The Birth of the Player

by Christopher David Lawton

monkey-typingAs I sit here, drinking coffee and listening to Nobel Price winner Bob Dylan, I’m thinking way to hard about video games. Please note, this isn’t abnormal. Ninety percent of my life is spent thinking way too hard about video games. If I ever revisit my alma mater, and my old adviser asks what I’ve been doing with my Master’s degree, I hope the disappointment on their face won’t be too evident when I tell him that I write about the class struggles evident in Super Mario Bros. Anyway, I’m thinking way too hard about video games right now, but not just about video games: I’m thinking way too hard about video game journalism, and how much I’m enjoying where the industry is going right now. Before I begin, please go and read Terrance Wiggins’s brilliant review of Mafia III.

I had intended to write something vastly different today, some review of some random game I bought on Steam about a month ago, but instead, since reading this review, I can’t stop thinking about it. I love it so much. It’s not just how well-written it is — and it is well written — and it’s not just how raw it is — and it is raw — I love it because the review works so incredibly well.

1.

I’ve been noticing a trend in video game journalism which excites me to no end. Back when I started reading video game reviews as a kid, they largely followed the same formula: The reviewer writes about the story, graphics, sound, gameplay, and control, and he or she is going to use this info to tell you whether or not the game is any good. Something happened about ten years ago, though, around the time video game journalism started to shift to more of a blog-type format and voice. Reviews started to grow more subjective. Rather than rating the “Big 5 Categories,” the reviewers started to offer more of a personal take on the game. Rather than determining the quality of the game purely on technical aspects, more weight was given to the experience, and how well that experience resonated with the reviewer.

I love this, because it is so true. A bad game can be good simply on the merits of the impression it leaves on and with the player. The reviewer does have a responsibility to address any issues with the game he or she finds, but these issues are no longer the be-all, end-all determination of quality. It’s just one more thing to consider as you, the reader, determine whether or not to buy the game. I think this is one reason Wiggins’s review is so good. He addresses the flaws in the game. He talks about the ways the game fails. But, these observations seem much less important than this experience playing the game, and for him, that made the game good. And that perspective should not be discounted, because it’s the most honest a review can possibly get.

2.

I want to play Mafia III. This surprises me because I have nothing invested in this series. I think I played the first game. I seem to remember playing it in college, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you anything about the game. I want to say that I didn’t play the second game, but again, I’m not sure. If I did, it left even less of an impression on me than the first game did. I want to play Mafia III, though, and that’s in no small part thanks to Wiggins’s review.

To be fair, if I did play Mafia III, I wouldn’t have the same experience Wiggins did. I’m a 34-year-old white guy from Nebraska. I’ve never felt out of place based on the color of my skin. I’ve never felt like I don’t belong in any given situation. But, I know that exists in this world for people every day, and I need to acknowledge it and attempt to understand it if I ever want to be a good ally to those marginalized groups of people. While playing a video game won’t ever be the same as experiencing this ugliness every hour of every day, like any piece of art, a video game can serve as a tool to increase understanding for those of us who don’t. Should it take the place of listening to those in the middle of this struggle? Of course not, but like reading a book, or listening to a song, or watching a movie, we can leave the experience of a video game with a better understanding of the world as viewed through eyes other than our own.

And that is so damn important.

3.

I know there are people who have issues with this type of video game journalism. There are many people who feel that video game journalism should be objective, unaware that remaining objective is impossible. Other people have a hard time believing that someone’s truth might not match their own. This causes them to lash out, telling the reviewer how wrong they are. You can see this anytime someone does something silly like express enjoyment of a movie like the 2016 Ghostbusters. If you throw on a healthy heaping of a social justice issue in the mix, you’ll bring down an apocalyptic level of “well, actually” telling you how wrong you are with the self-restraint of an addict.

I haven’t checked Wiggins’s @mentions, but I hope he’s not receiving any backlash for his review. If he is, I hope he’s strong enough to handle it. His voice is so damn refreshing, it needs to exist in this world. As gamers, we want video games to be considered “art,” and we scream at anyone who says otherwise. But, to consider a medium as art carries with it a certain set of expectations. First, the medium must be open to cultural criticism, both good and bad. What does it say about the surrounding culture in which it’s created? What does it say about those of us who enjoy it?

Second, and arguably as important, the medium must be open to reader interpretation.

In 1967, Roland Barthes published an essay called “Death of the Author.” Considered to be a catalyst of modern literary analysis, Barthes’s essay argues that with good literature, the author’s intent matters little in creating meaning. Ultimately, good literature requires the reader to be an active participant in creating meaning. The death of the author inevitably creates the birth of the reader. To put this idea into the context of this discussion here, the designers of Mafia III may have intended to create a story that resonates with modern black gamers, and they may not have. Their intent doesn’t really matter. As a consumer of the medium, Wiggins created meaning through his review.

The death of the designer inevitably creates the birth of the player.

4.

When reading this post, you might get the impression that I’m a little pretentious in my view of video game reviews. I assure you, I’m not. I tend to adopt a postmodern view of art, which refuses to see a distinction between arbitrary definitions of “high” and “low” art. Even what most people would consider low art — video games, even, in some circles — can have cultural value simply because it speaks to some people. And those who enjoy what others consider “high” art are in no way more cultured than those who do not.

These subjective reviews are not better or worse than the objective reviews. Those of us who enjoy the subjective reviews are not better than those of us who enjoy the objective reviews. Both of these types of reviews serve different functions for different people, and there IS room for both types of reviews in this world.

I just know what type of reviews speak to me, and I am so excited to see the growth of these reviews as they become more prevalent. It tells me that players are starting to view video games as items that reflect culture. In a way, this is an example of video games growing up a bit. All types of media that we consider art have gone through this transition at some point. Video games are starting to say something different to different people, and those differences are creating logical discourse, as these differences are spawning conversation solely for the purpose of increasing knowledge about the subject and ourselves.

And, really, that might be all that matters.

You may agree with Wiggins’s reading of Mafia III, and you may not. If you don’t, I would encourage you to develop your own reading of the game. And if someone disagrees with your reading, I would encourage them to develop their own reading. Like a movie or book, video games can have multiple interpretations, and analyzing those interpretations can be as fun as playing the games themselves.

Well, maybe just for me.