Friday, February 19, 2010

We Learned the Sea (American Gladiators and Anticipation)

Much is made of what video games "teach" children. One oft-pointed out issue is the representation of death within video games. The argument is that video games desensitize us to violence and teach us that death is a triviality that can be undone.

It is true to some extent, but for the most part I disagree. For one thing, both of the games for today - American Gladiators and Anticipation - are relatively non-violent games in which you cannot die as such. American Gladiators has combat, yeah, but it's your standard American Gladiators giant foam bats sort of combat. Anticipation has no combat - it's a straightforward "Guess what the game is drawing a picture of" game - a sort of NES Pictionary where the game does the drawing.

For another thing, in neither game is the failure (we'll call it that instead of death) in any way desirable. One still wants to answer correctly, and to avoid getting knocked off your ledge. One wants to survive, to thrive, to win. The games do not glamorize death in that regard.

There is much I've learned from video games - after all, I was already playing them at the time of my earliest memory. But what I have learned of death I did not learn from video games.

I have never seen a video game in which the player is forced to yearn for death. Where the player is stripped of that which defined them, slowly and agonizingly, a death by a thousand cuts, until finally they are left with the crushing realization that there is nothing to live for. For the player and everyone around them to realize that death would be easier, kinder, preferable to this. For the player to linger still after this realization, suspended in a moment that is like that brief pause between when you cut yourself and when the pain and blood flow. Only the pause is a week, or maybe longer. The player is never left searching for a memory of when they last didn't welcome death. The player never realizes that death would be an end to an act of mourning that has stretched back beyond recollection. A one-up, an extra chance, a little bit longer is never a cruel, sick joke played by a capricious world.

Video games teach us nothing of death, because they teach us nothing of mourning, and there is no death without mourning. There cannot be. And in video games, where death is an interruption in play, a cessation of play, it is not death. Death is failure in a video game. Death is getting knocked off the ledge. Death is staring at the picture, not knowing what it is. This is the most pernicious lie video games teach us about death. Not that it is trivial - find me a regular video game player who has never flipped out at a game when they died and I'll find you a liar. But that it is controllable. That the line between life and death is as simple as muscle memory.

I gave both my grandfathers a game. I have nothing for my grandmother. There are too many papers, and too much dissertation. Life goes on. That's the worst thing about death. The fact that no matter how deep your mourning, the next day the sun rises anyway.

Give me a lifetime of staring at that picture, and I'll still never work it out.

Rest in peace, Nana.


  1. For an article about a game I typically associate with a high heel shoe or ice cream cone bouncing around a board and attempting to guess what an unfeeling computer is attempting to draw a mockery of using all right angles, this is a mournful piece.

    You've definitely confirmed my suspicion that Lucky Wander Boy was influential on you as well, or am I completely off base here?

    Regardless, I'm enjoying reading through these very much.

  2. Actually, I've heard of Lucky Wander Boy, read several articles in which it was cited, but have consistently failed to pick up a copy, probably due to the lack of Kindle edition and the huge backlog of books on my Kindle, which tend to be pretty high barriers for a book that I do not have a pressing need to read in the immediate term.

    But the temptation to read it is certainly increasing.