Sunday, November 17, 2013

The 21st Century Will Be Defined By Essays About Games

I could really go for a nice, juicy manifesto! It would be nice to wake up and raison-d'etre to go with your morning coffee, wouldn't you say? I have to pee.
- Gaston, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"

Putting in an early bid to be games studies' first Bond villain, designer and author Eric Zimmerman emerged from his volcano lair in September to issue a proclamation unto the world: the Manifesto for a Ludic Century. 
"The future, Conan?"
It's available here, along with Heather Chaplin's take on some of the implications. They're of a highly digestible length, so you might as well go and read 'em. I'll wait here. When you're done, you can check out some of the responses from the usual gang of esteemed scholars and whatnot here.

The Manifesto is a particularly concise summary of some of the more prominent memes to have arisen from games studies and the "applied humanities" in general: videogames are a new mediation of an ancient and peculiarly human activity that has taken on new relevance in an increasingly interconnected media environment. As knowledge is increasingly measured in terms of systems and processes, as opposed to discrete skills, games come to the fore because play is really the only workable method humans have ever devised for learning the interrelations of complex systems. Learning and doing in the 21st century will necessitate thinking like players, and like designers, to figure out what's what.

Delightfully, Zimmerman closes by positing that this isn't why games are important. Games are serious business, ancient learning techniques that might be more vital than ever, and that's great, but games are important because they're games, and beauty is its own imperative. This is refreshing, even in the field, which is still a bit too enthralled with Respectability for its own good.

When I made the probable mistake of becoming aware of academia, the world presented itself to me neatly bifurcated into the sciences and the humanities: the former produced weapons and consumer products, the latter produced liberalism and bisexuality. Sure, there were the so-called social sciences, but those mostly broke down to standard-issue-liberal-arts like statistics, or not-science-but-people-believe-it-is like psychology or economics. I'm really not sure where to put things like "systems theory" and its ilk, vital concepts co-created with modern warfare that turned out to be more useful for understanding politics and ethics. Perhaps consilience will finally pick up a bit of steam in the ludic century.

There isn't a whole lot to disagree with, in terms of its major assertions. I feel compelled to quibble with some of its support, particularly the role of history: while I think the availability of media fundamentally alters what we mean when we say "human consciousness," I'm still very unclear on what "the dominant cultural form" means. It's one of those phrases, like "big government," that's not precisely vague, but could mean any of a wide variety of things. The moving image was certainly highly influential, and possessed of a near-idolatrous importance at times. That said, the mediated voice, in the form of radio and telephone, might have had a wider reach still. Movies were certainly the entertainment medium of note through much of the 20th, but prestige is still primarily derived from theater and literature. As Hayden White helpfully noted, history itself continues to be constructed in the form of the 19th century English novel. Games, as Zimmerman notes early on, seem to be as old as the species, so why the seemingly sudden prominence now?

Zimmerman seems to posit a kind of tech-tree approach: as information becomes both more complex and more accessible, emergence does its thing, and it levels-up to an entity that can best be learned through play:
The ways that we work and communicate, research and learn, socialize and romance, conduct our finances and communicate with our governments, are all intimately intertwined with complex systems of information--in a way that could not have existed a few decades ago. [...] For such a systemic society, games make a natural fit.
This is what I find most compelling, and what I have the most difficulty pinning down: do games "fit" this cultural moment better than fifty, a hundred, or a thousand years ago? Is the predominance of play a constant that's been delineated more clearly? If so, are the games matching the rest of the world, or driving it?

One of the joys of gaming--videogaming, in particular--is that the best of them present worlds that appear to possess "natural" emergent properties, but...don't. Unlike the really real world, we know for a fact that we're walking in a universe that was designed for our benefit. Part of "thinking like a designer" is looking at a world and being able to discern where God failed.
Sometimes, God gets drunk.
Game worlds are fundamentally knowable, because they appear infinite but aren't. They leave us no doubts about their limits, their flaws, or their authorship. They remind us that the incomprehensible whole is reducible to thousands of comprehensible parts. This is largely not true of the really real world, but we do often confuse the labors of the dead for the hands of Gods. Perhaps, at this moment, in this little corner of the grand project of human civilization, we're noticing that the world is a bit more like our simulations than we'd imagined. I think it's going to be an interesting century.

Over at Kill Screen, Abe Stein Britta's the entire thing by reminding us that the first world isn't "the world," that our actual environment is a hell of a lot scarier than our media environment, and that this interesting century is probably going to suck. Enjoy it, as they say, while you can.