What Video Games Do

I wake up each day knowing that a certain portion of my time will go to just reading. Well, that may not be accurate. Consuming is more like it as sometimes it’s a video or a song or an infographic, but the point is that doing so is pretty much a guarantee. Each day, my Twitter feed will overflow with links and pictures and YouTube clips of things I never knew existed. My Facebook feed with become inundated with photos from the previous night’s outing and videos of an embarrassingly drunk karaoke night. It’s pretty easy to just glaze over with the incessant deluge of information and stimuli.

At this point, I usually only perk up when I see links from particular people or, more often, when I see the same link multiple times. As was the case yesterday, this Tumblr post made the rounds on multiple tweets and Facebook updates (yes, despite being over a month old in its original Tumblr form). It’s a series of GIFs that depict a bit from Irish stand-up comedian Dara Ó Briain‘s 2010 This is the Show DVD. Here’s the text if you’re clicking-averse (and here’s an extended clip from his Live at the Apollo set):

Video games do a thing that no other industry does. You cannot be bad at watching a movie. You cannot be bad at listening to an album. But you can be bad at playing a video game, and the video game will punish you and deny you access to the rest of the video game. No other art form does this! You’ve never been reading a book and three chapters in the book has gone, “what are the major themes of the book so far?” And you’ve gone, “well…I don’t know…,” and boom. “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” You’ve never been listening to an album and after four songs, the album has gone, “dance! Dance! Show me your dancing is good enough to merit this!” And you go, “is this good enough?” And the album goes, “no,” and stops.

Perhaps a bit overly dramatic, but he certainly gets the point across. Video games is one of the few (perhaps the only) art form where you can actually be bad at it and be commensurately punished for it. Regardless of your ability to critically analyze a song or dissect the scenes of a film, you can experience the product in its entirety on your first go-round. Even art in the form of paintings and statues and whatnot can be seen without lapse even if you have zero knowledge of abstract or modern styles. You may not be able to appreciate any of these things on a deeper level and wring meaning from where there may be none, but being a shoddy art critic never stops you from looking at the whole of the Mona Lisa.

Playing a video game, however, is a wholly gated experience. Each nugget of pleasure and pain must be forcibly mined with your own hands. Even exploratory titles which push the boundaries of the definition of “interactive” (such as Dear Esther and Datura) are dependent on your ability to navigate an open environment. Stumble on that block and you might as well not even play.

And that is necessarily true. Anything less in the realm of player-game response and you no longer have a video game; you have an animated movie. Video games are an interactive art form, and failing to interact with it is a failing as a player. This doesn’t make you bad at video games because you can’t complete it but instead makes you bad at it because you can’t do the one thing intrinsic to the art form. Watching a movie requires you to watch and listening to a song requires you to listen, so it’s not much of a stretch to say playing a game requires you to actually play.

Which, I guess, invites the question: do you need to play the entire game to appreciate it? Or, perhaps, what parts of a game are appreciable?

A game is made up of many different elements and is perhaps most similar to movies in this regard. A song is a song and a painting is a painting, but films—just like games—are comprised of songs and art and actors. Games, however, go beyond that and include gameplay mechanics, implements of computer science and artificial intelligence, and so much more. Each piece can be praised and derided separately (this is a good song, this voice actor is terrible, etc.), but only their gestalt can be the final product. The sum total is paramount.

It’s an interesting thought, to be sure, because then not only is tangible progress within the game restricted but also appreciation outside of the game. Your failing as a player extends to your failing as someone who can apply critical thought to the product and the art form as a whole. So video games are not just unique in that you can be bad at playing them but also bad at appraising their overall worth. Whether you understand a Terrence Malick film or can see past the swirling colors of a Pablo Picasso, your evaluation of either are comprehensive in your current state. Given guidance or some choice literature on the topics, you can expand your understanding, but that adds to your worth as a film and art critic.

There is no such shortcut in video games. You cannot intuit the overall value of a game from reading about it or from watching it. The interactivity—the literal motion of you pressing a button or moving a joystick—is integral to your understanding of it. It’s how the choices you are forced to make and actions you have to take in The Walking Dead shape up the story, predetermined or otherwise, in your hands that personalizes your experience. It’s how having the tangible execution of story beats in Spec Ops: The Line makes the hard turns in the late story hit all that much harder in the end.

It’s what makes games so difficult to penetrate, but also makes it so worthwhile.

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