In Orson Scott Card’s seminal science fiction novel “Ender’s Game,” the main character, a young military genius named Ender Wiggin, spends part of his time in the military academy known as Battle School, playing something called the Fantasy Game. Essentially a series of puzzles, the Fantasy Game ends on a dark note, or at least it is supposed to. A giant offers the player a choice between two drinks, both of which result in grisly deaths.
The Fantasy Game’s role in Battle School is to serve as a covert measure of students’ suicidal impulses. Most of them abandon the game after realizing that it is a cheat. A few become obsessed, a leading indicator that they may not have the fortitude for the more advanced stages of Battle School. One student even commits suicide in real life. But Ender keeps revisiting the giant until another choice occurs to him. He kills the giant. And the Fantasy Game, stretched beyond its limitations, begins to build more parts of its world for Ender to explore.
In doing so, the Fantasy Game stretches beyond Ender’s understanding of what a game is supposed to be. The giant’s body is absorbed into a landscape, and dwarves build a village on the new topography. Old antagonists, like wolves with the faces of Ender’s childhood bullies, vanish from the game after he has defeated them. The Fantasy Game becomes a place of contemplation and psychological confrontation for Ender, not precisely of play.
“Ender did not understand how the game functioned anymore,” Card writes. “In the old days, before he had first gone to the End of the World, everything was combat and puzzles to solve — defeat the enemy before he kills you, or figure out how to get past the obstacle. Now, though, no one attacked, there was no war, and wherever he went, there was no obstacle at all.”
I found myself thinking about the Fantasy Game sections of “Ender’s Game” again recently as Gamergate has dominated the entertainment and technology headlines. It is deeply troubling that so much of this self-described consumer movement seems to be dedicated to providing legitimizing cover to the vicious harassment of women. But there are two related strains of thought that show up in Gamergate conversations that I think are interesting and important, both for what they say about what some gamers want from the gaming press, and for how they shape our thinking about video games as art.
The first is the idea that reviews of video games ought to be “objective,” a demand that certainly existed prior to Gamergate, and that is even the subject of a semi-satirical website, Objective Game Reviews. It is a request that is easy to mock if you are working from the assumption that video games are art, and thus subject to the same sort of analysis of aesthetics and ideas that have been applied to every other medium for decades, if not centuries.
“Have you never encountered any form of cultural or literary criticism before?” Ken White wrote in exasperation. “That’s what it’s like.”
The critic Paul Tassi tried to explain this in less agitated terms, writing that: “The public would be wise to read a breadth of reviews, and find reviewers whose tastes generally line up with their own. But even then, when a reviewer suddenly has a drastically different opinion than you on a game, it’s not because they’re biased or have suddenly lost their objectivity.” Readers, in this model, should look for a reviewer whose priorities match their own, rather than chasing a critical windmill. But they should also understand what it is that they are seeking, rather than pretending that they pursue some sort of more ethical model of journalism.
This approach makes sense if we are thinking of video games as art. But it is confounding if we think of video games as appliances that are supposed to have certain features that perform at certain levels.
If you consider games this way, as if they are extensions of their consoles, then it becomes much easier to imagine a ratings system with less room for personal critical preferences (even if certain functionalities were more important to certain publications) and clearer continuity from title to title. You could also hold off on reviewing games until you could give a complete accounting of that functionality, something that is difficult to do when reviewers receive extremely complicated games not long before audiences do. Criticism of gaming would end up looking a lot more like Consumer Reports and a lot less like the Style section.
That some gamers think of games more as appliances than as art also shows in the frustration some Gamergate participants have expressed over titles like Zoe Quinn’s “Depression Quest” or “Gone Home.” The criticism of these games might be considered an expression of antipathy to female video game designers — Quinn has been a particular target of Gamergate — or, in the case of “Gone Home,” games about women and LGBT people.
I wonder if it is more revealing, though, to examine the objections that “Depression Quest” and “Gone Home” are not games because they do not function in the same ways that games are supposed to function.
“‘Gone Home’ is a game of exploration and narration, an effective vehicle for story telling,” Brian Crecente wrote in a piece for Polygon earlier this year. “But its lack of puzzles and combat, and the inability to lose or even change the outcome, have some questioning its gaming legitimacy.”
Similarly, reviews of “Depression Quest” criticized it for functioning more like a narrative story and less like a vehicle for game play and for taking a tone that was not significantly uplifting or primarily entertaining.
The question of whether gamers as a whole prefer certain tones, conclusions, or functionalities, or whether they think that a game must have a certain tone or features in order to be considered a game is a significant one. Lots of American moviegoers might prefer Adam Sandler movies to Michael Haneke’s unsettling films, or Jennifer Weiner’s novels to the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard. But nobody denies that Sandler and Haneke are both making movies, or that Weiner and Knausgaard are both writing fiction.
When the late Roger Ebert reversed himself and concluded that video games might be art, he did so not because of any particular thing you could do in a video game, but what video games could do to the people who played them.
“I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply,” he wrote. “I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding.”
“I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art,” he continued. “I don’t know what they can learn about another human being that way, no matter how much they learn about Human Nature. I don’t know if they can be inspired to transcend themselves. Perhaps they can.”
Gamergate is unlikely to resolve how we write about video games, much less how we define what games are and whether we understand them as art or appliances. But looking with clear eyes about the ideas that show up in Gamergate arguments is worth doing. The ferocious fights about whether gaming is a safe space for women, people of color and LGBT players is not the only front in the battle to determine whether video games will be a big, flexible tent, or a smaller, more limited one.