You could have read a book instead...

>> Tuesday, February 28, 2012

If you're interested in videogames and/or art, there's a slightly interesting read (a little bit trolling, a little bit legitimate questioning) by Michael Thomsen over at Slate today: Thomsen (or whomever it is that writes the headlines over there) wants to know "Is a 100-hour video game ever worthwhile?" He points out--and he makes an inarguable point--that there are a lot of other things that you can do in a hundred hours or however long it takes you to play an epic game like Dark Souls, Skyrim, Star Wars: The Old Republic, et al. You could read War And Peace, he suggests, or learn a language, or train for (and run) a marathon.

Of course, just because a point is inarguable doesn't make it meaningful. At the risk of sounding snarkier than I'd like to be, especially this early in my comments, there's a lot of things you can do in the fifteen or twenty minutes it takes to read a Michael Thomsen videogame post in Slate. You could get online and schedule the payment of several bills, run out and check the mail (and leaf through it sufficiently to toss the junk mail before it lingers and multiplies wherever you stack mail when you come inside), you could respond to a social invitation, etc.

I mention that not because Thomsen's piece is a waste of your time, but because whether or not it's a waste of your time is really something you'd have to decide for yourself. I was interested enough to read it all the way through and to mention it here; I'm not terribly interested (I'm a little embarrassed to admit) in finally reading War And Peace (which I'm sure is a great book like everyone says, it's just increasingly unlikely I have the time for it against every other book I have stacked up in my living room) or in playing Dark Souls (which sounds like an interesting game though I don't think I'd heard of it until today). But why do we ever do anything? One of the facts I think we all end up facing in the ugly mug and inhaling the dire breath of is that we're never going to do everything we ever wanted to do, we are, in fact, never going to do almost all of the things we wanted to (conversely, if you were to manage to get through the list of everything you ever wanted to do, I'd have to pity your lack of aspiration). We hope we get through the really important stuff or come to terms with what we did pull off, and then fill in the rest of the time as best we can or as we must.

There's a good chance I won't get around to reading War And Peace. That could be a serious character defect on my part, though the truth is I don't think about War And Peace all that much. For better or worse, War And Peace isn't a part of the hundreds of hours of reading I have queued or stacked on devices or in front of my bookshelf, some of which is admittedly junk or, at best, the kind of quality ephemeral lit that briefly transcends genre or period to be raved about by an era's critics only to be mostly forgotten about in fifteen years or fifty. (It is instructive, sometimes, to look at the bestseller lists and/or book reviews of seventy years ago to see if you recognize the names of any of the authors, much less their works.)

I also won't be training for any marathons. (You would have me confused with a different VanNewkirk.) I have no idea whether I even could train for any kind of run, but I'm also not sure it matters insofar as it just isn't something I enjoy enough (read: "at all") to put in the patience that would allow me to put in enough time and work to make it worthwhile. Walking is fun, especially with a camera in the woods, but in my mind running is something you do to avoid a charging bear.

And yet I'm afraid I'll make time this week for Star Wars: The Old Republic.

There's no disparagement here of people who read Tolstoy or run marathons or whatever. We all have our thing. Or things. And this, I suppose, is where we hit the fallacy underlying Thomsen's entire piece. It may be that he or someone else (or many someones else) get all they can get out of the first five hours of Dark Souls or any other game, much as someone else might get everything they're going to ever get from a book out of its first fifty pages or everything they'll ever get from jogging from a half hour lap round the park. Foolish is the assumption that because this is all you get out of it, that's all there is to it. Also foolish is the assumption that someone's time is fungible, that if only they weren't playing Dark Souls they would be reading Russian literature or climbing Everest instead of picking their nose, surfing online porn, or mindlessly getting drunk while staring at the parade of limited-time-onlies on QVC. (A classic parental fallacy: "Get off your butt and go outside and play," the well-meaning parent says, apparently unaware their child may merely end up outside sitting on their butt. Or schools, acting in loco parentis, assuming that if they force kids to go to gym class, the nerds and misfits will be forced to play sports with the other kids rather than be forced to look for clever ways to shirk and skip.)

I actually find it interesting, too, that Thomsen seems more willing to entertain the idea of videogames as art than Roger Ebert, who did some well-played and infamous trolling of his own by making a bit of a tautological argument that they aren't. Personally, I have no idea whether videogames are or can be art; truthfully, I find the subject both interesting and pointless, an essentially academic and philosophical exercise that can be entertaining and enlightening, but not one that's resolvable. The biggest problem with Ebert's argument has always been that he's never been able to satisfactorily define "art", and the criteria he's tossed up here and there would not only disqualify as art videogames, but also (at various times) jazz, improvisational theatre, dance and--ironically enough--film.

Thomsen writes:

There is real beauty in Dark Souls. It reveals that life is more suffering than pleasure, more failure than success, and that even the momentary relief of achievement is wiped away by new levels of difficulty. It is also a testament to our persistence in the face of that suffering, and it offers the comfort of a community of other players all stuck in the same hellish quagmire. Those are good qualities. That is art. And you can get all of that from the first five hours of Dark Souls. The remaining 90 or so offer nothing but an increasingly nonsensical variation on that experience.

This is where I have to get snarky again and point out that I could take the above paragraph and replace "Dark Souls" with "Moby Dick by Herman Melville" and "other players" with "classmates"1 and it would describe my high school experience with that classic American novel to a T. I wouldn't presume to tell anybody else what they might have found in that unaccountably overrated, overlong, ridiculous book; I can only say that all I found there was good source material for a cromulent John Huston film starring Gregory Peck (screenplay adapted by a young Ray Bradbury). (Related tangent: I don't see why anyone puts up with John Steinbeck's prose, though I guess we're all obliged to give him credit for writing the source material for the amazingly good John Ford film starring Henry Fonda.)

Thomsen's undoubtedly right that many have felt empty and worn out having sunk time into a videogame only to wonder if it was a pointless experience. Where he's wrong is in ascribing this kind of disappointment especially or uniquely to videogames. I've felt the same way at the ends of books, movies, even at the end of a particularly hideous and soul-crushing November. I've felt that way coming home from a vacation, even a vacation I thought I had a pretty good time on. Finishing something is often less thrilling than starting it; not always, but often. I think that perhaps a better question is whether you're enjoying what you're doing right now more than anything else you could realistically be doing instead, and cope with any despair wrought by the gap between what you achieved and what you hoped it would be by reminding yourself: it seemed like a good idea at the time.

1The truth of this latter substitution is debatable, as my recollection is that only three of us out of the twenty-or-so students in that Advanced English class actually finished the damn thing. The other seventeen-or-so wisely abandoned the "hellish quagmire" and (I assume) resorted to Cliff's Notes or some other cheat to fake their way through the class. Now, I find Cliff's Notes despicable and vile; however, I imagine thirty years later not only does no one actually care who did or didn't read Moby Dick in tenth or eleventh grade (whenever it was), but the people who instead found better things to do with their time (they were probably all having recklessly irresponsible teenage sex on their parents' living room couches while their parents were out of town--oh, how I missed out because stubborn pride in my refusal to abandon a book once started drove me to finish Moby Dick...) probably all erroneously misremember actually reading it instead of blowing it off and reading the summary that gave them everything anyone ever needed to know about Moby Dick without having to suffer through the actual prose.


Warner Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 11:13:00 AM EST  

"Contrary to popular belief, Moby Dick is not a venereal disease."

Graffiti in mixed use college john.

I read it as some point, I think college, didn't like it. Re-read perhaps 20 years ago and it was a much better book.

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