For anyone interested in video gaming – whether as players themselves or simply vicariously as a cultural phenomena - Tom Bissell’s confessional in today’s Observer is essential reading. After years wasted playing Grand Theft Auto on cocaine, he concludes:
Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that pointed not toward but at something.
Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.
It’s interesting to compare that with the view of Heather Chaplin, a long-time commentator on gaming culture, who notes in The Believer (in conversation with Bissell actually) that:
‘Video games are good at fostering problem solving, but they’re not so good at fostering human empathy or a deeper understanding of the human condition.’
Comparing this with more traditional story forms, she continues:
‘Novels are about psychological empathy; games simply are not. And if games are telepathing something about the future, maybe that tells us something about the future, maybe that tells us that psychological empathy, concern with the human condition is not going to be that important in the twenty-first century.’
I wonder if we will see some hybrid game/novels develop – just as we’ve had graphic novels and fantasy role-play stories too? As the distinction between film and game gradually collapses, perhaps these new forms will embrace psychological empathy.
I’ve just come back from a few days with Pete Rollins, and one of the on-going arguments we enjoy is whether the virtual presences we mediate via Facebook or Second Life are ‘real’ or not. In the latest round I did grant him one very good point: because of its sense of anonymity the web encourages us to be candid, and thus the virtual selves we create may actually suggest some deep truths about the unconscious selves that lurk in the shadows within us… as Bissell suggests.
Perhaps these are not games at all then; perhaps they will develop to become powerful therapeutic tools, immersive fantasy environments within which we explore who we ought to be when we log off. It’s the difficulty of hitting that ‘sign out’ button that’s the problem though.