Video Games vs Rock and Roll: On the Cultural Efficacy of Cultural Product

I wonder sometimes, if the power of an article meant for an online audience, comes exclusively from its title. Not only in the obvious way, in that the title should be the thing which makes the reader click. But through the integrity of the question that the essay’s title asks.

For example; alternative titles for this article could have been Will Video Games Ever Grow Up? Or Video Games, Still Battling Cliche.

Both of which suck in their own ways, since why would we want video games to grow up? Wasn’t it St. Augustine who said that he’d never met a grown up person? Shouldn’t we have respites from our grown up pretensions?

Perhaps, though, I could’ve convinced myself that a title like that could be functional, controversial, clickable (I knew I wanted to do something on video games), but by coincidence, after a long drive home for the holidays I saw an old favorite on my bookshelf. A collection of Chuck Klosterman’s essays. Published more than a decade ago now (jesus) IV, the title of his collection, features a (self admitted, barely remembered) mediocre article he did for Esquire about video games.

The piece opens with a statement about how some people still don’t take video games seriously. To my mind, even with the prevalence of mobile gaming - the ubiquity of virtual gaming in our culture - this is probably still true, since the people who didn’t take video games seriously, never would. But then Klosterman says something which entranced me for many days.

“[if you’re reading this article] I’m just going to concede that you believe video games in 2006 are the cultural equivalent to rock music in 1967 because that’s (more or less) reality.”

I think the extent to which this is true, or the extent to how nonsensical this statement is, is the question of Klosterman’s article. How culturally poignant are video games really?

First of all, let’s blow by quite quickly that every medium that has the potential to be deemed ‘artistic’ is in and of itself its own thing. And among mediums that come to define their artistic possibility, the individual growths of radio, television, film, music, literature; a video game stands out in that it can potentially be all these things at once. The player can be listening to curated music, while acting as a character in a story, and as that character can pick up and read about some item they find in game which has it’s own lore and backstory. Bethesda’s games are particularly good about generating this kind of complexity. Video games can also be sport. Which some people are still skeptical of, but probably most of those people are in the same group of people who were never gonna take video games seriously anyway (they never watched themselves suck at SuperSmash Bros, or appreciate the speed and strategy of good Starcraft players). In fact, video games are probably used for sporting type activities more than anything else. Especially if you think of them in terms of hours buried into gameplay. The competitive sportsman trains everyday, the e-sportsman is no different.

Which is a good place to go back to Klosterman, for while making his name as a rock critic, he has also been intensely interested in the meanings of individual athletes and teams. He wonders, in the article reprinted in his book (it is the primary concern of the article) why are there no prominent video game critics? Critics which discuss the underlying meanings of a medium and don’t simply cover expository information. Well, at the time he was writing that, I don’t think that e-sports had the level of visibility it has now, and no individual (or groups of individuals) had risen enough in the realm of e-sports to be culturally interesting. But I don’t think this is true any longer. There are names in e-sports. Though to be honest I don’t know who any of them are. That is; they are not culturally important enough for me to feel obligated to knowing them. But I know they exist. I’ve watched three or four documentaries. YouTube videos of ‘greatest moments in e-sports history’. The history of Street Fighter tournaments, east coast vs. west coast style; it’s all interesting and entertaining, and inherently silly in the best possible way. This is possibly the buried meaning in e-sports, their silliness.

Everyone still has that father or uncle or brother who screams at sports teams on TV. To witness that the teams meaning and the meaning of that individuals personal life are connected in such a way creates that strange feeling which could be called funny-scared-sad.

It’s strange to watch a person who has such stakes tied into the success or failure of one group of athletes versus another. But in some ways I can see the appeal. A friend once called it “getting angry as a means of recreation”. But things literally happen in this physical realm of non-virtual sports. Athletes actually get hurt, their careers take turns. They can define a sport or their position in that sport. In e-sports the scenarios are already designed by programming. We, as the audience are aware of this, and watching a screen and then someone sitting behind a controller … there’s a level of distance from the athlete to his game of choice, and then from that athlete to the audience, it’s very difficult to conceive that the audience ever really feels stakes. The players themselves are already observers, they still have emotion about their success or failure for economic reasons, as their professional ability to keep playing video games for a living, but it has no real attachment to their life, because unlike a basketball player scoring the game winning buzzer beater, their in game avatars are not really them.

This is why I think an appreciation for e-sports is a sign of our ability as a truly intellectually developing species. Emotion comes into the games just enough to keep them interesting, but at the the end of the day there aren’t really any stakes. The degrees of abstraction, from someone being good at an e-sport to the functions of our daily lives are multiple. This creates the background where we can view the meaninglessness of all sport, even, the meaninglessness of competition inherent in daily life. Video games are safe and silly and virtually anyone can be good at them without needing to be of a certain height or weight.

This is convoluted point one, I’m already off track from Klosterman, but I hadn’t really seen anyone talk about the sport and non-meaning inherent in video games (except for when your parents used to yell it at you).

Point two is more about rock and roll.

I wondered about Klosterman’s point because; could anything be as culturally significant as rock music in 1967?

And if something could, wouldn’t that something in 2006 probably have been television?

But this is neither here nor there. What really interests me is the possibility of video games to embody a personal vision. I think I’m right in assuming most things which carry lasting cultural impact, are tied to the individuals making them. Rock music is interesting because it’s fun to compare and contrast artists, to find artistic choices in the music which are somehow resonant to the individuals making the music. This is true I think of all artistic ventures which have cultural impact. Even film, which has the most need of collaboration, the involvement of many different opinions and ideas for the film to finally be viewed by the audience. Yet even films are realized with personal vision. Though an independent film maker doesn’t have the budget of a big studio film, an independent film maker with a personal vision could still make the funniest movie of the year, or the most thrilling movie. The movie with the most emotional impact on our current cultural state of affairs. It is unlikely a video game could ever do this. Video game developers and engineers, are more craftsmen than pure artists. Think about how much time each individual working on a game spills into said game. You know the credits at the end of a film are very long, but many of those individuals were only briefly involved in the creation of the film. The credits at the end of a big budget video game are equally long, but a much higher percentage of the people were working on that project continually over a period of years. If one were simply trying to realize a personal vision, the kind of needed dedication (which could result in fiscal failure) from a very large group of people, would be incredibly stressful. The amount of money and time needed to produce a good quality video game is pretty cost prohibitive to the possibility of personal vision.

Let me quote from a large section near the end of Klosterman’s article, the first couple sentences are a quote themselves from a professor at M.I.T.

“”There is a very conservative element to gaming because absolutely everything is built around consumerism. Game designers are asking themselves questions about how a game should look and what it should do, but not about what the game is supposed to mean.” (Klosterman): And that-ultimately-is why the lack of video game criticism is a problem. If nobody ever thinks about these games in a manner that’s human and metaphorical and contextual, they’ll all become strictly commodities, and then they’ll all become boring. They’ll only be games. And since we’ve already agreed that video games are the new rock music, it will create a very depressing scenario: this generation’s single most meaningful artistic idiom will still be — ultimately — meaningless.”

Now, I think this is true, this could be a problem, but it’s not like there aren’t things being done about it. I bought a game on PS3 which was called Journey, it had a very metaphorical type appeal to it. There was also this game ..

What Remains of Edith Finch, a game level which blends the play of monotonous factory labor coupled with an escape into imagination. The problems of which, for both of these games, is that I don’t actually need to play them to get the feel for what they’re doing. I could’ve watched someone play Journey and I would’ve had the same experience. The problem is, how do you make something function like a game and still give it metaphorical and contextual possibility?

The video game Borderlands made interesting attempts at playing around with humor, functioning as a shooter while being a send up on the shooter genre itself. It could be argued that Dark Souls has something to say about ambiguity and failure, persistence. Also, I think a lot of things have changed since 2006. There are more small studios making interesting personal and experimental games.

Reading the above list of critic curated best video games of the year 2017, I almost feel desperately out of the loop. Each game, and the descriptions of each game sound beautiful and metaphorical and contextual in exactly the way Mr. Klosterman is talking about, worrying, that video games might not achieve. And I want to play each and every one of them, while knowing I never will, because I’m a troglodyte who prefers the inherent gaming sillyness and leveling-up-progress of games like Shadow of War.

Maybe-ultimately-the problem is that video games simply can’t be criticized in the way Mr. Klosterman is used to conceiving of criticism. That their meaninglessness is actually their greatest strength. And maybe, their isn’t a problem in a lack of criticism because we live in such a diverse culture. There are too many options for one artistic medium to have a deep cultural poignancy.

Really, can we imagine any one medium having an effect on the culture the same way rock music did in 1967?

Video games ask us what our culture is. Even the biggest games are played personally, and with a knowledge about such competence of creation (so many bodies involved in bringing a triple A game to fruition) what would a conversation about a game like Fallout 4 look like? What is there really to say? Like SpaceX’s landing of their Falcon rocket. The first reusable rocket landing. Is this a cultural point or a scientific one? Is the science behind video games too actual to be of any cultural value? I think it’s clear that our culture as a whole is headed in a very empirical direction, and video games inhabit and indulge this tendency, and this changes how we think of our culture as a whole. The question — ultimately — is what is the culture of the coming space age? Are things that are created as cultural products supposed to stand in for our culture as a whole, or was that us, for a small period of time, filling in the gaps of our empirical destiny?

This article ends with a lot of questions. I guess I don’t know what our culture is, so how can cultural products be meaningful or not? Maybe nothing is.

Podcast: Western Thought. Writes literary fiction. His audiobook The Town of Books; first chapter.