Portal and Insoluble Mystery

The Portal games, as anyone who has played them will know, are delightful.  They have a dystopian science fiction setting in the same fictional world as the more serious  Half-Life games, but they manage to be hilariously funny at times, reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

So the games are clever and funny, but is that all?  I think not.  The games are called Portal and Portal 2 because they involve the player shooting portals into walls in order to reach the goal at the end of each level.  Here is a demonstration of the basic gameplay:

I’m no physicist but it seems to me that what goes on in the games is almost, but not quite, impossible.  It’s a simple idea yet impossible to wrap one’s head around.  There’s a logic to it: shoot two holes and the first becomes a passageway to the second such that you can walk into n one and come out of the other, or simultaneously look into one and out of the other.  But this of course can’t really happen and imagining how it might work could induce a headache.

It can, however, be portrayed with 3D graphics, just as Escher was able to draw impossible things with his pencil:Image

The logic of Portal leads to the protagonist of the games, a woman named Chell, being able to see herself through the portals she produces.  In the fiction of the games, she isn’t seeing herself as one sees oneself in a mirror or a camera, or as one sees oneself by looking down at one’s body; she is actually looking at herself as if from outside her own body.  The portals are not screens or reflections, they are simply holes in the wall, and when Chell peers through them she can sometimes view herself in exactly the same way that another person could.  This element of the game is more important to its value as a work of art than it seems, or so I wish to argue.  The humour is great, the puzzles are fun, but the protagonist encountering herself means the game has something in common with not only Escher but some of the best surrealist art from Magritte and David Lynch.

I’ll come back to the question of what is so artistically interesting about a character meeting herself.  First, here is the evidence that it is a theme that has been explored by Magritte and Lynch:

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This Magritte painting is called Reproduction Forbidden.  I won’t comment on its aesthetic worth except to say that I like it.  The concept is quite simple and quite impossible: the protagonist looks into a mirror and sees the back of his own head, as if he isn’t looking at a mirror but through a window at himself, reproduced. 

Now here is a clip from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.  Out of context this clip will make even less sense than it is supposed to, but just focus on what happens with the security camera:

Agent Cooper can see himself on TV standing somewhere that he is no longer standing, which is impossible because the video is a live stream.

But so what?  What’s the artistic point of these weird impossible scenarios ?  Well, here’s an insight into what Magritte may have had in mind.  He once said:

I believe the world is a mystery, and that mystery cannot be spoken of in words.  And therefore it can arouse neither anxiety nor hope… We are all a mystery.  We are part of the world which is itself a mystery.

I think this explains the attraction of the surreal: things which cannot be made sense of.  Surrealism is attractive in art because it generates irresolvable mystery which reflects the baffling complexity of the real world.  David Lynch’s films  do the same thing.  Here’s a sample of what goes on in his mind:

I don’t remember my dreams too much. I hardly have ever gotten ideas from nighttime dreams. But I love daydreaming, and dream logic and the way dreams go. They are an influence because of just the way they are. One of the beautiful powers of cinema is taking that logic.

Dreams are often surreal or incoherent, and this is what Lynch and perhaps other surrealists try to reflect in their artistic creations.  Magritte might also have appreciated the notion of “dream logic” as essentially the unsolvable mystery present in the world that he was describing.

In Portal, leaving aside the other aspects of the game (the sci-fi setting, the humour), the deceptively simple gameplay mechanic of creating an entrance portal and an exist portal wherever one likes, which meet up in an almost  impossible way; this excellent idea for a game has the accidental or deliberate effect of causing one’s mind to fail to grasp what cannot be understood and this is perhaps an appropriate response to the world at large at least to some extent: it is at least sometimes appropriate to embrace the mystery of the world.  Our minds are confined to our bodies and can never wrap themselves around the world.  At least this is how the world seems, and good art might not tell us how things are but it does a great job of telling us how things seem.

The Sum of a Game’s Parts

 

Over Christmas I was lying on my bed and heard a familiar actor’s voice uttering occasional lines of simple dialogue.  For a while I assumed my mother was watching some computer-animated family movie on the TV, but I was confused by how sparse the dialogue was.  Eventually I realised I was listening to my brother-in-law in the next room playing Skyrim, the latest instalment in the Elder Scrolls series which I have written about here.  I then watched him play briefly and was impressed by the immersive, realistic graphics and the game’s power to suck you in even if you aren’t holding the control pad.  Having played it for a few hours it seems to me that it is an excellent game, streets ahead of most.  But the fact that I mistook its dialogue, which I heard very clearly, for a children’s movie, is somewhat worrying with respect to the idea that the video game is a legitimate art form in which greatness can be achieved.  How can we seriously compare supposedly great games to the great works of film or literature, for instance?

 

Well the answer which may seem obvious is that great games don’t need to have exactly the same qualities as great works of art in other mediums.  A useful comparison is with songs.  My view of songs (by no means uncontroversial) is that they are distinct from both music and poetry, and can be great works of art without being great examples of either literary or musical writing.  They need to be great examples of songwriting, but what this seems to involve is not merely the combination of good words with good music, but rather the good combination of words with music.  Bob Dylan is less controversially considered a great songwriter, but it is difficult to find lyrics by him that stand alone as good poetry.  Similarly, if one listens to some great Dylan songs and ignores the words, the musical residue is fairly unpalatable; Dylan’s voice is harsh, his backing bands are sometimes noisy and slightly punk-ish, and  so it seems there are at least some examples of great Dylan recordings which are great songs involving not great music.

 

Games work in a similar way.  They involve visual content but they needn’t have great graphics or great animation; they can be far less visually appealing than good animated movies, for example.  And their dialogue or text needn’t do anything more than move the game along and allow the player to interact with it and have a great experience.  In the Elder Scrolls games there are many books lying around which one can read and they contain apparent attempts at good fantasy writing.  In my experience they tend to be boring and reading them does not do much to enhance the game experience.  However, the fact that they are there and they genuinely do contain text (which claims to, among other things, describe the history of the game’s location) does enhance the experience of the game.  It adds depth to the interactive fiction and whether you read the books or not, being aware that you can makes you feel as if you really are in a mediaeval bookshop in a fantasy world which is run by an elf.

 

So despite the unimpressive dialogue in Skyrim, it could still be a masterwork of art; or at least, a masterpiece of gaming is conceivable without necessarily looking great or sounding great, just as a great song can sound noisy and read like bad poetry (e.g. Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols).  It should seem nearly as odd to say “this punk song just sounds like noise” or “this videogame looks totally unrealistic” as it is to say “this painting sounds rubbish” or “I can’t even see this symphony!”

Ain’t Really Misbehaving

It is probably morally wrong to indulge one’s fantasies of doing things that would be morally wrong if one did them.  E.g. if you’re a potential axe murderer who dreams about murdering axes, it probably isn’t a good idea for you to draw elaborate diagrams of how you could enact your wicked desires.

 

There are video games which could be used as a tool for indulging such deviant fantasies, and it seems that this would be wrong.  But that does not mean that it is necessarily wrong to play such games, even if you are some kind of psychopath. 

 

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We can contrast indulging deviant fantasies with what goes on when you stand at the edge of a cliff.  Intrusive thoughts pop into your head about jumping.  But I have read that this is thought to be a mechanism for the prevention of such behaviours.  There is a similar theory about nightmares: we dream about things that could happen in the future, and this is a mechanism to prepare us for such eventualities so that we protect ourselves and those we care about from danger.

 

So there may be ways of using games to simulate immoral acts which if anything makes one less likely to perform such acts.  But there is an obvious risk here of rationalising the entertainment of doing naughty things in games.  I do not wish to claim that anyone has honourable intentions when they play Grand Theft Auto and murder people.  They probably do it for fun.  But as for the consequences, they might be beneficial or at least not harmful, so long as one is not reinforcing some kind of obsession with violence, but instead doing something more akin to exploring an anxiety dream or standing at the edge of a cliff and contemplating the consequences of losing one’s footing.

 

More generally there may be some value to exploring the boundary between what is and is not acceptable .  We expect this of some artists; perhaps it is reasonable for participatory works of art to give the participants the opportunity to explore these boundaries.  Hence the permissibility of sometimes playing some violent video games.

Observed and Unobserved Aesthetics

Art sometimes has the positive aesthetic quality of creating the illusion of some sort of deeper reality.  For example, a narrative or pictorial work can carry implications about what is going on behind the scenes.  Video games are often narrative or pictorial, and sometimes they create the sense that the fictional world extends far beyond the confines of the game.  Often this is done in the ordinary manner of a film or a novel.  But sometimes there is some novelty with which this is done.

 

In Metroid Prime the player is Samus, a bounty hunter who travels to alien planets wearing a spacesuit with many advanced features including the inexplicable ability to roll Samus into a ball which is smaller than Samus’ body.  The player sees most things from Samus’ first-person perspective, including condensation or glare or reflections on the visor of the spacesuit.  These and other external elements create an immersive, believable alien environment.  But to give the player a sense of what is taking place beyond what the player can see, there is a narrative element to the game which is told in fragments via computer logs that the player stumbles upon throughout the game.  Long before Samus encounters any intelligent life on the planet, there is evidence of an ancient civilization.  And once Samus discovers the not-so-ancient Space Pirates, she also discovers their computer logs and reads messages about her, calling her “the hunter”.

 

These logs give the impression of unobserved events; the ruins give the impression of an unobserved ancient history. Also, information about flora and fauna give one the impression that they are visiting an old planet with an advanced ecology that one is merely scratching the surface of.

 

 

I don’t think I have much more to say about this.  It is something that games can do well, just as other artforms do.  Rich, imaginative experiences are one of the things that art can provide us with and there are unique ways to provide them in video games.

Meditative Aesthetic Values

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Games like Chess and Go seem to have a meditative quality.  They focus the concentration on some elegant, simple pieces, boards and rules.  Is this relevant to the aesthetic values of such games? 

 

The experiences available when playing a game such as chess may be valuable partly in the sense that they concentrate the mind and produce feelings of calm, so it seems.  A bit like a walk in the country or a nice sit down with a cup of tea, or an episode of meditation.  Chess can be stressful, but it seems that it can also be meditative.  So the experiences available, some of them, are worth having.  An ideal critic playing chess would presumably have sufficient concentration to play well, and if Kant was right to think (roughly) that aesthetic experiences involve harmonious free play between the intellect and the imagination, the ideal critic playing chess would also perhaps be relaxed enough to experiment, to try, to fail, to learn from losing.  So stress might be less of an issue. 

 

So perhaps playing chess is aesthetically valuable in the sense that it is apt to produce valuable experiences in ideal conditions.  But there is something missing: to bestow aesthetic value on the game, these experiences need to be aesthetic.  Is the experience of chess aesthetic?  It is partly, since the pieces even at their most simple are elegant and beautiful.  But the pieces are not the game.  The rules too, though, have a certain elegance.  And the act of playing involves creative thinking and some kind of entertainment. 

 

Perhaps this doesn’t matter much.  Chess is a good game.  Whether it’s goodness is largely aesthetic or something else, there are good reasons to play chess just as there are good reasons to go to art galleries or watch films or read books or listen to music.  But it seems possible that some works of art are good as works of art partly because of their meditative quality, and that examples of this include elegant games such as Chess or Go.

The Aesthetics of Fictional Evil

So let’s return to questions of moral value in relation to aesthetic value in cases of games.  One question that I haven’t asked is whether the aesthetic value of a game is directly affected by what would be the moral value of actions performed within a game, if those actions were not fictional.  For example, earlier today I invaded Egypt in a game of Civilization IV, so that I could expand my Greco-Buddhist theocracy and take a step closer to dominating the world.  There were many casualties on both sides, and diplomatic relations with other nations were harmed.  The Greek civilization I was trying to expand was governed by hereditary rule and employed a caste system (citizens were born into certain classes including an underclass, and there was no social mobility).  In short, I was causing death and destruction in order to make the world a morally worse place.  I wasn’t really doing this, I was playing a video game, and maybe this is morally permissible (see previous post).  But could my aesthetic experience of the game have been improved if I were (fictionally) behaving better? 

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Suppose I played Civ IV and spent my time brokering peace between other warring nations, or using the military only as a defence precaution and directing more resources towards research and culture.  In the game it is possible to win by various means, including: defeating every other nation by force; or building three major cultural cities.   Perhaps surprisingly, the latter is a more difficult way to win the game.  But leaving that aside, does its (fictional) moral superiority make for an improved aesthetic experience?  I’m not sure how to answer this question.  I think my intuition is that it makes no difference at all.  Unless, perhaps, we may talk of the aesthetic experience as being morally improved, and the game as being more aesthetically valuable in virtue if the greater moral value of the experience it produces.

 

As I said in my previous post, it is morally better to play some games than others.  It is probably also morally better to play the same game in certain ways rather than others.  But is this partly a case of the experience of the game being in some sense better, or is it only that the act of playing varies morally?  I think the experiences themselves must differ in value, since the only contact we have with a game is our experiences of it as altered by our interaction with it.  But does this include our aesthetic experiences of games?  Is the experience of aesthetically appreciating the game improved when the act of playing the game has greater moral value?  Again, I think this is unclear, but again my intuition is negative: it seems that, while the act of pretending to invade Egypt may be morally worse than the act of pretending to build a great library, aesthetically the chess-like war gameplay is a little bit more satisfying than a few numbers going down (gold stores or building times) and a short cutscene being passively observed, in which the library is completed.  The cutscene could perhaps be made more aesthetically pleasing but that will not be to do with the moral value of pretending to build a library.  So, if I haven’t lost you, perhaps you will share my intuition that a game is not aesthetically improved by the improvement of the within-fiction moral value of fictional game events.

Ethics and Aesthetics in Games

Is it morally wrong to simulate abhorrent acts such as rape and murder in video games, and if so, does this affect the aesthetic values of such games?  First of all, let’s consider a few examples of games in which it is possible and in fact encouraged that the player participate in simulations of what we may assume are immoral acts.

In the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) games, the player completes missions for criminal gangs.  Arguably there is nothing wrong with this idea; as I mentioned in another post, some people see the games as a form of satire, a sort of caricature of (usually) American city life.  But some of the missions seem to involve the player performing acts of murder which don’t have any obvious satirical value:

Let’s assume it is always morally wrong to push a man in a port-a-loo into a hole and then cover him with wet cement.  Is it always morally wrong to do so in a video game?  What about in a lucid dream?  What about writing about it in a novel?

Another example.  Rapelay is a game which I am proud to say I have not played (I therefore don’t know much about it), because whereas GTA is at least intended partly to have comic and satirical value, Rapelay is effectively rape-themed cartoon pornography that allows the user to play a more active role than in ordinary pornography.  The player molests and rapes women and children and scores points for doing so.  Let’s assume it is always morally wrong to rape or molest.  Is it always wrong to do so within a video game?  It seems plausible to me that it is wrong to play Rapelay, because it involves indulging violent sexual fantasies.  Whether this is wrong because it reflects badly on the player’s character, or because it risks encouraging real sexual violence or the consumption of extreme pornography, or for some other reason… plausibly it is wrong to play this game.  Perhaps these wrong-making features will always be present in game simulations of rape; if so, plausibly we have here a clear-cut example of something which it is wrong to do and wrong to simulate.

One more example.  In Doshin the Giant, a colourful, cartoonish game aimed largely at children, the player adopts the role of a giant who can choose at any time whether to help or to terrorise little villagers.  The default mode of the character is Doshin the friendly yellow giant, who grows bigger from the love given to him by the villagers, in return for his help in the form of planting trees, levelling the ground for buildings, etc.  But with one button-press, the player becomes Jashin the hate giant, who resembles Satan and grows bigger with the hate directed towards him from villagers whom he frightens or murders.  Sounds unsuitable for children, but take a look at this video and you’ll see how the total lack of gore and realism prevents this from being used as a kind of genocide simulation:

Let’s assume that genocide is wrong, even when performed by satanic giants.  Is it wrong to play this game and adopt the role of Jashin the hate giant?  I expect many would share my intuition that this game is harmless fun, maybe even for children.  One might even argue that it can teach children something about good and evil, although I won’t go that far.  Suffice it to say: it seems permissible to pretend to be Jashin the giant and smash up some little pretend villages and villagers.

Maybe the supernatural and cartoonish elements of Doshin the Giant make a difference: it takes a bit of mental effort to draw a connection between this game and the behaviour of those in history who really have burned down villages and killed their inhabitants.  Rapelay, on the other hand, although its graphics are somewhat cartoonish and unrealistic, does attempt to simulate the kind of sex crimes that really do take place.  Playing Doshin might be more about escaping into a magical fantasy land than indulging genocidal fantasies; whereas playing Rapelay seems to be about pretty much nothing else apart from indulging violent sexual fantasies.  Because of this, it is perhaps morally permissible to play the former game and not the latter.

What about GTA, then?  My experience of those games has been partly of escaping into a fantasy world which amusingly and entertainingly caricatures the American criminal underworld.  Clearly though, given the example above, it is possible to use these games to indulge homicidal fantasies.  But it may also be possible to play the game and yet refrain from indulging such fantasies; not by avoiding those parts of the game that simulate murder, but by simply not having such fantasies to indulge.  In short, then, GTA does seem to be in a grey area between the other two games I’ve mentioned, and the morality of playing it might depend on the player.  Rapelay, from what I can tell, is not appreciable except as pornography, whereas GTA I think is more than just an interactive video nasty.

So it seems that playing Doshin is probably okay, playing GTA sometimes might not be, and playing Rapelay is probably wrong.  Does this affect the aesthetic values of these games?  This is unclear, and I won’t try to make it clear right now.  In my opinion, Doshin is an amateurish but uniquely pretty game with enough aesthetic value to make it worth playing.  The GTA games that I have tried have been pretty good in quite a different way: more satirical, more explorative, more realistic and challenging.  From what I can tell, Rapelay has little to offer in terms of aesthetic values, unless you count erotic beauty as the relevant kind of aesthetic value.  I regard the values of art (perhaps I should call these artistic values) as excluding the erotic beauty of human beings, such that the sexual attractiveness of a nude painting does not contribute to the painting’s aesthetic value.

So in my opinion, GTA is aesthetically better than Doshin which is aesthetically better than Rapelay.  Rapely is also, I think, morally the worst of these games, yet Doshin seems to be a better game to play than GTA morally speaking.  Would GTA be aesthetically improved if it were morally improved?  Perhaps we will find this out when the new child-friendly GTA-style Lego game is released:

Would Doshin the Giant be an aesthetically worse game if it involved, say, the player adopting the role of a national leader who must decide how to treat his/her citizens, so that realistic acts of genocide were possible in the game?  This actually sounds like it could be a better game.

So in conclusion, I don’t know.  Moral values might make no difference to aesthetic values in games, or maybe they do and the new Lego game is going to be a masterpiece (I doubt this, so perhaps I am leaning towards the former claim).  Maybe I will return to this issue in future posts.

Playable Characters

Various kinds of video game involve the player adopting the role of a character within the game’s fiction.  In a platform game, the player usually controls a colourful character who jumps between platforms and on enemies in order to reach the end of each level of the game.  In a first-person shooting game, the player sees things from the perspective of the character he/she controls, usually some kind of soldier, spy, spaceman etc.  Strategy games often do not involve the player adopting a particular character; sometimes one adopts the role of a specific commander or deity, but often one is miraculously in control of many faceless soldiers and workers.

 

Sometimes the playable character has a developed personality or a shallow but specific personality.   Sometimes the playable character is a role that the player can to some extent fill with his/her own personality.  In the Legend of Zelda games there is always a playable character who wears a green tunic.  He has not yet been given a voice, there is not written dialogue that he is supposed to say, apart from occasionally when the player can choose from simple options like ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  The player can name him, and he is even quite girlish and rarely if ever expresses any sexual preference, so pretty much any young person can relate to him and essentially be him within the story.

In Role Playing Games (RPGs) you can determine traits like personality, class and species, and then choose how to interact with the game world such that your character develops in certain specific ways.  For example in Oblivion you could be a lizard man with innate talents for thievery who gradually learns to become a master thief with a specific preference for, say, sneaking undetected, or killing quickly and discretely using light weapons such as daggers, or being very persuasive and charming.  Or one might become an elf with innate magical abilities who has the strength to wear extremely heavy armour, goes on pilgrimages and serves the good gods, gaining a reputation as a holy warrior.  These are two of many complex possibilities and they are made possible not just by scripted quests but largely by detailed statistics that are altered depending on the behaviour of the player.  For example one becomes a great alchemist by lots and lots of practice at gathering herbs, crushing them and mixing them together to create increasingly useful and complex magical potions.

However customisable, the playable character is a point of entry into the fiction within a game, somewhat like a narrator or a lead role.  The playable character  is the bit of the game personified that you directly control and the means by which you alter other things in the game; or at least the player should suspend their disbelief of this.  One thing that is special about many games is that characters are partly under the control of the observer of the artwork; and also, in some cases, the lead role is filled by the player or created by the player, or emerges as a result of the player’s interaction with the game.  Yet again, games seem to hold opportunities for valuable experiences that are unavailable in other art forms.

Gameplay

One of my aims in this blog is to approach games as works of art (even if they are all bad works of art, as some critics claim), and in so doing consider what is aesthetically special about them.  Today I will attempt to say more about gameplay as a distinguishing feature of games as artworks, with a focus as usual on video games. 

 

One aspect of gameplay is the rules of a game.  A game is perhaps impossible without rules.  Even the most free and open videogame involves rules in the sense that there are things which are impossible in the game given the way the game is designed, with the exception of things which can be achieved by cheating.  Cheating in video games can include the kind of cheating that takes place in other games (deliberately breaking the rules), but it also includes changing the game for example by typing in codes that affect the software, resulting in a game that essentially has different rules, or different constraints on play.

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So games involve rules and videogames involve constraints which might be called rules, and these constraints determine what playing the game is like.  Chess is a turn-based game, with different kinds of pieces that have different restrictions on movement, and this results in a competitive game of strategy that players often find engrossing.  Super Mario World is a side-scrolling platform game, so it involves a protagonist who can only move in two dimensions (up, down, left, right), and whose main ability apart from walking is to jump between platforms in the 2D environment.  One important difference between the gameplay of chess and that of Super Mario World is that the constraints of the latter make it important for the player to have good timing and reflexes.  Chess is more about strategy and usually involves no element of reflex or timing.

 

Both games involve interaction with pieces of the game, and in Chess the player’s interaction leads to outcomes that must be manually played out according to the rules of the game.  In a video game one interacts with elements of the game and the consequences are brought about automatically by a computer.  So in chess the white player might take a black pawn, and this pawn may then be removed from the board.  In SMW the player might make Mario jump on a goomba, and this will trigger the animated death of a goomba.  This is brought about by the player’s interaction with the computer program which is essentially a structure of rules which constrain the player’s experience.

 

Games involve rules, and these rules constrain the experience of the player in interacting with the game.  The experience of other artforms is of course constrained, but not by rules.  An animated film could be produced by a string of computer code, and this code would determine the experience of the viewer.  But in a computer game the player interacts with the computer code, activating different bits of it with some degree of freedom.  This is gameplay, and it is a distinctive feature of games that can plausibly be aesthetically valuable.  I will say more about this in future posts.

Compulsion or Value?

Yesterday I began playing Oblivion, the fourth gam e in the Elder Scrolls series.  (My laptop and my bank balance are not good enough to play Skyrim.)  I began playing at around 6pm, and just about managed to tear myself away from it at around 4am, as it was a good idea that I get some sleep.  So that’s 10 hours , on and off, that I was engrossed by this game.  Was I the willing victim of a mindless addiction or compulsion, or was I drawn to this game because of its aesthetic values?  I will try to work out what values those might be and attempt to answer this question.

First, a little background.  The Elder Scrolls games are open-world role-playing games.  The games are set on a fictional continent called Tamriel:

Tamriel is a fantasy world full of mediaeval culture and technology, magic, monsters and basically most of what you will find in the Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons.  The games involve the player designing a character both physically and in terms of his/her skills and attributes, and then exploring the game world completing various quests.

The number of things one can do is baffling and the freedom of the player is quite substantial.  There is a main quest, the completion of which ends the game (or so I assume, having never finished one of these games), but  largely the game is about improving your character, exploring the land and enjoying the huge number of side-quests.

Increasingly the games are better-looking.  I first played Oblivion on holiday in the Scottish highlands, in between visiting real castle ruins and climbing beautiful hills and mountains, and the game environment and the real environment inevitably reminded me of each other.  The graphics of a game of course cannot match the chaos and beauty of nature, but they can imitate it and they can add to it things which are not available in the real world, such as fictional stories, characters, flora and fauna and elements such as magic.

One potential value of a game like Oblivion is that it fires the imagination and gets one to look at the real world in a different light.  We can look, say, at the beautiful Scottish countryside and perhaps enhance our experience by imagining, say, the permeability of nature by some kind of supernatural force.  What is the value of this?  Perhaps nothing, but it feels interesting and might be of value at least in that sense: we value it, we like it, it fascinates us.

In an open-world game we can explore counterfactual scenarios; we can do things that we wouldn’t dare try in the real world, and observe possible consequences.  This might have some practical or moral value;.  There is a theory that our dreams prepare us for possible scenarios, for example one might dream about what one would do if something went wrong in an upcoming exam, and may as a result be better prepared or at least confident during the real exam.  Games at their best might offer this sort of function.

But usefulness that is not immediately apparent shouldn’t keep a player glued to his laptop for ten hours, and nor should a fascination with nature when one could be going out for a walk instead of pretending to go out for a walk.  Perhaps the draw of the game is a straightforward combination of various ordinary aesthetic qualities, like half-decent acting, writing, story, music, visuals etc.  I say half-decent because clearly the components of a geeky game like Oblivion do not stand alongside the great works of music, literature or cinema.  But the combination of these minimal qualities with an engaging interactive dreamlike experience might be sufficient to make Oblivion a good work of art, and might be what makes the game so addictive.

Sudoku is addictive and also, I suggest, basically devoid of aesthetic value and most other values.  But Oblivion is plausibly addictive and good, and partly addictive because good.  No doubt there are some elements of mindless sudoku-like compulsion, but that seems not to tell the full story.