Everyone has a favorite genius. Mine is Ludwig Wittgenstein, the early 20th-century Austrian philosopher who restructured entire disciplines of philosophy despite the fact that he only published one book during his lifetime. That book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is a small yet impossibly dense text written in the structure of a mathematical proof. Its first line (after a generous and famously inaccurate introduction by Bertrand Russell) is “1. The world is all that is the case,” no setup, no intro, no nothing, just pure hyper-analytic, confusing definitions. In his lifetime, Wittgenstein: fought in the First World War, where he volunteered for the most dangerous jobs; designed a house; lived like a hermit in Norway; and taught philosophy at Cambridge. After he died, his friend (and important philosopher in her own right) Elizabeth Anscombe translated and published his notebooks under the title The Philosophical Investigations, and Wittgenstein restructured whole disciplines of philosophy again while simultaneously refuting nearly everything he’d written the first time.
There are a million great stories about Wittgenstein, and I like to think I know all of them. There are a lot of people who inspire similar devotion: fans of Albert Einstein know all about the weird things he said to his wife and the rudimentary information he refused to memorize. Devotees of classical music know that the last thing Ludwig van Beethoven did before he died was shake his fist defiantly at a thunderstorm. And so it is with a million brilliant-yet-troubled artists, musicians, thinkers and inventors that are hailed as “geniuses.” People talk this way about Steve Jobs, Orson Welles, David Foster Wallace, Vincent Van Gogh, Nikola Tesla, John Nash, James Joyce, &c &c &c.
If you’re a tech writer for a general-focus publication, your favorite genius is likely to be Jon Blow, the name behind 2008’s Braid and 2016’s The Witness, released earlier this week. Blow has had a great deal of popular attention, but I want to draw special attention to two articles: first, Taylor Clark’s 2012 exaltation for The Atlantic, called “The Most Dangerous Gamer,” and second, Calum Marsh’s piece for The Guardian from just a few days ago. Both of these pieces are less focused on Blow’s work and more on Blow himself, and are glowing reviews of Blow-as-genius aimed at the non-game-playing crowd.
You see, Blow (at least as described by Marsh and Clark), checks all the “genius” boxes. He makes respected art (Braid won basically every award in 2008, and The Witness has been garnering ecstatic reviews). He is eccentric to the point of being acerbic (Clark cites Blow’s friends calling him “difficult” and “spiky,” and showcases several such interactions in his piece). His art is “difficult,” and thus not readily accessible to the average person (Braid and The Witness are both puzzle games, and reviews of The Witness boast about its 80-hour play time, most of which is spent staring in confusion at your screen). He is pointedly at-odds with the establishment (Blow spends a lot of time publicly lambasting the games industry, saying in the Marsh interview that he tries to “talk to other designers and […] feel[s] like [he’s] talking to aliens”). He is obsessively dedicated to his craft to the point where he will ignore ordinary human activities to work on it (About a week ago, Blow tweeted a picture of what appeared to be a homemade catheter, saying that the whatever-it-was helped him finish The Witness). He does most of his art as an auteur, not as part of some big team or creative group. (To be fair to him, he did frequently tweet to remind journalists that The Witness has other people on the team who were very important.) Also, and I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, he’s a white guy, which seems to help with popular perception of geniuses.
The narrative is thus: games are juvenile nonsense, but here comes Jon Blow, the TRUE ARTISTE, descending from the heavens on his chariot to rescue us from mediocrity. Clark says that “video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb,” and that “in games, nuance and character development simply do not exist.” This was an amazingly silly thing to say, even in 2012. People have been making intelligent, complicated, and nuanced videogames since about five minutes after people started making videogames. Hell, Blow’s The Witness absolutely would not exist without Myst, which came out twenty-three years ago. Marsh, analogously, says that “developers seem more interested in machine guns and rocket ships than in emotional nuance and psychological shading,” as if there were something mutually exclusive about rocket ships and emotional nuance.
Yes, many videogames are dumb, particularly AAA videogames. But considering that the last twenty years have also given us True Blood, the Transformers movies, Marvel’s Civil War storyline, the Fantastic Four movies, The Bachelor, Twilight, and the work of Iggy Azalea, I don’t think it makes any sense to say videogames are uniquely dumb. Sturgeon’s Law applies to videogames just as it applies to every other medium. There is cool art in literally every videogame scene, from games made in dorm rooms for negative money to mid-range indie stuff like Braid all the way up to stuff that costs almost as much as sending a man to the moon. There always has been, and saying otherwise makes you willfully ignorant.
Regardless, the argument goes, Braid and now The Witness are True Art, the vision of the Solitary Man of Genius, sitting alone in his studio as he ignores the world around him to pursue his artistic vision at the cost of his relationships and his own personal health. So, why do so many of us do this? I think we exalt Jon Blow because we think we need a genius in order to be taken seriously.
Videogames as a medium aren’t taken as seriously as more established art forms like film or literary fiction. No one knows this more than I do: if you don’t believe me, try explaining to serious law firms why your experience curating a videogame blog makes you an attractive candidate someday. And the sort of people that write tech columns for The Guardian and the Atlantic would really like to be taken seriously by the people who read those publications. So, what’s an easy angle to introduce the concept of videogames as an art form? Introduce the non-game-playing public to a genius game developer, a man who fits the same mold as the Van Goghs and DFWs of the world, and hope they are suitably impressed.
The silliest (and most Twitter-mocked) line in the Marsh interview is when Blow says he wants “to make games for people who read Gravity’s Rainbow.” It’s no accident that Blow chose a 40-year-old novel written by a reclusive eccentric that has become synonymous with difficult-yet-intellectually-rewarding fiction. Gravity’s Rainbow is a mainstay of the established, mainstream intelligentsia: it’s obscure enough that the plebes haven’t heard of it but famous enough that many college graduates have; weird enough to make reading it feel like an accomplishment; respected enough by the mainstream to garner the National Book Award, but with enough scandal (it didn’t win the Pulitzer because it offended some panelists, after all) to still make you feel a little rock-and-roll. Gravity’s Rainbow is one of those books that people like me intend to “get around to someday.” Most of the people who read Gravity’s Rainbow now are English majors.
Blow could have chosen any of a dozen referents if all he was trying to say was that he wants to make games for people who read complicated fiction. But he chose Gravity’s Rainbow. I’d wager that the overlap between “people who have read Gravity’s Rainbow” and “people who habitually play videogames” is relatively small. By saying he wants to make games for the Pynchon crowd, he really means he wants to make games for the established intelligentsia. He wants to make games that are discussed at Yale cocktail parties, games that Serious People feel guilty for not having played yet.
It isn’t really fair of me to pick this much on Jon Blow for what was probably a one-off comment made to his 15th interviewer of the week. Blow makes it super tempting to make fun of him, though: in his interview with Clark, Blow talks about “how fictional money is,” and how “the only reason that [he’s] rich is because somebody typed a number into [his] account,” which is the sort of silly thing a freshman philosophy major says in between bong hits. But I can’t really blame Jon Blow for letting people paint him as a brilliant eccentric. If someone came to my house and volunteered to write a lengthy exaltation of me that cast all my flaws as the quirks of troubled genius, I’m pretty sure I’d let them, too.
I should also be clear that I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow, and I haven’t played The Witness. I’m not likely to do either of those things in the near future, because I am in law school, and a game of “seemingly endless perplexing puzzles” describes a week or two of my class schedule about as well as it describes The Witness. And I’ve never met Jon Blow, who may be a perfectly wonderful person, when you actually talk to him. We’ve all said silly things on the Internet before.
The real problem is, well, let me try to illustrate by way of analogy. My favorite genius, Wittgenstein, came from a family of geniuses: pianists, entrepreneurs, and philosophers. All of his eight siblings were preposterously gifted, many of them left lasting marks on the world, and a third of them killed themselves.
Geniuses tend to be either lousy people, very unhealthy, or some combination of the two. When Wittgenstein taught at Cambridge, he was woefully unhelpful, meeting students in his pajamas and stopping mid-sentence to stare idly into space for hours at a time. Einstein cheated (a bunch!) on both of his wives. Steve Jobs believed, for a time, that if he only ate fruit he wouldn’t have to shower anymore. Gauguin abandoned his wife and his five children to have sex with 13-year-olds in Tahiti. Jimi Hendrix did so many drugs that he died.
But we tolerate all of that, telling stories of their terribleness or deep mental health problems, because they contributed something cool to the art form or industry. We call this stuff the Price of Genius, despite the fact that many people who weren’t either assholes or deeply mentally ill have contributed a world of things to art and science.
If Jon Blow is really using a makeshift catheter instead of just stopping for twenty seconds to go to the restroom, he needs to either sort out his priorities or, and I’m not being snide about this, go seek some treatment for something. Mental illness is a serious thing, and by glorifying symptoms of mental illness as signs of genius, we discourage people from seeking treatment or otherwise dealing with it. “I’m not sick,” I think, “I’m interesting.” As for being an asshole, well, many if not most of the world’s problems can be traced to people thinking that whatever they’re doing overrides the requirement for basic human decency.
But we need a genius to feel respectable at parties, so we draft Jon Blow to be that genius, even though there are oodles of other cool people making videogames, many of whom predate Blow. There are even plenty of other people who would qualify as “geniuses” with the eccentricity that demands. I don’t really care for Metal Gear Solid, but if any one person has to be heralded as the First Great Artist of Videogames, I’d prefer it be Hideo Kojima over Jon Blow.
But what we really ought to do is quit worrying what the Ivy League cocktail party crew is thinking and just talk about cool videogames and the cool people who make them. Jon Blow is one of these cool people: Braid isn’t my favorite thing ever, but it’s full of great ideas. It uses ideas from both Super Mario Bros. and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to do some legitimately excellent things. I haven’t played The Witness yet, but a lot of very smart people I respect seem to think it’s a really noteworthy piece of art, and I have no reason to disbelieve them.
But by exalting Blow as the “genius,” and touting him as the only game developer making art in a sea of mediocre, corporate sellouts, we do both him and the art form a disservice. We turn him into a figurehead instead of a person, and we discount the efforts of the hundreds if not thousands of other game developers, from indie to AAA, that are trying and succeeding to make cool art. And worst of all? I don’t think the intellectual establishment is impressed by our floundering.