Games people play

Way back when I was a teenager, we had a BBC Micro, and I recall playing quite a lot of games, primarily Elite. In 1984, Elite was a ground-breaking game, including 3D wire graphics and quite a sophisticated game-play universe. The player was a commander of their own space ship, and the goal was to amass enough credits to move from being harmless, to mostly harmless, through various other levels that I’ve forgotten, to become elite. But because the game was a mix of Monopoly, Asteroids and Star Trek, the player could get there in many different ways. There was the route of peaceful and law-abiding trading in food and minerals, and maybe a bit of asteroid mining. Or there was the more risky but higher-reward trading in slaves and narcotics, piracy and bounty-hunting, which might also attract police attention and a ‘fugitive’ status. Later in the game, you were offered a few optional missions to other galaxies, and might meet new and threatening alien ships. Personally, I found that firing on space stations and picking off the police as they emerged was a highly effective strategy. Then when I got bored, I could deploy my escape pod and its insurance policy guaranteeing a new ship and the slate wiped clean.

At TEDxExeter, however, the talk I found the most difficult was Andy Robertson about “Sustainable Perspectives on Video Games”. It was nearly impossible to grasp what he was talking about and try to blog it at the same time, not least because I thought I was probably disagreeing with him. But for that reason, it was the talk I thought I most had to re-watch and engage with.

My engagement started with an exchange on Twitter. I haven’t yet managed to achieve eloquence, depth or politeness on social media, but I nevertheless present the exchange here as it encapsulates a few of my responses.

Tweet from @ClareBryden
@ccanw @GeekDadGamer Have you seen this #TED talk? [link to talk]

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer
@ClareBryden what did you think of that talk?

Tweet from @ClareBryden
@GeekDadGamer Interesting angle, but still can’t help viewing games as to be grown out of (Elite on BBC Micro in my day) #ducksquickly

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer
@ClareBryden maybe you’ve not played the right games with the right people? How about this for starters? Flower PS3 [link to trailer]

Tweet from @ClareBryden
@GeekDadGamer Very pretty, but I’d prefer to spend my time on say Dartmoor with the real scents and sounds [link to my Mucknell blog]

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer
@ClareBryden Oh yes me too. But as a response to those spaces (like books/films) I think it’s interesting. Also for those without access?

‏Tweet from @ClareBryden
@GeekDadGamer Ah yes, books, and making space for imagination. Readers do more work than authors. What about game creators and gamers?

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer
@ClareBryden I think gamers have even more power than readers. Because of the player-owned nature of games.

Tweet from @ClareBryden
@GeekDadGamer Interested to know what you think of Pottermore

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer
@ClareBryden I think I need to set aside some time to really dig into it. I’m not that keen on the gameification thing in general.

Andy’s talk garnered quite a bit of interest, including from Canon Anna Norman-Walker, who runs Holy Ground at Exeter Cathedral. So last Sunday…

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer:
Putting my #TEDxExeter talk to the test by introducing Flower PS3 into Exeter Cathedral’s Sun 13th 7pm service.

…and despite having a bad headache, I went along. There’s no room here to blog my response to the service. I just wanted to acknowledge that I have barely played a video game in years, so what follows is fairly hypothetical. But I have watched the Flower trailer, linked above, and I did have a go at Flower at the service as we just about completed level 1. For the time being, I’m just going to respond in more detail to some quotes from the talk.

“In [video games] can be found ground-breaking cutting-edge ways of making sense of being human.”

Andy gave an impressive list of games and their back-stories, and I am willing to believe that it would be possible to live out some of these stories and learn to make sense of some of the relationships portrayed. From what I have seen of Flower, on the other hand, it’s difficult to understand how this might be. The city is portrayed as a soulless and grey, and the flower’s dream as a rural idyll. In both there is the evidence of humans – buildings and car lights in the city, ex-neolithic piles of rocks and wind turbines in the country – but there is not a single human being in front of the camera, and as a result, the gamer is dissociated from, rather than involved in, both. There is no incarnation here.

“The nature of games mean that we get involved with the stories they’re playing… So unlike books or films, and for me faith, video games provide a natural foothold into them so I can become the owner of the stories I’m experiencing, rather than an outsider.”

Different forms of media have difficult demands and potentials. It rarely works well when a book is adapted as a film or a game, or a screenplay turned into a book. The best of all of these media draw the reader, or watcher, or player into the story.

Research has shown that while reading, the reader actually experiences the story in the part of the brain that experiences real life. Reading is therefore a means of rehearsing life, and experiencing situations, emotions and people that I might not otherwise experience. (I wish I could find the link to this research.) But it is, of course, not a replacement for real life. Although the reader has great latitude in imagining the setting and characterisation of the story – which is why film adaptations rarely work – the reader is still constrained by the unfolding of the story arc.

I’m not sure that the gamer can quite become the owner of the story either, as the goal of the game is always pre-set by the developer. Maybe I’m wrong, because I’ve not played many recently. But for all that Flower allows me to float on the breeze and enjoy the scenery, the player still has to visit all the flower colonies and find the tree in order to complete level 1 and progress in the game. Andy sees games as still being in their infancy, but there was more latitude in Elite back in 1984.

It’s interesting that Andy includes faith as a story he cannot own, and I hope to be able to ask him why. My first thought was of Philippians 2.12: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. This is to take the verse out of context, as it continues “for it is God who is at work in you”. But this is also out of context, and I suggest you read the whole letter (not to mention the rest of the Bible!). What do I think at the moment? First, if I don’t own my faith story, no-one else will. Second, there is a difficult line to tread between achievement and abdication. I am wary of the ‘ladder’ type of spirituality, in which we progress steadily to enlightenment or perfection. My experience is more of increasing desert and dark night, punctuated by the occasional shaft of light. But we don’t give up the struggle. Many write of abandonment to God’s will, which I suppose is to be desired but is immensely difficult. It’s certainly poles apart from abdication.


4 thoughts on “Games people play”

  1. Just had a read of the blog, really enjoyed being challenged/engaged on the things I said. It seemed to cut off before the end of the post?

    Although games, like films and books, mostly dictate the thread of the story, how to complete the story “get there” is often more flexible. I think this can help in terms of ownership of the story. But more than that videogames often invite the player/participator to interpret what the story is about. Their playful nature means we are more able to be active imaginative interpreters.

    It would be interested to play through the other chapters of Flower with you as there is quite a dramatic journey from the countryside to the city. For me it raised questions about how we act out our incarnational remit. The absence of a person/human/body underlines the need for humanity to engage with nature, while respecting it as something entirely other.

    My point about films/games. I was highlighting what I perceive as Hollywood’s ability to tell sentimental stories of hope without the usual cynicism that goes with them. Ironcially, perhaps Hollywood itself is a cynical industry…

    I did mean silence as in not having voice, being marginalized. This touches on my faith experience, a rather more complex story to tell that the videogame one (which itself is a little complex I am seeing). My difficulties to gain ownership of faith for myself is a struggle rather than abandonment of the apparatus of believe I was handed as a child.

    I realize these responses raise as many questions as they answer. I’m keen to keep talking though.

    • It got cut quite a bit, and now I’m trying to remember what I wrote. Yes, the thing I was about to say was that Hollywood is a cynical industry.

      What we often forget as humans is that we are part of nature. It is not something entirely other. To be human is to be a creature. I have problems with the “co-creator” and “stewardship” things. Yes, we are made in the image of God, so we have a creative impulse. But we have no power to create ex nihilo – ref Job 38.4. And stewardship is setting ourselves apart from the rest of creation, and pretending that we have a hope of knowing what we’re doing.

    • Oh, and cities are quite not the grey expanses that is made out. For example, bees do better in the city because there is a greater range of foodstuffs for them. And then there’s the vibrancy of human life and relationships…

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