When There Are No Solutions

The inestimable Shane, a friend and video game designer, has a wonderful and ruminative post up on his blog that shares some thoughts from his perspective on video games, violence and media responsibility. Like any discussion after the Sandy Hook massacre (or any event of its type, no matter the size or scope), there are no easy answers, but there are some really fascinating and well-phrased questions. The whole thing is very much worth a read, but if you’re a fan of excerpted quotes and then random, disjointed thoughts, read his post, then come back here and read on. A quick quote from Shane to start:

I don’t know what responsiblity we have as game developers. I have a responsibility to my leads to produce compelling work. I have a responsibility to my producer to do it on time. I have a responsibility to the other departments to make their stuff look good. Is it also my responsibility to try and improve the collective psyche of my culture? Is it wild hubris to even think that’s possible?

Some musings:

We talk about theatre as an immersive art form, but for a truly even balance of audience-as-observer and audience-as-creator, you can’t beat a well-crafted video game. Gamed narratives place their audiences in a position where they are simultaneously viewing and also manipulating the action. There has to be a story, or it’s not compelling, but there also has to be input, control, and choice. I think theatre is closer to that end of the spectrum than television or movies; audiences are in the room, after all, so there’s an implied culpability or involvement in what’s happening, but it very rarely carries over into an actual participatory event. But we’ll never be able to quite touch the blend of personal narrative, agency and adrenaline that comes from a good video game experience.

Does that mean that video game designers shoulder more societal responsibility than theatre artists? I don’t think so. This is because I think both theatre and video games (and, hell, any art form), operate on a few different levels. The most primal is a mechanical one: any piece of art is a puzzle to be solved.  The puzzles in both theatre and video games can be seen as a sequence of mechanical inputs and outputs: this factor reacts this way to this stimulus. This keycard opens this door to this level. This character has this motivation to behave this way towards her father.

Beyond that mechanical level is the atmospheric one: the skin that we put over the framework. Who the people involved are. How they interact. Whether they’re popping bubbles to solve problems, or shooting people in the face. It’s the genres, the tropes, the angles of attack. All of the shorthand by which we group one type of puzzles into an area separate from other types.

On a basic level, game designers and playwrights and other artists are really just striving to build the best puzzle possible. We want the rules to make sense. We want the pieces to fit together. We want the solution to be clear, but only after the work has been done. In this way, it doesn’t really matter what skin we put on to the frameworks we build. A Fatality in Mortal Kombat yields the same result as a Friendship:  you still win the fight.

But, of course, we also have to engage with our work on that next level up, the narrative one, and think about how we present the puzzles that we make. But I think this is a personal decision more than a societal one (and I’m under the impression that Shane is getting at the same point). We all decide where we fall on the line. I know of playwrights who refuse to include on-stage violence against women in their plays, because they don’t want to perpetuate something that they feel is already over-represented. I also know people who write incredibly compelling plays with incredibly violent acts committed against women. The former doesn’t necessarily invalidate the latter; the important thing is that thought is put into both approaches. We have to be the driving force in dressing our puzzles up the best way possible, and make sure that we’re aware of the questions that they raise as much as of the answers they provide.

But as I said: this is best done on a personal level, not a societal level. Because we as artists cannot know, with a hundred percent certainty, how our audience will engage with our work on either level. Especially not when hypotheticals or generalizations are brought into play. That ratio of creater-to-observer that I mentioned up above, in video games? That means that, in a complex narrative game, literally every player will have a different than every other player, ever. And often, the mechanical level can overwhelm the atmospheric level. The experience of the pieces fitting together, of that input-output relationship, if it is done correctly, can be compelling enough that audiences engage only with it, and not with the particular narrative trappings that are dressing it up. And if they’re just interacting with the mechanics, they can have a fully immersed and attentive experience without assimilating the messages, beneficial or problematic, of the atmospheric layer. This is a blessing and a curse, depending on whether you want your audience to take something from their experience or simply ride a roller coaster to completion. Someone can be addicted to a first-person shooter without also being addicted to shooting and violence. (I know this for a fact: I’ve been just as addicted to puzzle games as shooters in the past. At a certain point any narrative can simply become a Skinner box of cause-and-effect, devoid of meaning. And then your whole weekend is gone and you haven’t done any of the work you were supposed to do.)

What Shane points to as one of the problems is that, currently, the “shoot everybody kill everybody” atmospheric layer is the most prevalent skin put on to video game mechanics. So where does all this rambling leave the question of personal responsibility? Again: I have no idea. I don’t even know if I’ve voiced a coherent thought in all of this. But I think, at the heart of things, that the artist’s responsibility, even within a system that has some problematic tendencies, is simply to think about both layers of what they’re building: the mechanics and the atmosphere, and to encourage others to do the same through dialogue. The more we put thought into it, the more we aim to build both a better mousetrap, and also a more meaningful (and potentially non-lethal) one.

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