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.

  • 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!

  • 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 GameFAQs​.com.