Chapter 6: A rattling of sabres
By Christopher Woodard
I used to write about videogames with some frequency. Mostly on message boards, but occasionally for websites as well. One day I just kind of stopped. At the time I thought it was because I had lost enthusiasm for games in general, in addition to wanting to devote my creative energies to something other than arguments about the minutia of role playing games.
I never really stopped playing the games, I simply stopped talking about them. Even in real world conversations with other parties who were clearly excited about games, I would find myself reticent to match an enthusiasm I knew that—at one point at least—I could surpass. Instead I would gently change the topic to something I would feel less embarrassed to seem knowledgable about (the only topics that fit this description would be film and television, which means I was embarrassed by roughly a third of my knowledge base (assuming you count film and television as separate, otherwise amend that to half my knowledge base (parentheses: expect more of these!))).
After publicly ducking the topic enough times I had to ask myself, with a degree of seriousness that should probably never be invested into what one describes as a hobby, why I felt so ashamed about something that has provided more hours of uncomplicated joy than any other single—and I use this term with great affection—distraction in my life. That is a category that includes drunken debauchery, by the way (as that tended be quite a complicated, and thankfully long-past, joy).
The unsurprising answer is that what embarrassed me about conversations about videogames was not the videogames part, it was the conversation part. To be more specific; I don’t like how we talk about games. And I’m not talking about the videogames as art conversation—that conversation simply bores me—I’m talking about something more amorphous and therefore frustrating, because it’s no one thing, but an aggregate of dubiousnesses that defines the conversation about videogames in the online arena (of which most of my experiences with real world videogame conversations are merely an extension). This also means I will be discussing matters in vague terms with few-to-no concrete examples, so apologies in advance for those who find such conversations as frustrating as what I’m whining about.
Here is where I would begin a list of the various things that I consider frustrating about videogame writing, but considering one of my sources of frustration is how every other game-oriented article these days is a top-25-videogame-something-something-list, that would be a level of hypocrisy I have not yet earned the right to even attempt. I mean, I understand why those articles are so prevalent, and I don’t think a list article is inherently bad, but the predomination of these articles feeds into a mentality of how games are discussed that is intensely off-putting: It’s all a fucking competition suddenly. There is little discussion of any individual game as its own unique thing, it’s only in how it stacks in comparison to what it most resembles, or what the creators previously made, or its cinematic/comic influences, or anything but how it compares to its own ambitions. And I don’t mean to imply that context be ignored in discussing, well, anything. Rather, it feels like all that is discussed these days is the context, without allowing room for the possibility of something standing on its own legs or merit.
In fact, on a larger level it feels like geekdom has become not much more than amateur policy analysts using whatever (game, movie, fucking trailer) is currently being discussed as further evidence in support of their thesis as to what the future will bring for their associated favorite hobby vs. what it should be (and like most amateur and even professional analysts of anything, even (the rare) accurate predictions end up being for reasons significantly different than those predicted).
While I’ll fully admit to having done my fair share of this, at a certain point it strikes me as an insane thing to do: Ostensibly we play games because they offer enjoyment. This weird meta-game of industry deconstruction and gossip that has become inexorably attached to every game and its associated discussion, seems to be purposefully diluting the enjoyment of the game itself in order to bolster a sense of identity on the part of arguing parties, by way of having an in-depth opinion. That’s fine when you’re an adolescent trying to define yourself by articulating and defining the world and the things you like and hate about it into coherent sentences, but after a certain point you are destroying what you love in order to sound more certain than you need to.
And it’s perhaps that needless certainty that leads to a much more concrete concern about the conversation about videogames: the tone. More specifically, the snark. I feel like I should preface this by saying I consider myself a cynic. I think cynicism is important and vital in its role of keeping romantics and idealists in check when they receive any degree of power. But cynicism as a general attitude and posture brought to every single discussion and topic regardless of the relative inconsequentialness? As an affectation? As a style guideline? That’s just unattractive. That’s mistaking dour for cool. And it ultimately shows a degree of self-loathing that really isn’t our problem, so stop punishing us for your inadequacies and have just a little bit of goddamn pride in your work. I mean, I’m sure everyone has dealt with a cashier or “sales associate” who rolls their eyes and works extra slow because they’re just so much better than the work they do. Do you ever walk away going “shit, that person was so cool! The way they were unpleasant, and unhelpful and just intensely miserable!” I’m going to just speak for myself and say no, no I don’t think that. And that is the eventual paradox of endless snark in game writing: It becomes writing that thinks it’s above itself, which is possibly the most wearying tone of all.
So if all that is why I didn’t want to talk about videogames publicly, let alone write about them, what’s the position needed for me to speak enthusiastically about them again? Well, it kind of already happened. I began talking to friends who had left gaming for a while but came back this console generation, so they knew nothing of what we call “game journalism” and all the sites and forums and sub-cultures that is implied by the label, and you know what we talk about? We talk about how fun videogames are. There is so much talk about what videogames can, or should, or will be or what they have failed to become that there doesn’t seem to be much attention paid to what they are. That’s what was missing for me. That’s what I want more of. Because frankly, I’ve got other shit to worry about than whether Square-Enix releases another Final Fantasy that isn’t some kind of boondoggle.
Christopher Woodard is some kind of boondoggle.
I feel the need to say that I think manifestos exist for two eventual outcomes: to be a promise broken, or to be looked back upon in a decade’s time to say, “Hey, remember when we had ambition?”
Let’s see where this one ends up.