Why Writing About Videogames is Exhausting

Or, I’m Tired But I Must Write

I’m fairly certain that you won’t want to read this attempt at an effort post

Frequently I’ll think to myself: I should write more about the videogames that I play. How can I let these experiences remain so ephemeral? Then I wonder whether I have this sort of thought because I feel guilty about spending so much time and energy thinking about and doing something that ultimately feels like a waste of time in its purest form. In some ways it’s not too different from writing about any other cultural media. Film critique is only looked upon as “worthy” because films have been around long enough to be considered artwork. We all remember how much disdain late film critic Roger Ebert held for videogames as “art.” It’s possible that Ebert sought to act as gate-keeper for the art world. Does allowing videogames to be considered art detract from other forms? Ebert did mention enjoying Cosmology of Kyoto (1994), which seems to suggest that he would appreciate titles that focus on story and experience over mindless “gameplay.”

N.B.: This self-referential (meta) style of writing leads to headaches. The pointer finger cannot point to itself after all. Not to say that we shouldn’t engage in this style; just the opposite, in fact. We should take care, however, to bring along sufficient painkillers to help us get through it all. We’ve still got to tackle the dialectic, y’know.

Any time that I sit down to write about videogames, I manage to write a few sentences before feeling an immense weight descend upon my shoulders. It’s a struggle to get down my thoughts about even games that I enjoy. Why? I’m still not sure. I do know that changing my approach helps. If I start to think of the medium in a critical lens, it’s easier to get some ideas down.

That’s not to say we have to be overly negative about the medium. It’s important to celebrate the accomplishments of artists. The people making games are some of the most passionate people you’ll ever meet. A tremendous amount of time and work goes into the creation of games. My focus here is how difficult it is to write about them.

Perhaps, even though he did not play many games himself, Ebert knew on some instinctual level that writing about videogames in a meaningful manner feels like a ridiculous luxury. The medium itself is already locked behind multiple barriers that many cannot afford. We require a device (console, computer, phone, etc.) and game software (typically expensive, although no-cost games are increasingly more common). In addition to the financial investment, there’s the time costs. Although many people think that they do not have anything better to do during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is more work to do now than ever. Workers must band together in a greater show of solidarity than ever before. What role can videogames serve in this capacity?

Tonight We Riot (2020), a brand new title that is, in the words of its developers, “unapologetically political,” presents us with a worthy attempt to make videogames more relevant to leftists and those sympathetic to our cause. Its core gameplay mechanics are not original (at the end of the day, it’s just a brawler), but its setting and framing is unique. Instead of focusing on one individual, TWR encourages players to recognize that organization is the key to meaningful, positive political change. It also promotes tried-and-true methods for achieving political aims; namely, protestors that are willing to defend themselves. Night in the Woods (2017) is a little more subtle in its approach. It tells the story of young people navigating the late-stage capitalist nightmare in which we live. It too could have carried the tagline “unapologetically political.” Clearly there is space within the medium for leftist voices. Maybe there is hope yet for writing about videogames?

We shouldn’t limit ourselves to just the overtly leftist games, of course. We can imagine that there is vast potential for an analysis of Fortnite (2017) and its battle royale mode’s influence on mainstream pop culture. Being a free-to-play title, its barrier is less than many other games that we might talk about. We might point out that many people — even those that have never played it — know that the game features “dancing” as a way to express oneself. Hundreds of years into the future, when all that remains is cryptic text document references to Fortnite and plastic merchandise that will never decompose, will the people of the future know that players could dance in the game? It’s hard to say if people will even talk about the title’s success ten years from now, let alone one hundred. It seems like its influence may only be a flash in the pan. At the moment it’s still hard to imagine someone that has never heard of the game. Its influence seems all-encompassing, regardless of the time when the question is asked (the question being: have you heard of the game Fortnite?).

As mentioned above, videogames feature numerous barriers. Therefore, the audience numbers are relatively small compared to other media. How many people watch online videos or streams? There are more important battlegrounds to win. The left already has an up-hill battle with regards to videogames, being a medium filled with vocal reactionary and out-right fascist voices. Player demographics are slowly changing, of course, which may help change the stereotypical image of a “gamer.” Still, there’s no denying the reprehensible politics that have festered among a not insignificant portion of the gaming community.

I orginally had a paragraph here raising the question of what exactly videogames have accomplished. I meant it mostly as a joke, but I have decided to remove it before publishing. Even though I find it challenging to write about videogames, I think we should do so. They’re not as unimportant as some critics makes them out to be. They can sometimes serve as the avenue by which people become radicalized (bear in mind I mean it in the positive, leftist radicalized sense).

For the astute disciple of videogame culture*, Stephen “thecatamites” Gill-Murphy, an independent game developer, did an excellent talk at Fantastic Arcade in 2017 related to this topic. Especially poignant is his tongue-in-cheek answer to an audience member’s question about how Gill-Murphy approaches making videogames: “With hatred and scorn.” You can see the full talk here.

* This word seems to carry enough weight for an entire article. I’m not planning to tackle it any time soon (or ever).

2020 May 18

There’s even less academically relevant material over this way