Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards – Video Games as Pragmatic Experiences (2)

Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards is an exhaustive look at video games, the ambiguities of art, and how they come to rest on objective standards – though maybe not in the way you were thinking. This series intends to show video games are a unique medium that deserves a special criteria and methodological examination. This is part and parcel of my theology as well. I invite you to leave comments on any section below!

Second, any game that seeks to be “an experience” must have its material run its course to fulfillment. An experience is one in which the material of experience is fulfilled or consummated, as for example when a problem is solved, or a video game is played to its conclusion. In other words, the game itself has its own individualizing quality, its own sense of pacing and rhythm, and its own unique mechanics which create a self-sufficient game that works within life’s collection of histories.

That part sounds quite pretentious, granted, but imagine it in the grand scheme of life. Regardless of whether or not you think so, being a “gamer” is a profound commitment. Video games aren’t that cheap (they are by comparison to film, surely, but let me wave that away); each one, for the purpose of mastery and fulfillment, requires a significant time commitment. As much as we enjoy them, they also take up time, and time always inexorably moves forward. It becomes part of our own lives simply because we make it so, and while it might not become constitutive of our personality, it certainly takes its toll.

All things in moderation, as they say. 1 Corinthians 10 presents something similar.

23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.

Will video games fit within your life well? It depends, really, on your impulses and known flaws. That requires a lot of honesty and self-appraisal, surely. When I start a seventy hour JRPG, I do expect to finish it, but do we all have that time commitment in play? I find, when I don’t have the time, that a long game knaws at me with the disapproving glare of promises broken and time spent elsewhere. I need to finish it, and to finish it I must make time and engross myself back into something I stopped a month ago. That’s rather jarring. That pacing and rhythm feels totally off at that point, but that’s why playing a game more and more exposes its strengths and failings (not that a modern reviewer would know anything like that…would they?)

Of course, some video games hit that perfect balancing point and work brilliantly. Video games that reach this plateau of “an experience” simply enrapture; there is nothing quite like Super Mario Bros., for example. The first time playing the game was a revelation to many – frankly, the idea of a plumber who can grow large by ingesting mushrooms and overcome obstacles solely by jumping and running sounds akin to a bad acid trip. Stiil, the game has been designed to take advantage of these two simple mechanics, bringing them through a number of obstacles to their logical conclusion. The difference between levels, though difficult for a casual observer to recognize, can be perceived easily by anyone who has played the game through; many gamers share this common experience, even if its quality is difficult to describe, and at some level ineffable.

As Dewey states,

There are pauses, places of rest, but they punctuate and define the quality of movement. They sum up what has been undergone and prevent its dissipation and idle evaporation.

Any one, in addition, who does not remember the Super Mario Bros. theme by Koji Kondo, which repeatedly plays over the levels has not played the game; it is part of the defining individual character of the game that its theme has established itself firmly in pop culture. The summation of visual elements (graphics), audio elements (sound effects, music, dialogue) and game mechanics (rules) create a certain quality of “an experience.”

Thirdly, great video games present a unity that is not constituted exclusively on an emotional, practical, or intellectual level, but is determined by a single pervasive quality. One can imagine the intellectual virtues of pondering upon Pac-Man are short; any attempt to derive a “meaning” in the philosophical sense from the events of a tiny yellow creature eating pellets and ghosts will be pretentious at some level. However, video games do not need to provide that quality of experience, for they create their own space of “meaning”. Video games challenge one’s reflexes, but they also reward strategy, planning, and thinking ahead – to subsume games under a purely practical sense of instinct does not give the full quality.


Original pacman, not strange Mascot Pacman.

Emotions are a part of the video game experience: what should I feel in situation X? In a difficult game designed to challenge, one feels frustrated. In a survival horror game, where the player is intentionally weak and surrounded by many unseen threats, one feel fearful and claustrophobic. In a fighting game, where you challenge other players to virtual street fights, one feels the glory of victory or the agony of defeat. The emotions, in the sense of reactions, though giving the experience a certain aesthetic quality, does not make the game what it is; if that were the case, one would simply watch a film. One must understand emotion as a larger moving and concerning force which involves specific events and issues; in other words, the player invests his or her self in the outcome of events. According to Dewey, the unity of experience as guided by emotion creates “an experience”, not just one in isolation; the need to isolate, rather, is the strict submission to convention in practice and intellectual procedure that follows the old dualisms.

Fourthly, any game that wishes to create such an integral experience must take concern with the connection of one incident with what went before and what comes after. Although Dewey makes this reference on a purely experiential level, the same principles that apply to life itself also apply to video games based around similar components of life. In any game, there are elements of struggle and conflict. Though these words have a negative connotations, in the context of games they are an essential element. To struggle equals to work within the rules of the video game, and to conflict is to attain whatever goal the game sets even with the obstacles placed before the player. Even as the player and the developer alike engender a continual undergoing, suffering remains an essential component. This suffering  is meant for the reconstruction of the old into the construction of the new. This is why video games, as a generality, stick to convention with slight improvements.

There are four genres at base – action, strategy, role-playing, and puzzle – and their rules are normative for all the games within that genre. For example, an action game such as Donkey Kong requires the player to control a protagonist, Jumpman, whose goal is to rescue Daisy from the giant ape Donkey Kong. No action game exists where some human, creature, or object is not controlled and required, through good timing, to avoid, dodge, and attack enemies. In this same way, the continuous line of video games both builds upon what has been created and continually advances through presenting the same ideas in new formulations, each video game becoming a period of disunity and consummation in a grand scheme.

Fifthly, both creation and play must exist in dialectic tension. Straying from Dewey slightly, video games take a different route in terms of artistic creation. In one sense, the artists (or artists, given video games are an entirely collaborative effort for the most part) uses intelligence to perceive the interactions and relations taking place within his/her work – the artist has specific intentions on how he/she is crafting and presenting that particular work to a public world.

The work is finished when the artist thinks it is “good”. But, the work also exhibits the fact that it will be demonstrated in a public environment; if it does not take the perspectival into account, then it cannot be art, for the experience is no longer “guided.” However, video games do not exist in a vacuum, nor do fans of video games silently observe and participate; they tend to express their anger or dislike of games quite vehemently on message boards and forums across the Internet. In some cases, their demands are relevant, as in the case of competitive games where one character has a natural and unfair advantage over the others. Fighting games, for example, have formed under the auspices of an arcade culture which breaks the game’s rules to its essentials, abuses those rules to the furthest degree, and from that data can pinpoint the exact strength level of various characters the player can choose. Developers, noting this wealth of experience, sometimes choose to rebalance these game based on player feedback with mixed results.

Regardless of the outcome, the player and the developer are equal partners in the process of creating “an experience”. On both sides, these interactions engage the consciousness and give the emotional sense of fulfillment. Furthermore, the artistic sense has to be trained; they will know to create an experience for themselves relative to the work of art, as both beholder and producer examine it based on their interest, gathering the details into a whole.

Thus inception (what gamers want), development (making the game), and fulfillment (both side improving the game) occur within this conversation.. Both being engaged with the present and summing up what has come before appear in the interrelationship of video games. In other words, the fusion of doing and undergoing in perception leads to meaning – hence, it also leads to an excellent video game experience. Video games, then, could work in the vein of John Dewey’s “pragmatic experience”.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.