May 17, 2008

Hit Self-Destruct

The day after I finished college, I launched Hit Self-Destruct. It wasn't until last Friday, seven months later, that I actually graduated. Having now experienced both, I'd have to say Hit Self-Destruct has proven to be the more rewarding and satisfying epilogue to my college experience. And between the blog and the piece of paper, it's the former that's had the most influence on my career path. That's the thing that breaks my heart.

Graduation has its special charms, sort of. Those ten seconds on stage; kind of a thrill. There's seeing all the people you didn't want to and not seeing the ones that you did. And even though everyone was wearing the same thing, I still think it was a pretty embarrassing outfit. Also, the hood was pink. I looked like a girl. A girl on the Supreme Court.

And then there was the weak graduation address delivered by an MA in Creative Writing, and me, with all my unchecked arrogance, dismissing it and writing something clearly superior in my head. (Seriously, it included a Powerpoint reference. Come on. You can't come at me with Powerpoint jokes, of all things.)

I had a lot of time to think. I thought about everything I was feeling and about how rarely those emotions or anything similar are represented in videogames. ("Videogames", just this once.) They're neither compelled in the player or evinced by the game's characters. Games have an emotionally-stunted vocabulary.

I thought about how discouraging that ought to be, and how I might form an incendiary manifesto to the industry in response. Grow up. Do better. Graduate. There's this entire emotional spectrum still uncharted and massive potential that remains unlocked.

Only I don't care.

I play games and so of course I am eager for games to improve and mature. I'm all for playing better games. I'm not a developer, though, and so I join the ranks of a thousand other amateur commentators whose influence is limited to lecturing and shouting. In some ways, that's a very enviable position, with little accountability and the possibility of breaking big in my favour: no one ever went broke criticising the immaturity of the game industry.

A lot of people seem to be perfectly happy doing this but I don't like it very much. This, right here, is a dead end. It can be as fun for as long as it is but it can never be what I do. I don't want to make a living telling other people what they're doing wrong, or as the guy who tells the other guy to be the change he wants to see in the world. It's too many degrees removed from anything of substance. I need to do more than that. But in this field it's the only skill I have, and, I suppose, I don't care enough about the industry to embrace it. I really can't pretend to be passionate about advancing the social and emotional complexity of virtual worlds when I can barely handle the real one.

Each time I get concerned about the future of video games, to some extent, it's disingenuous. If I didn't have a blog to write, I wouldn't care as much. I'm not committed to following through on any of the manufactured issues I raise. My investment begins and ends right here.

It can take a while to realise you're not in something for life.


Michael Abbott said...

It's hard to know how best to respond to this. You write it from such a personal place that it feels intrusive and a little presumptuous for me to suggest your perspective is wrong or too bleak. These are your thoughts, well articulated as usual, and I respect them.

But I do think you undervalue the role of the critic in the evolution of the art and in serving as a sort of conduit between the creators and the audience. This is a valuable, and I would argue necessary, function that history validates.

I do understand the frustrating disconnect between the person standing on the sidelines complaining and the people working in the sausage factory doing the best they can. But it's possible to see a vital role (and you have done this many times, in my view) for the person who points at something and asks, "What is this thing? How is it built? What does it communicate? Why does it matter?"

Creative people don't always best understand the things they create. Their perspective is pivotal, obviously, but our appreciation of filmmakers like Ford and Hitchock has been greatly enhanced by critics who see more because they're willing to look closer and more carefully. The function of this isn't just to write a clever article or book. Other artists (like Truffault or Bogdanovich) are influenced by this critical response, and that influence get manifested in their own creative work.

I don't mean to go on and on about why good, sensitive, constructive criticism matters. And I'm aware that video games don't often reach beyond the level of mindless escapism. As you say, "games have an emotionally-stunted vocabulary." But this is changing, partly because people like you (and Raph Koster at GDC and others) are talking about it and exploring ways to move the medium forward.

I'm getting too preachy here, and I'm sorry. I'm responding mostly to your notion that what you and I do is "too many degrees removed from anything of substance." I believe that sells us and honest critics of all media short. I realize it's the creators who always push things along, but that doesn't happen in a vacuum, and there's much to be said for helping the people who support all this work - the consumers,to boil it down to economics - better understand what's possible and where we might or ought to next go.

Duncan said...

Hey, Michael. I understand this was an unusual and frustrating post, so thank you for responding.

As much as I gave this impression, it wasn't my intent to generally devalue the role of the critic. There are a lot of amateur and professional voices in this field, including yourself, whose work I completely respect and appreciate.

In fact I essentially agree with everything you've written. I wouldn't think of suggesting that what you or anyone else does is inferior in some way to "creators". It is an important role, and as I certainly haven't exhausted its potential, I can't dismiss it entirely.

But my original point, which I made in an embarrassing and haphazard kind of way, is that I don't believe I would be happy or satisfied by fulfilling this role long-term. That's entirely down to my specific psychology and ambition. This is fun for me, sometimes, but if I'm pressed to answer honestly, then, no, I don't want to be here permanently or do this professionally. I'm not sure exactly what consequences that answer will have.

Oh jeez, sorry for all the drama. At least I didn't troll for graduation congratulations.

Ben said...

Congratulations on graduating!!!!