Playtime Proverbs 2

Here lately at the Ontological Geek, I’ve been prattling self-indulgently about my personal life and in the meantime mulling over reader-response criticism and my continuing personal response to Bastion. Apparently, my experience with the game was able to convince me that my errant misanthropic addiction (read: the pew-pew) could teach me a thing or two about how to live. I think that Bastion, quite literally, gave me the motivation to summon up some good, old-fashioned intentionality and change my life for the better, despite non-ideal circumstances.

Kinda strange, isn’t it?

…but why?

On this here website, we talk a lot of high-falutin’ gab about videogames being art. Okay, so what does that mean? Does art provide entertainment? Stimulate emotional conversation? Bring us closer to friends, family, and strangers through shared experience? Show us things (sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible) that we’d never otherwise see?

Big flippin’ deal. Jerry Springer can do that.

Pictured: Performance art on the vapid absurdity of technological bulwarks against the inevitability of natural tragedies. Or, yanno. Just some cynical sociopath with an umbrella.

So, we’ve got to be missing something. We can’t just talk about art in terms of what it provides us emotionally. Granted, a lot of the aesthetic experiences we take in (though all of our sundry media) are much more intentional, poignant, and meaningful than the tripe peddled by our aforementioned lapsed Brit. But, in my oh-so-very-humble-and-meek-and-mild-and-deepest-held-and-totally-subjective-and-my-editor-tells-me-not-to-apologize-or-disclaim-and-so-I’m-being-obnoxiously-and-ironically-obstuse opinion (*gasp*), we’re skipping out on a whole helluva lot, voluntarily, by taking the culturally appropriate response to art.

Now. What if we feel very strongly about the impact art can make, or are interested in its empirical or comparative study? Surely that’s a different matter entirely.

Much of our discourse on art: academic, professional, personal, or downright openly meaningless (think, like 90% of the conversations you’re likely to have ever), have very little to do with the pragmatic or immediate, and everything to do with…well, categorization. You know. Putting things into lists, and imagining that we’ve done something a lot harder and more meaningful than the media equivalent of collating invoices by address and date of birth. So, great! You’re able to categorize, group things by the ways in which they are common. You learned a thing or two from hearing “one of these things is not like the other” on Sesame Street. Congratulations.

I’ve spoken before about reader-response, the form of criticism which holds that a piece of art should be judged individually and subjectively, by the respondents. This approach eliminates the problems inherent in that messy business of rote comparison (to deploy a cliché: putting things into boxes). Now, when we think of our responses to works (specifically multimedia ones, like videogames), often we recall our particular emotional engagements with the works. “It was a lot of fun,” “it made me sad,” “I was so happy when…” But there’s still something missing.

Another important (and oft-neglected) aspect of response is conviction, followed by interpretation and action. This is what we do with Shakespeare, Greek myths, and holy books like the Bible. We don’t just experience them once, shrug them off, or attempt to categorize them with similar works. We read, and re-read them (unlike videogames, most of the time), hoping not only to have similar or somewhat transformed emotional responses each time, but to discover new ways in which to make ourselves better. In this, we actually do perform an act of comparison, but rather than keeping the work at arm’s length, sticking on our glasses, and comparing with others on the shelf, we actually compare the work to our own lives. Draw it in closely. Compare our experiences of it to itself, year after year, noticing how our reader responses change with time.

Now, it seems to me that people used to experience at least literature in this way, a whole lot more frequently than is common in the current age. Kept copies of the Bible and Shakespeare, at least. The schoolhouses were full of (often error-ridden and poorly written, but nevertheless) primers on Greek myth. Not only were the students and readers expected to be able to read and comprehend these texts, they were expected to learn ethical lessons from them, and apply those lessons in everyday life.

So. The question I’d like to ask my readers is this: is it possible to draw moral teachings from videogames? “Life lessons,” if you will? How might our experiences with games change if we let the games change us?

I got started on this line of thought while discussing (of course) the Bible and Shakespeare. It occurred to me that there might be an entire goldmine of untapped Good Advice hidden in our favorite works of art, which we’d never get at unless we managed to get ourselves out of the medicinal/escapist funk. Truly endeavor to be transformed by our thumb-and-eyeball exercises. Incorporate the heart, too (or the prefrontal cortex, if you want to get really technical about it).

A few days after having this conversation and rolling it over in my gray stuff a time or two, I came across this meme being passed around on Facebook:

Helluva lot more education than Mario is Missing, at any rate.

Of course this image is meant to be taken for little more than a warm-hearted, nostalgic chuckle. But what would it be like if we could draw life lessons from all of our favorite games? Return to the Literature (the “Scripture,” to use a term loosely) time and time again, each time adding specificities to the lessons learned before. Charting progress.

Seems very strange to suggest that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness might not be entirely ill-advised to turn to videogames, but there it is. Apparently I am incapable of shutting up about this, but I’ve tried it with Bastion. Still am. Works for me.

Now. Here’s my challenge to you. If you’re reading this website, chances are you’re going to be spending an unconscionable amount of time manipulating objects on screens in the very near future. That will be time spent outside of meaningful relationships. Time that could be spent volunteering, caring for loved ones, advancing your career, or seeking newer and deeper associations with others. Why not get some more bang for your temporal buck? Let your games work for you.

By no means do I know what’s best for you in your life right now, but I do think that videogames can and do change our behavior, whether we like it or not. Even more so if the experience is engaged by a player with the preconceived, conscious intention of being positively transformed.

I grew up in the church, and by a matter of pure statistics, you probably did too. You know how this stuff works already.

Next time you sit down to play a game, take a few moments before getting past the start screen. Ask yourself, as absurd as it may seem, what you’d like to learn from it if you could. How to treat others and yourself better. What you’d like to be able to Get Past, and Deal With. Choose to play the game, intent on learning from it. Pray, if that’s your thing. Ask to be shown the Next Step. After all, as I understand the Bible, evidently God has a lot of pretty insane ways of getting people’s attention. Storms, shrubs, stones, sacraments, spirits, and sheepskin, just to name off some “s’s.” Why not shooters, strategy games, and simulations?

Once you do this, I’d like you to come back. Get in touch with me by email or Facebook. Leave a comment below. Or come over to my house (text me first to confirm you’re relatively disease free – pix get mine!). I’d like to get something started.

Just to get rolling:

Bastion: No matter how broken and battered you are, or how much whatever mess has become of your life is Not Your Fault, at some point you’ve got to figure out how to move on and create something new.

BioShock: Even the well-intentioned, meticulously planned, superbly executed personal philosophies can go terribly, terribly wrong, if you let the Ideal become more important than the livelihood of individuals.

Portal: The scariest, most manipulative, abusive people are damaged on the inside, which is why they do what they do. And if you keep your chin up and have the courage to stand up against them, you can escape the maze of obstacles they’ll construct to get you to stay in the relationship and continue being hurt.

Fallout: War never changes.

Final Fantasy X: If you’re on a path of salvation which seems at odds with everything and everyone you love, it probably is. Change course immediately, and chart your own path.

Chrono Trigger: Trust your friends enough to share your secrets and most hopeful goals with them, your Past and your Future, and in return they’ll trust you enough to follow you to the End of Time…

So, think about these things and get back to me. How has your playtime informed your ethical choices?

Aaron Gotzon

About Aaron Gotzon

Aaron Paul Gotzon is a beguiling ne’er-do-well, prancing about the stage by night, and hawking shrimp and cheap alcohol by day. He’s about as qualified to write about games as the average squashed cockroach. He does, however, run an extremely successful male escort service and bait shop out of his grandmother’s basement. If you’d like to send him a message, put it on a piece of paper, and throw it away.

  • Tom Dawson

    I’m not sure it’s really a GOOD lesson, but having played a great many sprawling Western RPG games (which tend to offer some sort of morality system, be it reputation or karma or whatever) I’ve been left with the vague notion that there’s nothing you can do that can’t be counterbalanced by an equal or greater action in the opposite moral direction.

    I’m currently doing a playthrough of Fable 3, and in demonstrating the do-anything possibilities to a non-gamer friend I saved the game, turned off safe mode for a moment, and went a bit mad. Unfortunately it turns out that the game decides to autosave when the player hits their wife in the head with a giant hammer, which left a pretty large blot on my otherwise stainless character. Luckily for me, all was forgiven after I captured a fleeing criminal and donated some money to the treasury. I had a similar experience in Fallout 3, where I could steal as much as I liked whilst remaining morally pure by occasionally handing out bottles of purified water to thirsty beggars. Positive acts cancel out negative acts.

    As for the lesson, it could be a meditation on the idea of redemption, though common wisdom seems to hold that rather than being a like-for-like system redemption requires a greater amount of sacrifice to balance out a smaller amount of evil (how many reformed villains die almost immediately after their righteous act? Poor old Darth Vader) and there are those who hold the belief that some wrongs can never be washed away. We might say a repentant murder has “served his time” and paid the debt to society, but how many will be so forgiving of a child molester? I suppose it comes down to personal opinion; do I believe that enough good deeds can make up for a bad one? I don’t recall ever playing a game of this type where redemption was impossible, when I had committed some crime so vile that no amount of charity or saintly behaviour could make people forget it, but I’m not sure such a balanced system of ethics can work in the real world.

    Of course, I’d be foolish not to mention the other, and in fact most important, life lesson that video games have taught me – never, EVER, stand near a red barrel. Doesn’t matter what it contains, just don’t do it. Those things are deathtraps!

  • Doug S.

    Lessons learned from video games, some good, some bad, some silly:

    Procrastination never hurts. The world will wait for you. (Unless there’s a countdown timer in the corner of the screen.)
    Don’t be afraid to experiment.
    There are no lasting consequences for failure. If something goes wrong, you can always try again.
    Talk to everyone.
    Take everything that’s not nailed down. If it is nailed down, find a hammer, pry out the nails, and then take it.
    Practice makes perfect. You can do anything as long as you spend enough time level grinding.
    Every problem has a solution. And every last one of them can be found on