right off the bat. But it suited me. It required clever play, capitalized on an opponent’s uncertainty, and maintained a pace that was like a dance. It made me feel smart and sure. And now it’s an artifact that I revisit from time to time.
Videogames, too, are vivid artifacts. A played game features our fingerprints. Our avatar’s appearance says much about our gaze; our strategic choices reveal how we thought, how we understood the game. The avatar becomes melded with the self, thus the avatar reflects back on the self. This doesn’t occur in a one-for-one fashion, but play requires much from the player. Like Ozymandias, we scratch our own selves into the stone of the digital, shaping it in our own image.
As I’ve written before, our virtual worlds can save sites of importance from destruction – like, say, the ruins of Babylon, which were recently despoiled by an American military encampment – and in this way, and as works of art, the digital will produce cultural artifacts meant for public discourse. As such, our landscapes can continue to serve as mirror for our own selves and for others.
The individual playthrough is a private matter, though. It might, like my Magic decks, reveal who we once were and who we might become again. These playthroughs help us to construct a narrative of self that extends through time, and serve as touchstones, enabling us to revisit what we once found important. Our moral choices in any given BioWare game might matter more to us six or seven years later; we might be surprised to look back and discover that now we stand on the opposite side, and so deepen our knowledge of our own changing selves. My choices in The Walking Dead, too, offer a chance to reflect on who I was when I played them; my beliefs and values are neatly captured by binary switching in the memory of a save. Who was important to me, and why?
Or look at Minecraft; folks’ work on a private server might easily outlast their own lives. Some might argue that it’s a poor facsimile of the real world, but no more so than the stuffed shades of rabbits and bears that are often meaningful to children and adults. It’s perfectly plausible that a Minecraft world might accrue deep meaning, and that it might extend beyond the self and be shared by a community.
As for me, I look at the completed saves on my Xbox with fondness. They were and are a part of me. They are a story I molded once upon a time, and I can run my hands back over them whenever I choose. They represent something that I have mastered, and they remember and reflect me; they are as a kiln-fired pot.
GAMES ARE PERFORMANCE
When we play a game, we are just like Hamlet’s ghost. The actor’s face, feelings and actions form the character: the Ghost is just lines until the actor gives them voice, body and spirit; both the Ghost and our games require a player.
The Ghost is a strong analogue to players of games – his role is so short, but he wants to be remembered. He wants the world to take notice of his story above all else. Our presence in games is equally short. The experience is here, but it must have an end. It was never meant to last forever, and any game we experience is fleeting. The player might be transformed by it, but the play exists as a practice or phenomenon, not as something permanent or lasting.
The growing trend of Let’s Plays, game logs and streaming indicates that the audience for gaming-as-performance is only increasing. In this, especially, games are communal experiences – the self is consumed by the performance, and all the persona and showmanship that implies. When I play Amnesia: The Dark Descent and I’m recording, it’s not so different from playing it for myself; I often find myself wishing that there was somebody else in the room to talk about the game I’m playing, and Let’s Plays let me do that.
I consider some experiences to be “virtuoso games,” in that they are complex enough to defy casual mastery and hinge on the perfection of certain in-game practices. The great competitive games, your Street Fighters and your StarCrafts and even your Guitar Heros all tap into this element of performance. Guitar Hero doesn’t just mimic the physical act of guitar playing; it is woefully inferior as a simulation of actual guitar mechanics. Guitar Hero simulates performance, or, rather, it is a performance, for a digital and often a physical audience. It’s a rock show simulator rather than a guitar simulator. The players of these games all closely resemble musicians; they require an intense practice that hinges on manual dexterity and firm confidence so that, when it is time to perform, the skills come as naturally as breathing.
The height of these experiences, for me, is DOTA 2. Now, disclaimer – I’m really quite new to MOBAs, and I’m terrible at them, and if I had any sense I would shut up now. Ah well.
In DOTA 2, dexterity is demanded, and strategic and tactical choices abound, but what really sparks my passion is the individual roles that each player fills on his or her team. Their names still sound blissfully arcane to me: “Lane Support,” “Jungler,” “Carry.” Each of these roles demands certain behaviors and mindsets as the game progresses. Unsurprisingly, I found myself drawn to Support, who is expected to help the Carry (who will “carry” the late game) to grow more powerful in the early levels, essentially playing old wizard to the young upstart adventurer. I get that; that role appeals to me a great deal. I don’t need anything flashy, because watching the character that I helped protect murder the enemy team is rewarding enough. More than anything, I love performing my one unique job on a team of specialists, and I love seeing my team succeed because we each did exactly what we needed to. That hits on something important: that performance is exceptionally social.
Performance, though it emerges from the self, is an inherently public, other-regarding action. Play does not exist without a community. Any performer will tell you that the performance can change wildly depending on an audience – their mood and their reactions matter. But even when singing in the shower, we gauge ourselves by how we might sound to others, and using the rules of music and sound we’ve learned from the culture we grew up in. Even if it’s just for an immediate audience of the self, assuming the role of an avatar is performance, and is thus empathetic; we step outside of ourselves to enact another. Playing Commander Shepard isn’t just about us – it’s about Commander Shepard, and who we understand Commander Shepard to be. It requires that we turn our gaze outward and become not-us, imagining what Shepard would do when confronted with labyrinthine bureaucracy and acting thus.
Playing a game, then, is an act of submission. It requires entry into another world, and submitting to the often-nonsensical rules, like invisible walls or an inability to jump, that we find there. We lose part of ourselves to the avatar we enter – our entry into the world isn’t pure, but rather facilitated by the avatar, our acting agent in the world. But beyond those simple limitations, our submission goes deeper. We make ourselves vulnerable to the game when we empathize with our character, such that players of Dark Souls can become depressed by the long odds of survival, or the player of Mass Effect 3 can be seized with a sudden sorrow at the heroic sacrifice and redemption of a friend. We are changed as we perform in our games.
Games make us vulnerable, and we are changed in relation to them. Games are a platform for communication, but they are one side of a conversation in and of themselves. And as we perform, games might just teach us something; they might just change who we are.