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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Reading Will Self Reading Games: Literature, Games and Evolutionary Criticism

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Will Self’s LRB diary on video games epitomises some typically slippery reactions to the new media. Whilst superficially it seems to be an honest and admirable attempt to explore the value of the video games that he watches his sons play, underpinning it are some basic but unspoken assumptions about the more affirmative qualities of literature.

Self’s essay opens with a literary point of reference. Self wonders what the American critic Northrop Frye would have made of video games. He proposes that he would have observed approvingly that video games embody a mythological cast of characters, archetypes in Northrop Frye’s sense. Based on this tradition, Self acknowledges that he is happiest about games “when the kill zone is decked out in the furniture of established Nordic folklore – dragons, frost giants, axe-wielding berserkers.” In the likes of Skyrim or World of Warcraft, at least, the enemies are clearly fictionalised representations. By contrast, Call of Duty dresses up in graphically realist terms a pastiche of historical and embodied reality. As a consequence:
even perpetrating the second death of a [Nazi] zombie diminishes the game-player, because it necessarily exposes him to all the grotesque nonsense the game’s writers have cooked up out of Third Reich horrors – the concentration camps, Mengele, the Mittelbau-Dora rocket factories and so forth – and then spiced with anachronistic steam punk conceits.
Self takes his kids to the National Army Museum and futilely tries to explain the true impact of a .50 calibre machine gun on human flesh. So far, then, Self seems quite discriminatory, acknowledging that the different formal expressions of video games give rise to different ethical responses. He evaluates more positively those which lack “the Hitleriana or queasy overlapping with real-time conflicts that make Call of Duty so disturbing.” He does not impulsively lump all games together as a medium, each equally as bad as the other because they all involve killing, whatever guise the victims take.

This is a nuance that we might expect from an author who has made some quite strident formal judgements in his literary career. Most recently his novel Umbrella has proposed, through its assertively modernist technique, that the most important project of literature is to represent the human mind in a way faithful to its subjective meanderings and obscurities. Not all games are equally dubious merely by virtue of the fact that most involve violence, just as not all literature is equally good merely because it involves the representation of people. Style is everything.

However, Self then makes a different and unexpected turn, looking at Paul Trout’s work on Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination. Trout argues that the human experience of predation provided the “selective pressure that led not only to mimesis – and hence narrative – but even to language itself.” Fictions (whether literature, religion or games) reproduce predatory, flesh-ripping beasts in mythic form, the better to save us from actual confrontations in the wild. Style is only one element of artwork; biological adaptation is another significant one.

Games now seem to fit within the one evolutionary rubric. Self argues that even those games like Skyrim or World of Warcraft, which are superficially and even cartoonishly mythical, are also subversively structured to reward killing. Doubly dangerous is the fact that the player is let off with the lesson that killing does not really have consequences for themselves: “the fact remains that these players – unlike the poor infantrymen at the Battle of Mons – rarely encounter their own death, and if they do they’re speedily and electronically resurrected.” Games thus fail to inculcate important moral values about the true significance of war. At the same time, because of the perpetual threat of death imminent in all games, these fictions offer universal lessons in Trout’s evolutionary terms. Games are both formally distinguishable – hence Skyrim is better than Call of Duty – and adaptively identical.

This is an interesting double-standard, and it is one we see in contemporary literary criticism also. For better or worse, literary theory has become dominated by evolutionary psychology or literary Darwinism, which attempts to explain the instrumental function of literature. Far from being “cheesecake for the mind,” as Steven Pinker famously construed the arts, literature came about and is still valuable because it offers a self-contained model of human behaviour that allows us better to prepare for real-world interactions. Literature is intrinsically purposeful, a "motivational guidance system" as Joseph Carroll has it. At the same time, traditional literary criticism teaches us that certain books are better than others in aesthetic terms. As many critics of literary Darwinism have pointed out, it is not at all clear that aesthetic and evolutionary criteria are correlated. A book may be artistically well-constructed, but offer few readily-available pointers for life in reality (Self’s own Umbrella might be one such work). Conversely, a work of literature that is judged weaker on aesthetic grounds may be more useful from an evolutionary point of view (presumably borrowing Paul Trout’s perspective, the array of ghoulish figures in J.R.R. Tolkien makes him a more adaptively valuable author than Geoffrey Chaucer with his pilgrims).

So both games and literature can be attacked from two non-exclusive points of view. On the one hand, they may be aesthetically more or less pleasing, so that the mythical world of Skyrim is, for Self, preferable to the historicist Call of Duty, or the stream-of-consciousness of Umbrella preferable to the conventional realist novel. On the other hand, all media are universally tapping in to some basic evolutionary instincts. If this same dualism applies both to games and literature, what then is the problem with Self’s position on games?

The issue here lies in what precise evolutionary instinct the two media are being defined against, as the penumbra for what they always do, regardless of how well – aesthetically – they individually set about doing it. For literature, the consequences of it being good or bad aesthetically, and good or bad evolutionarily, can be construed by negation. At worst aesthetically a bad book is a waste of the reader’s time, and at worst evolutionarily we have not learnt from it how to function in the social world. Indeed, we may read an aesthetically good book in spite of the fact that it does not seem adaptively useful. Whatever books are for in an evolutionary sense does not immediately impinge upon our aesthetic evaluations.

Games, however, have their aesthetic merits undermined by the reference to violent evolutionary values which they inculcate in a positivistic fashion. A game like Call of Duty is, according to Self, worse than Skyrim because it dresses up history as realism whilst eliding the ethical truth. However, once games are placed generically beneath the evolutionary umbrella, both can cause or encourage violence in their players because they are underpinned by the same adaptive motivation – of escaping or defeating the predator. In achieving this, all games demonstrate a flippant type of violence in which it seems only to have cartoonish consequences. Games, in other words, do just enough to act as simulations of violence to help us in an evolutionary sense, but not quite enough to make the consequences sufficiently severe so that we realise the dangers of being violent in the real world. Games, then, are pinched uneasily by this evolutionary standard, whereas our critical evaluations of good or bad literature can escape its clutches.

In his article, Self makes no direct reference or comparison between games and literature, save indirectly via Northrop Frye, which perhaps makes my accusation that there are two different measures at work across the two media somewhat unfair. But I think actually this proves a useful point. Literature always provides the baseline by which we assess the newer media, and as a consequence it can remain implicit or unmentioned whilst still having a logical impact on the argument. Here the fact that Self chooses to think of games with reference to a work of evolutionary theory that explains narrative in terms of violence is surely significant; had he wanted to treat literature with reference to biology, he would almost certainly have turned to numerous other texts which connect it to other adaptive traits such as empathy, social modelling, and emotional robustness. Indeed, even readers who are not aware of evolutionary literary theories will be intrinsically familiar with and accepting of the register of basic human sympathy which runs through this type of criticism, whilst intuitively rejecting the lexicon of violence used for games.

The best evidence for Self’s underlying literary presumptions comes in the following paragraph. Again, Self is observing his son playing Skyrim, a game which he wants, despite his impulsive resistance, to comprehend because it seems to draw on Frye’s mythic archetypes:
Even after my son’s proxy resurrected the bogie – “I do that a lot. I bring him back and then I punch him to death again” – I still kept faith with the game, which also involves the reading of quite large chunks of runic text.
Notice how his “keeping faith” is vindicated by the fact that the game involves text, thus construing his momentary effort to come to terms with games as something he almost has to justify or explain to his presumed reader. Self goes on:
I was right to, because eventually, once we had defeated various frost trolls and sex-changing lizard men, and reached Windhelm, it transpired that my son had built a gabled house in this Arctic community, and even acquired a wife. “My wife is a very nice lady,” he told me, as a rather cowed-looking figure in a rough woollen dress shuffled about in the background. “She runs a store and gives me money every few days.” “Oh, really,” I said, desperate to clutch at these straws of domesticity. “And what’s your wife’s name?” Without pausing in the ceaseless toggling of thumb-on-lever he said: “I don’t know.”
Self turns his son’s account into a domestic scenario – the unhappy marriage to a “cowed-looking” wife – and is relieved that at least there is a literary-type narrative to be found after all the mindless killing. This literary reconstruction misses the point, though, that from the son’s perspective, the wife is primarily a function of the game rather than a literary-type character. By “marrying” her the gamer gets more money which allows him to buy the objects that he needs to fulfil a quest; his son is surely being ironic when he calls her “a very nice lady.” Her precise name or identity is irrelevant to her ability to perform this function. (And before a feminist might raise the point that this is compelling evidence of the game’s dubious ethics, one should point out that a female gamer is equally permitted or encouraged to “marry” a husband to the same effect.)

The lack of an explicit comment on his son’s final remark is especially telling of the significantly absent literary reference point. Self obviously expects a literary reader to see the whole point of narrative as being to inculcate the sorts of affective and sympathetic relationships with fictional figures that are absent in the gamer’s projection into the video narrative, in which he does not even know the name of a key character. By contrast, one cannot imagine getting to the end of even a terrible chick-lit novel, without being aware of the relationships or names of its protagonists.

Self’s interpretation of Skyrim here suggests that a game – any game – does not engage the mind in spite of its best efforts (the game includes text! At last there is a human relationship rather than killing!). For that reason it fails to teach us anything socially useful and rewards violent behaviour, more appropriate to the Neanderthal than the civilised human. By contrast, a bad book (judged aesthetically) always still engages the mind at some affective level, and for that reason may still teach us something of value in a social interaction (judged evolutionarily).

I do not intend to attack Will Self in any personal way. Indeed, one has to admire Self’s sincere attempts to come to terms with games both as a father watching his sons play, and as a critical essayist. However, his argument is useful because it illustrates certain embedded ways of thinking and writing about games.

The first is that once evolutionary explanations for why we play games are introduced, games can never win. Games may be aesthetically and ethically various (which is why Self admires Skyrim more than Call of Duty) but beneath the skin they must, according to the chosen evolutionary episteme, have at heart a reward for violence. A work judged to be aesthetically pleasing in a Fryeian sense, like Skyrim, is simultaneously undermined by its evolutionary criteria, according to which a game models adaptive predatory behaviours we would need in the jungle, but not quite with sufficient reflectivity to show us the dangers of enacting those behaviours in the real, civilised world today.

The second is that there is, then, an implicitly literary coding that underpins Self’s response to games, a response which is not unusual - indeed which is, if anything, unusually sympathetic to them, at least superficially. Self wants artistically to discriminate between better and worse games, just as he does in his literary practice between good (modernist) literature and dull (realist) writing. However, literature always lurks in the background. Thus those fine tuned judgments such as those he makes between Skyrim and Call of Duty become irrelevant compared to the wholesale judgement that, both evolutionarily and artistically, literature is good for the soul, whereas games are not.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:47 pm

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