Sunday, September 26, 2010

Chrono Question

I have spent a god damn lot of time playing, thinking, and writing about video games. This is not news. Since I practically grew up on them, the habit never struck me as anything other than natural, reasonable, and harmless. But lately I am beginning to wonder.

My experience with games went something like this:

I was born in Washington, D.C. My parents lived in Columbia, Maryland. In the basement of their townhouse was an Atari 2600. Every now and then I would get my hands on a joystick and play a game of Ms. Pac-Man or Megamania, but I do not recall either of them developing into an all-devouring preoccupation. (My being two years old might have been a factor.)

I learned to read at an early age. When I was three years old, my parents got me a picture book about volcanoes. I could not tell right from left, but likely knew more about the Mount St. Helens eruption than at least half of today's U.S. population.

Some months later, my parents got me a children's astronomy book. I could not tie my shoes, but could tell you about the choking density of Venus's atmosphere, identify the Galilean satellites and describe the most prominent characteristics of each, and knew about Uranus’s titled rotational axis.

Some months after that, my parents bought me a picture book about dinosaurs. At age four I was aware of the distinction between the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods and could give examples of the dinosaurs that lived during each of them, though I am sure I mispronounced their names.

When I was five years old, my parents bought me a Nintendo Entertainment System. On Christmas day I chose to foul my undergarments rather than take a five-minute break from Duck Hunt to use the toilet.

So much for an interest in reality.

One particularly interesting aspect of the video game phenomenon is their continuing presence in the lives and minds of the generation that was first exposed to them. I remember seeing all kinds of toys in my friends' rooms and basements. Ninja Turtles action figures. Nerf weapons. Archie comic books. Skip-its. Hungry Hungry Hippos. Mighty Max playsets. Hot Wheels race tracks.

As the Mario generation (which, for the sake of convenience, we will describe as gamers born between 1980 and 1990) aged, it is unlikely that most of them continued building massive Lego fortresses and staging epic cross-universal showdowns between their G.I. Joe and X-Men action figures into their teens and twenties. But the video game consoles remained constant. I would be interested in learning the statistics of console owners who stopped playing video games altogether once they began, but in my personal experience, I have known very few Nintendo or Super Nintendo owners who have eliminated video games from their lives after playing them consistently for a time. In almost all cases, the video game console was the one childhood toy that never got put away. When the Nintendo got old, the Super Nintendo replaced it. When the Super Nintendo got old, it was replaced by the Sony Playstation. When the Sony Playstation got old, it was replaced by the Dreamcast, the Xbox, and the Playstation 2.

What we have now is a not insignificant slice of the populace whose most consuming interest during its developmental years was video games. A large multinational subculture today describes themselves as "gamers" and talks of the wider "gaming community." Growing up as a gamer myself, it did not seem unusual to me that I and my peers might decide that the characteristic that most defined us as human beings was the time we spent by ourselves in front of a television screen with a controller in our hands. (Do you suppose there were groups of adolescent television enthusiasts who referred to themselves as "watchers" during the 1950s and 60s?)

But lately I am starting consider what this actually means. The proliferation of video games is a phenomenon that has not been examined thoroughly or honestly enough as of yet, though progress is being made.

I am not suggesting that life should not be pleasurable. I am not saying that children should spend every hour of their lives being dragged by the wrist between school, piano lessons, SAT prep courses, and soccer practice. Nor am I saying there is anything wrong with a professional or student returning home after an exhausting day and unwinding with a game of Halo or Persona. (I myself have been very partial to Hydorah as of late.)

When I was "studying" at a summer university program in Japan several years ago, one lecturer discussed the need for societal "pressure valves." Living and working in any nation exerts a certain degree of stress on the populace; and Japan in particular, owing to its work ethic, corporate structure, and deru kugi-wa utareru culture. What I got out of this lecture is that if Japan were to suddenly enact a zero-tolerance ban on video games, pornography, and alcohol, their famously-low violent crimes rate would immediately spike upwards. (Please do not ask for specifics. I was very hungover and my notes are terrible.)

The point is, video games serve a practical function in society. They are a mollifier. When the overworked, underpaid, and resentful Borders employee comes home and shoots people in Call of Duty, he is releasing tension that might otherwise manifest itself in his professional and social life. He is less likely to take out his existential frustrations on customers or coworkers, march into a crowded McDonalds with an uzi, or drive a dynamite-packed SUV into a government building. (Though video games have occasionally been suspected of encouraging violence in younger and more impressionable players, the reverse is almost certainly true for adults.)

This is certainly relevant to the broader "New Media and Society" issue, but we will not be looking at the Big Picture today.

One aspect of the Mario generation that strikes me in particular is the amount of intellectual and academic energy it expends towards coming to a deeper -- in some cases transcendent -- understanding of video games: what they are, what they mean, and how better ones can be made. It has created a large body of music and art rooted in video game tropes and aesthetics. It has begun reading games through the lenses of critical theory. Some very interesting and meritorious work has been produced, but one must bear in mind that it indicates a generation (or two) whose creative and intellectual focus has been riveted on their toys. If as many people spent as much time waxing Aristotelian about Parker Brothers board games, it might seem somewhat absurd.

The "are video games art?" question has become a very hot topic over the last decade or so. Gamers become absolutely livid at the suggestion that their distraction of choice is not worthy of being counted as valuable as the more established and "higher" distractions, such as books or film. I think a lot of the people wrapped up in this debate are missing the point. I subscribe to the classic (and increasingly unpopular) view that the substantiality of the content being delivered is more important than the means by which it is delivered. There are a lot of very intelligent and artfully-designed video games, and there are a lot of really fucking stupid books and movies. If I had to weigh the artistic merits of Secret of Mana and The Da Vinci Code, I would say the overall advantage goes to the one about the kid who travels from place to place by getting shot out of a cannon.

But I do not believe video games have yet produced anything that clears the bar set by the greatest works of film and literature. (They probably should not be expected to, but for now let us assume they should.)

My personal "high art or low art?" litmus test is a question of lasting influence. If we look at my bookshelf, I can pull out a couple dozen books, open them up, and point to specific chapters and passages that have actually changed my life. After reading and considering them, my perspective was altered to such an extent that I had to subsequently alter my behavior. As far as I am concerned, that is the distinction. "Low" art keeps a person occupied. "High" art effects a transformation.

(Of course, this is all subjective. In the first Superman film, Lex Luthor says: "some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe." But I suspect War and Peace has facilitated exponentially more revelatory experiences than a Dubble Bubble wrapper, or Space Invaders for that matter.)

I can think of very few video games that, in my personal experience, fall under this definition of "high art." I have great times playing games, but rarely walk away with much else to show for the experience and time spent. Not that I am complaining; I do not play video games to enrich myself. I play them to entertain myself.

What worries me is the suspicion that fewer and fewer people are able to tell the difference.

I sometimes worry that video games are being given a kind of eminence they do not entirely deserve, or are earning it for the wrong reasons. They are very nice, fun, designed by incredibly clever and creative people, and admirably fulfill their function as another mollifier for the masses. But do they have any value beyond that?

Rather than drag this out any longer, I will just wrap this up with a question that occurred to me recently:

One of my favorite parts in the SNES game Chrono Trigger is the Fiona's Villa sidequest. In 1000 A.D., you pass through a stretch of barren desert on the Zenan continent. Traveling back to 600 A.D., you visit the same area and come across a dying forest, which a young woman named Fiona is struggling to save. With a little elbow grease and some help from the dutiful Robo, you defeat the subterranean monsters decimating the landscape and assist Fiona in replanting it. Returning to 1000 A.D., you find that a thriving forest has replaced the desert, and a shrine built in honor of Fiona and Robo rests on the site of her old villa.

Chrono Trigger fans hold a special place in their hearts for this quest. It is a lovely lesson in how acts of righteousness and kindness can trigger far-reaching and lasting changes in the world.

But I wonder: of all the people who played and praised this sequence -- and judging by sales data, we can assume at least 2.36 million human beings on planet Earth have played Chrono Trigger at some point in their lives -- which do you suppose the greater number of them are more likely to have done later on:

1.) Gone outside and planted a tree themselves?

2.) Sat indoors and played another RPG?

I wonder.


  1. In answer to the end question, number 2, most certainly.

    In response to this: "But I do not believe video games have yet produced anything that clears the bar set by the greatest works of film and literature. (They probably should not be expected to, but for now let us assume they should.)"

    Have you played Braid? I review it here and muse a bit more on it here.

  2. I play a lot of video games.

    However, I'm more concerned that video games have become a mollifier, not for violent behavior, but for any kind of behavior that could, for example, change society.

    To paraphrase the famous Marx saying, video games might be the opiate of the masses for our time, although certainly not the only one.

  3. Deezee: Not yet. I haven't had a 360 on hand in several months, and I'm not really in any hurry to get one. This might change if they drop the price around Christmas (I have limited funds and always come down with awful bouts with S.A.D.), and Braid is already the first game on my list.

    Zachery: I was tempted to include the Marx phrase myself, but was hoping people would think of it themselves. Cool.

  4. An auteur like Kato would develops games with the hope of changing the way gamers think. Does that place a burden on the gamers themselves? That's an exhausting pronouncement to make.

    If even one person played Chrono Trigger and was inspired to "live well", as the shame-filled phrase goes, isn't that enough? I've read books that have changed my belief system, and thus some of my decisions. But whether they've changed my overall behavior....ehhh. That I can't measure.

  5. Braid's available for PC, too. I got it on Steam, but the website says you can also use Greenhouse, Gamer's Gate, and Impulse.

  6. I agree in that I know video games haven't made anything even close to the artistic value of "A Clockwork Orange", the Sistine Chapel, Beethoven's Symphonies, or "1984", and those who say they have are deluding themselves.

    On the other hand, I can still name a number of games with more value than 97% of what Hollywood releases annually, and that's an accomplishment for a 25-year old medium.

    I also can't name any games that have changed my life like several novels have, though a few have offered the kind of deep, meaningful choice that forces the player to sit down and think through his own morals. Chrono Cross was one, as you said, and the other was Silent Hill 3 (the confessional scene, for any concerned.) These are beautiful moments, and I wish there were more of them.

  7. If I could name a significant thing that video games contributed to my life (aside from monopolizing a significant portion of my free time and disposable income of course) is that it has helped me nurture my passion for writing and storytelling, including a select few examples that showcase what works and whole lot that don't.

    Also it helped me creatively when developing concepts on my own, particularly titles from the 8/16-bit eras that left a lot to the imagination.

  8. I have long struggled with the question "Of the ideas that are sent out, how effective are they at making a difference in the world?"

    While I would definitely say that the greater number of people who have experienced Chrono Trigger fall into category number 2, I have a
    different perspective.

    Despite my rare bouts with cynicism and even nihilism, my major life experiences keep bringing me back to this point: When attempting to send out a message that we believe in through any medium or discipline, we should strive to do the best we can with the circumstances that are presented to us, and then be grateful for the change that comes out of it rather than lamenting the change that doesn't come out of it.

    Last year was my first year as a teacher of High School English. I really put my heart into the lessons that I felt could challenge minds and ideas. Teaching "Fahrenheit 451" I tried very hard to implicitly teach the idea of "This is what could happen in a world where people only care about base pleasure never think critically about what's going on around them."

    It seemed that the message was lost on them, but then I read their final papers and I realized that nearly half of my class "got it." Through the lens of the novel they understood that it is important to learn, to think, and to question and they understood why it is important to learn, to think, and to question.

    I believe that your ending question overlooks an important category, a 1.5 as it were:

    But I wonder: of all the people who played and praised this sequence...which do you suppose the greater number of them are more
    likely to have done later on:

    1.) Gone outside and planted a tree themselves?

    1.5) Internalized a true sense of how what they do affects the world around them?

    2.) Sat indoors and played another RPG?

    I propose that while substantiality may be defined by its ability to enact change, change isn't neccessarily dependent on action. Sometimes a change may mean that a person is, on some level, more sympathetic,
    more empathetic, more thoughtful. This change will, in turn, have some effect on behavior, but it may not be so obvious as immeadiately going out and planting a tree after the credits roll.

    There are people such as Matsuno Kato and Johnathan Blow who have striven to effectively convey meaningful messages through the medium of video gaming, to do the best they could through the medium that they
    strove to work with. Kato himself said, "Cross is undoubtedly the highest quality Chrono that we can create right now" and explicitly stated that he was attempting to send messages to the player of Chrono Cross.

    Having said that, I go on to declare that there are many people like myself who confess to experiencing personal changes and revelations because of their experiences with certain video games. Maybe those changes aren't as profound as going out and planting a tree, but I'd bet that only a small minority of people who read "A Modest Proposal" took up anti-poverty activism. That doesn't mean that Mr. Swift's satire didn't have any effect on the minds and hearts of those who didn't.

    As for whether or not this validates video games or qualifies certain games as art, I'm gonna have to echo you: I subscribe to the classic (and increasingly unpopular) view that the substantiality of the content being delivered is more important than the means by which it is delivered. There are a lot of very intelligent and artfully-designed video games, and there are a lot of really fucking stupid books and movies.


    I also will end by saying that I firmly believe Johnathan Blow's "Braid," is a beautiful creative expression, a labor of love, and a strive to challenge the mind and heart of the one experiencing it, and if that's not art, I don't know what is.

  9. Duke: It's what I subscribe to, personally. Individual mileage may vary. But I do think that time spent engaged with art that can teach, enrich, and transform is better spent than with art that provides momentary amusement.

    John: Me too. But that's why I've become very choosy about the games I play for any length of time.

    Adam: I can relate. Sometimes I wonder if I would have taken the English major route if video games hadn't diverted my fledgling interest in natural science some twenty years ago. (Not that I'm complaining. Scientists seem to be only slightly less SOL than writers these days.)

    Seth: I will consider this! (I apologize for answering with a disproportionately small reply; it is four in the bloody morning and I need a few more minutes to ruminate your 1.5 before offering a fully-baked response.)

  10. Here's a question. Have you seen any films that have changed your life the way those dozen books you mentioned did?

  11. In regards to this:

    "There are a lot of very intelligent and artfully-designed video games, and there are a lot of really fucking stupid books and movies."

    Working for a book publisher has shown that the complaints about the web allowing for publication of less and less worthwhile things are silly. At least the web doesn't kill trees to tell you how Alternate Hitler's empire culminated in a motorcycle standoff.

    And the thing about video games with me lately, is that I can choose how fast I tear through a book, depending on how much I want it to sink in. Even the dumbest movie only asks for about an hour of my time.

    But video games are horrible to my productivity. I've blocked Kongregate and hidden my DS just so I can do things other than homework (and yet I still play Minecraft. Purchasing that may have been one of my worst decisions, or best). Why does it take 50 hours to become a Pokemon Master, god dammit?

  12. Good post - food for thought. Among the responses, I particularly like and identify with Seth's.

    I will echo the sentiments of some other posters in this comments section and point to Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross as two games that had a tangible and real effect on me as a person. Both games offer sincere and perhaps even profound ruminations on the significance and consequences of our actions, even those which appear to be inconsequential. Trigger shows how our actions in the present can reverberate in the future, while Cross has a much more personal focus on how both our circumstances and decisions can mold our personalities. One of the most potent aspects of that game, for me, is a small subplot early in the game. While exploring Arni Village at the very start, you can talk to a fisherman with a happy family who ponders what his life might have been like if he hadn't decided to take up fishing as his vocation. When you travel to Another World, you meet him again, only in this world he's a cultist, a pathetic man alienated from his family and the world who begs for divine intervention rather than taking responsibility for himself. He tells you that after Serge's death in this world, he decided not to become a fisherman, and so this is how he turned out instead. There are tons of little things like this in the game, and they all really made me (back at age 12) think about how every action has a consequence and how significantly we can affect the people around us. (I loved the ending, too, but talking about that, or the rest of the game in detail, would likely necessitate an entire essay's worth of material.)
    Anyway, my point is I can definitely think of games that have directly influenced the way I perceive the world and myself, but sadly these games are in the vast minority compared to those which have merely given me a few dozen hours of entertainment and then been put away forever. I've lately been thinking that I ought to lessen the presence of video games to focus on my passion for (and ambitions regarding) film, and also to rediscover reading. There will always be some truly great games out there to play, but those are few and far between and both my time and my wallet would benefit if I were to be more selective as to which ones I chose to invest both in. Reading some of these blog posts has inspired me to further pursue this goal. I think this evening, instead of grinding away at a game, I'll watch a classic film or start on one of the many books I've been intending to read, knowing full well that great games made by people I respect will always be there for me.

  13. A great post. Thoroughly engaging, and I especially like your take on what defines 'High' and 'Low' Art. However, it's interesting you know, being in my early teens on the release of FF8 and playing that game throughout those formative years (a time when one is certainly on par with Squall for being a moody bitch) it really did transcend a mere occupation of time into something more instructive and, I suppose, resonant in a 'coming-of-age' sort of way. Like a Holden Caulfield for the 'Mario generation' as you aptly described it - but more of a prick.

    Anyway, this blog is great. Very representative of, if not a generation, then certainly a particular contingent of that generation. I spent so much of my fucking youth on video games man, and although I still got 3 generations of Playstation set up in the corner, I'm lucky if my attention can stick with a particular game for more than a couple of hours these days.