These two sentences, more a mantra than a manifesto, underpin everything I write about videogames, both academically and non-academically:
Videogames aren’t special. Videogames aren’t unique.
These two sentences are indefensible and easily disproved, but they function for me as a necessary counterweight to the celebratory, uncritical tones that always risk seeping into any discussion or analysis of ‘new’ media forms such as videogames. We like to use neologisms as crutches when we talk about videogames: immersion, gameplay, interactivity, replayability. We take these terms and allow them to stand in place of any attempt to actually understand and describe elements of a videogame’s design or the meaning it conveys to players. Particular and intricate understandings of a game’s style, aesthetic, and rhythms are replaced with the fact it had ‘good gameplay’. Certain people get what you mean by that.
But counter argument: videogames aren’t special, and they aren’t unique.
Let’s pretend for a moment these actually are defensible claims. If they are, then there is nothing uniquely immersive or interactive about videogames. Maybe all media forms are immersive or interactive in one form or another, and videogames are just immersive and interactive in particular ways.
We rely too often on rhetorical, abstract, vague arguments when we evaluate and analyse a game. These arguments, in turn, rely on the uniqueness of videogames as a medium. They rely on, in other words, an assumption that the thousands of years of art theory and practice built up around painting, theatre, music, dance, cinema, etc. are inapplicable to the videogame form because unlike those forms, videogames are immersive and interactive and have gameplay.
We see this in the early academic arguments about whether or not videogames are stories. We see it in the more recent essays about how videogames should stop aping the tropes and conventions of cinema to instead do what videogames and only videogames can do (whatever that is). That videogames are unique and special is indefensible. That videogames are better than any other medium is indefensible.
I do this as much as anyone. It’s intoxicating and naturalised to make these assumptions. It’s all we’ve ever been told about videogames. Videogames are special. Players are powerful and more active than your supposedly passive cinema audience tube-fed a movie. It’s character building. It gives us a medium to gather around and celebrate and claim as our own.
But it hasn’t given us a critical vocabulary to unpack the creative works of the medium. It has instead given us terms that you ‘get’ if you’re in the culture and are alienated by if you are out of the culture. It has given us crutches that don’t get us anywhere. The Last Of Us isn’t good because it has ‘good gameplay’. It is good because of the way one scene cuts to another, the muted punch of the firearms, the gritty and desperate melee combat, the downtime between the moments of heightened action. Tell me about the game and why/how it functions and is engaged with. Don’t just bet that there’s this neologism that we both share an understanding of.
Every time I make a claim about either videogames as a medium or about what any particular videogame does, this mantra sits somewhere in the back of my head as a constant reminder to keep me in check, to ensure I don’t depend on some videogame exceptionalism to make my arguments. Because how arrogant would that be? After thousands of years of art, how arrogant would it be to think that only now have we, with videogames, created truly interactive and immersive works that give the audience so much power and autonomy and agency and whatever.
Videogames are not special and they are not unique. Countless creative works in different mediums have worked towards actively involving the player in some form or another, in providing a sensation of entering the virtual world of the artwork through different tropes and formal properties and conventions, for centuries. Actually for centuries. There are books that explicitly incorporate their length or the turning of their pages into their meaning (the simplest example is a page break for a new chapter). The creation of perspective painting played with spatial depth as narrative progression. Panoramas toyed with removing the frame to further immerse the audience in the artwork. Theatre has long requires the same active creation of belief from audiences as videogames do now. What videogames do so well is not a sudden phenomenon. It is a continuation and convergence of a variety of art practices over hundreds of years.
So if I write a sentence that depends on the unique or special quality of videogames in order to make a point, I challenge myself. When I said this game had good gameplay, what am I actually talking about? I challenge myself to rewrite that claim with real words that mean thing to actual people. People who have never played a videogame can understand the pleasures of videogames because they are neither unique nor special, but they can’t if we rely on unique and specialised languages. Even further: we obscure our own understanding of the videogame form if we refuse to acknowledge and consider the rich commonalities and shared history the form has with other forms that have been around for much longer and are no less relevant thanks to us young upstarts.
But videogames are clearly videogames. They are not movies nor television nor theatre nor music nor board games nor sport. But they are kinda all of these things. Videogames exist as videogames and are thus differentiated from all these other forms so they must exist so they must be unique. Yes. This is exactly why the mantra is indefensible as an argument. But it’s not an argument so much as a counterbalance for writers against the influences of marketing rhetoric to keep themselves in check, to challenge themselves to actually consider the pleasures and meanings offered by a particular videogame separate from normative and naturalised values that only ever existed to essentialise videogames as somehow ‘different’.
So I prefer this: videogames are particular. Videogames offer particular engagements with sights, sounds, and interfaces that in turn provide particular pleasures. It is these pleasures the videogame critic should try to understand. Maybe a film or a sport or a painting offers similar pleasures through different methods (or similar methods). Who cares? This particular videogame offers this particular pleasure. I like ‘particular’ because it is more cautious and less celebratory. It acknowledges and allows an appreciation for why videogames are worthy of study on their own terms as a creative medium without celebrating them as starkly contrasted with ‘previous’ art forms. It doesn’t assume videogames are better and it forces us to consider the consequences of not being better than those who are already here. I don’t care if what this videogame did well could have been done equally well by a film. I don’t need videogames to do what no other medium has ever done, because they never will. I just need videogames to offer the particular pleasures that videogames offer.
VIdeogames aren’t special. Videogames aren’t unique. They are just another medium. Just another creative form. They are no more or less worthy of appreciation or analysis or consideration or respect than any other medium. They don’t need to be lambasted. They don’t need to be celebrated. Each is a conceptual and theoretical cul-de-sac. Videogames offer particular pleasures and, like every other art form ever, that particularity is worthy of consideration. There’s nothing unique or special about that, and I’m a better critic for constantly reminding myself of this.