As children, many of us spent hundreds of hours competing against the computer, and our parents’ patience, playing epic action-adventure video games.
At this point, presumably, none among us understands exactly what that incredible amount of time and energy did to our minds and bodies. Still, I presume you, too, can feel pretty good knowing that your childhood video-game habit didn’t progress into playing Grand Theft Auto for 30 hours straight while binging on cocaine as an adult.
Tom Bissell, a Guggenheim Fellow and award-winning author of Chasing the Sea and The Father of All Things, wasn’t so lucky.
Bissell is a writing professor at Portland State University and has written for Harper’s and The New Yorker; his curious rise to literary prominence has seen him traverse penning fake DVD commentaries to detailing his experience as the son of a Vietnam veteran. All the while, Bissell has never beaten his virtually life-long addiction to video games, which has been so feverish in the past few years that Bissell missed then-President-elect Obama’s November 2008 acceptance speech because he couldn’t stop playing Fallout 3. He’s eagerly fallen in love with every gaming system from the original Nintendo to the Xbox 360, and believes that video games represent modern culture’s creative evolution from the novel form. In short, Bissell is hooked.
In the just-released Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, his fifth book, Bissell describes the “unprecedented inventiveness” of early games such as Super Mario Bros, noting that “in film and literature, such surrealistic fantasy typically occurs at the outer edge of experimentalism.” Enthusiastically walking us through every inch of his favorite recent titles, he passionately delineates the video game’s startling and — for gamers like Bissell — endlessly fascinating and engaging evolution, from staring contests like Pong to the all-consuming (and morally reprehensible) “open world” mayhem of Grand Theft Auto.
Whether video games qualify as art — or potentially profound art — is a topic that’s gained some steam lately. Roger Ebert, arguably America’s most beloved film critic during the past few decades, put in his two cents recently on the Chicago Sun Times’ website, stating: “I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.”
Ebert caught fire from video game proponents over the winter for previously asserting that “no one has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers and novelists.” I would agree, with the caveat that film, for instance, was also not worthy of comparison to literature when it first appeared. Anything can happen. However, some video game enthusiasts take the argument to another level, claiming that some recent games open up a spiritual world all but unavailable to modern youngsters.
Last month, an old San Francisco friend of mine named Matt Dillon — who is now a graduate student in religious studies at Rice University — spent a weekend with my family and me. He said that, “In an era in which huge swaths of the youth population are neither brought up in a religious atmosphere … nor particularly literate, certain video games can open portals to the unconscious.” He said that role-playing video games such as World of Warcraft can expose the spiritually lacking 21st century layperson “to the imaginative realization that there are larger, more spacious, more curious dimensions to the universe than they typically acknowledge.”
World of Warcraft urges participants to create a character and sustain an ongoing battle-filled life inside the game. Some claim that there is little difference between playing these bloody video games and past generations reading about carnage in books by Homer and Tolkien. In these spiritually empty times, we must derive meaningful excitement and emotional progress from anything at our disposal, they say.
Still, consciously choosing to engage in destructive behavior in games like Grand Theft Auto, even under the assumption that it’s OK to zoom in with a sniper rifle and blow the head off a helicopter pilot if it’s only a video-game helicopter pilot, is a far cry from reading about Perseus beheading Medusa. Yes, it can be astoundingly fun to spend an idle hour inside the make-believe spaces of video games, where there are no real-world consequences beyond, say, unemployment and obesity. But it’s hard not to wonder: If the modern make-believe world we choose to inhabit is simply detritus, and life may well be no more than a narrative we tell ourselves, which is the world in which our actions don’t count?
There aren’t a lot of people with time and savings enough to literally play video games from dusk ’til dawn every day of the week in order to come to a conclusion such as Tom Bissell’s: “a presiding intelligence exists within along with you, and it is this sensation that invites the otherwise unworkable comparisons between games and other forms of narrative art.”
Sadly, there are millions of people who would join Bissell in relishing the time when, while playing Grand Theft Auto IV, he joyfully “sniped the pilot of a zooming-by news chopper while standing on [a] building and watched it whirlingly plunge down into the street and explode.” Bissell sincerely called this one of his “fondest memories,” along with running over a man repeatedly with a truck while playing the same game.
On that note, I recently spoke with Phil Solomon, an internationally acclaimed filmmaker who is on the film studies faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder and who has a history of fascination with video games. Solomon mostly commented on “first-person shooter” games, which interestingly make people like Bissell giddy and others concerned about what Solomon calls “morality issues.”
Solomon thinks that violence in video games has changed since Grand Theft Auto’s controversial San Andreas edition.
“There has been a noticeable shift in how injuries and dying are depicted by the victims,” he says. “The characters now appear to suffer. They bend over, apparently racked with pain, sometimes run away hunched over, or fall and slump down slowly. It can really harsh any violent high you might be getting, I should think.
“As the verisimilitude increases from game to game, the cartoonish, guilt-free run-amucks now feel just a bit different, as if they are inviting some degree of digi-empathy from more realistic considerations of consequence. … I’d be very curious to know how young people are finding these changes, and whether or not it affects their gaming dispositions.”
Whether the video game is an authentic art form and whether video games truly desensitize us to violence are separate arguments, but to give video games credit, every profound form of art has run up against ethical issues. Solomon thinks the motives and tendencies of game designers are evolving in ethically and psychologically interesting ways.
“Game designers seem to be interested in having moral choices made during gameplay affect the consequences to the character’s timeline,” he says. “If they can actually induce you to care about these characters, as we often do when watching a film, then I think the empathy factor will start creeping in and change the relationship of cause and effect: Actions will no longer just be an immediate release of dopamine, but will have ‘lasting consequences.’” Imagine if all those extra minutes you spent bashing Mario’s head into blocks to get excess coins had resulted in the princess ultimately not wanting to be saved by such a greedy person.
“The superego,” according to Solomon, “is starting to insinuate itself over the immediate, but short-lived goal-oriented pleasures of the id controller.”
Art form or not, and ethical or not, video games are amassing extra lives of their own.