Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Only 'Real' That Matters

You know that feeling of disbelief when you beat a difficult final boss and instead of another phase the ending cutscene starts to play? The sunrise-slow shift from breathless relief to triumph?

Has a plot twist ever punched you right in the gut (looking at you, Aeris)? Has an environment ever sent chills down your spine[1]? Ever find yourself wanting to chew your controller (don’t inspect my old Gamecube pad for toothmarks, please), or pitch your TV out the window?

These are the kind of effects that often get forgotten in the popular debate about whether games can have ‘real effects’. The focus tends to be on whether games are turning ‘our children’ into (a) uncontrollably violent beasts or (b) posthuman supergeniuses. But of course games can have real effects at the personal level, and the other concerns are best left to psychologists with some grasp of proper investigative methodology.

And it’s not just that certain pieces of digital software can cause effects on real people. If you cried when Aeris died, or punched the air when you beat your first Bowser, it wasn’t the flipping of a bit somewhere inside the console, or a shifting pattern of electromagnetic radiation emitted by the screen that had that effect on you.

Okay, in a way it was, but describing the pattern of light or the behaviour of the silicon isn’t the best explanation of your response. You didn’t punch the air because of [obscure technical description of computer hardware]. You punched the air because YOU BEAT BOWSER YEAAHHHH.

And really, that should be all it takes to justify the serious study of games and gaming. We shouldn’t need esoteric philosophical arguments like this and this to defend what we do. In an ideal world, the capacity to cause real experiences would be the only thing that counted when deciding what’s worth taking an interest in[2].

It can be tempting to dismiss this position on the grounds that game events or objects are just fictions – that we can account for them in the same way that we account for Sherlock Holmes, or Batman, or Narnia. And you know, fair enough provided you’re going to take the study of Sherlock Holmes and Batman and Narnia seriously (pulp crime fiction, comics and children’s fantasy have all had their own fights for recognition in academia). But there is a bit of a difference.

A fiction is a kind of tacit agreement between audience and author. Very roughly, when you open a novel, you’re accepting that the author is going to tell you a bunch of lies (or at least, things that aren’t true), but that something in those lies will be worth your attention. You’re entertaining the lies in the hope or expectation that they will have some positive effect on you – make you feel good, teach you something new, guide you to self-reflection.

Some games are fictions, of course. But some don’t really involve straightforward fictive assertions at all. Look at a game like Geometry Dash, a game that consists almost entirely of level geometry. The geometry of a Dash level isn’t a lie about how things are in some other realm, it’s just there. If I tell you there’s a sequence of spikes at a certain point in the level, that’s true.

In this way, game objects are more like the notes of a piece of music. They may contribute to the telling of a story, or the communication of fictive claims, but they are real parts of the work, however transient or intangible. “There’s a mushroom in the second ‘?’ block of Super Mario Bros level 1-1.” is the same kind of statement as “The first notes of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer are a D octave.”

This is why I think it’s useful to consider game events real; it’s not just that they’re causally effective (though in some ways that’s enough on its own), but that they are also intersubjectively consistent in a way that fictive events are not. If you claim that ‘Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker St.’, I am not obliged to agree, since the statement is only accurate to Conan Doyle’s fiction, and not the Baker Street that you can walk along in London. We must agree a frame of reference before that statement is true. But ‘The Companion Cube appears in Test Chamber 17’ is true simpliciter.

There’s more to be said on this, particularly concerning the types of fictional statement (‘221B Baker Street’ is a fictional address in a real place, whereas somewhere like ‘Bag End, Hobbiton’ is a fictional address in a fictional place), but I do need to leave something for the academic paper I’m writing on this subject, so I’ll leave things here for now.

[1] I’m not able to offer any intelligible examples of this one because I scare easily and I’m not admitting just how terrified I was of the Great Deku Tree for a while in early 1999…

[2] For more on this terrible philosophy joke, I wrote a brief and slightly clunky introduction to philosophical idealism here.

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