The art, beauty and joy of videogames

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

By day, I’m a mild-mannered book-world hanger-on; by night, I roar through the streets of Gotham in my heavily armed Batmobile, soar above it on the outstretched wings of my cape, and swoop down to bash multiple armed thugs into unconsciousness with a crunching series of ‘Fear Takedowns’. No, I know. When you write it down like that, my enthusiasm for Batman: Arkham Knight doesn’t sound very grown-up at all. (Never mind that I was first tipped off to the games in this series by the now deputy leader of the Labour party.)

As the Spectator’s literary editor, I probably ought to cultivate an image of high-minded devotion to the written word — give out that I spend my evenings on avant-garde fiction or literary biographies. And I do spend a good deal of time on that stuff. But when I want to zone out once the kids are in bed, I’ll like as not boot up my PC and get stuck into some daft videogame.

I have been, on and off, addicted to video-games since my earliest years playing Defender and other less sophisticated games on a BBC B micro. I have spent countless hours playing David Braben’s amazing space trading game Elite, months immersed in the Azeroth of World of Warcraft or the Nilfgaard of Witcher 3, and God knows how long with Candy Crush on my commute. I say this without a flicker of shame.

The first and most general mistake that every half-informed critic of videogames makes is to imagine that this vast umbrella term indicates any particular thing at all: to imagine that they’re violent, or childish, or don’t tell stories, or only tell stories, that they’re isolating, or that they’re communal, that they’re competitive or that they’re pointless, that they’re difficult or that they require no skill. Videogames are vastly more diverse in form than cinema or television, and any artform that compasses Red Dead Redemption 2 and Pokémon Go, Monument Valley and Gran Turismo, Portal and Civilisation, Zynga Poker and Street Fighter 2 isn’t so much an artform as a whole portfolio of them. Some games are puzzles, some games are sports, some games are narratives, some games are resource-management simulators, some games are open-world invitations to exploration and many games are combinations of several of the above or something entirely else. Such respectable activities as chess or bridge can be, and are, videogames.

Almost every generalisation comes with a qualification. I want to say, for instance, that there’s something peculiarly attractive about the relationship that games put you into with regard to time. Out here, the baleful influence of the second law of thermodynamics is inescapable. Things fall apart. Time runs only one way. But in the game world, the resurrection of the virtual flesh is not a miracle but a routine occurrence. There’s always another life, another try, the possibility of remaking the world of the game afresh.

My Batmobile blows up in a fiery cloud of debris, and I have to endure a moment or two of the Joker gloating sadly over my death… but then, bam, I’m back to my last save point, revving up ready for another assault on the Arkham Knight’s Cobra Tanks. You can try again, and keep trying till you get it right. This is deeply, almost poignantly soothing — and becomes more so in middle age when failure and regret are more available and more permanent. There again, a qualification: there exists a subgenre of ‘roguelike’ games — where if your character dies it stays dead. These are rather anxious-making. (Though, a qualification to the qualification, you can always restart them from the very beginning — dispiriting pain in the arse though that will be.)

Perhaps the only thing you could say that videogames have in common is that they create their own worlds (or, in the case of ‘augmented reality’, add specialised enhancements to this one): they take you away from the here and now. That, as much as any muttering about dopamine and reward loops, accounts for their much-remarked quality of addictiveness: taking you out of yourself is what drugs, alcohol, sexual or religious ecstasy, checking your emails and other addictive behaviours do too. Is this pointless? Well, possibly — but it’s pointless in the same way meditation is pointless and fine art is pointless and playing or following sport is pointless. And it’s a pointless thing that fulfils what seems to be a foundational human need. Not being able to bear very much reality, and all that.

And the alternative worlds they offer are, in many cases, not only very absorbing — most games have the excellent quality of asking you to infer the rules of their worlds from within them, just like life — but wondrous. When you consider the huge number of people involved in making a game — in giving an architecture to nowhere, and painting it in many colours, and telescoping tasks and puzzles within each other, and programming possibility trees — you realise that in playing a good game you are appreciating the fruits of considerable human labour and ingenuity.

Are they, as some people worry, isolating? Well, yes and no. In the sense that you are privately communing with those creators — finding their in-jokes and Easter eggs, enjoying their plot twists, mastering their challenges and admiring the fullness and sometimes beauty of the worlds they have created — you are isolated, but only in the sense that the consumer of, say, a novel is isolated. And that is to ignore the way in which online games can also be spaces for people to gather in — whether to co-operate or to compete. In massively multiplayer games, where dozens of players at a time team up for concerted attacks on ‘instances’, you can find yourself developing friendly relationships with strangers on the other side of the world. You may worry that your children never socialise because they’re perpetually playing Fortnite — but they’re like as not playing Fortnite with their friends, and chattering just as actively through their headsets as you might have done while playing football or climbing trees.

Also, overwhelmingly, people play games because — duh — they are fun to play. I approve of fun, personally. And though, admittedly, they can be Too Much Fun — after a vampiric eight-hour binge ends with the sun coming up, the self-reproach can make you feel like a victim of the Entertainment in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest — the anxieties that attend them are no more than modern versions of the anxieties that have attended every new artform or technology (the written word, silent reading, novels, plays etc) since the dawn of time. They offer food to the eyes, ears, brain and thumbs and we should celebrate our pleasure in them. To do otherwise is merely philistine.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and kick Harley Quinn’s well-formed behind.

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