Ranting about Ian Bogost’s “Video Games Are Better Without Stories”

You can read the original article from Ian Bogost here. What follows are four different rants in response.

I. Horror Games

Horror films allow us to look away from the screen when things become too intense. Horror novels allow us to determine how disturbing our interpretation is going to get (limited by our own imagination). Horror games, on the other hand, force you to engage with what’s happening.

Take, for example “Until Dawn.” Movies are capable of showing different narratives, that’s true. And books might have better written dialogue, I’ll grant that–even if this isn’t exactly what Stephen King is known for. But “Until Dawn” is the only one that allows the story to evolve based on your own participation with it; characters live or die based on your choices. The frightening situation is exacerbated by the pace that you yourself create (or fail to maintain). In what way is “Until Dawn” a better game without having a story, with, say, simply being a game in which you run away from things?

“Outlast 2,” which recently released, is being praised for the fact that it allows the story to naturally evolve through environmental cues. I’ll grant that the story of “Resident Evil VII” gets downright ridiculous at points (although rarely any more than that of the films that it is appropriating), but would the Baker family be nearly as terrifying if you stripped them of motivations, if you turned them into nothing more than shambling monsters?

II. Why Hyperbole Is Terrible

Bogost’s issue seems to be one of extremes: a game is either so hyper-ambitious that it cannot help but fail (an entire world so scripted that it can accommodate any sort of player action), or it compromises down a linear path (no matter how Choose Your Own Adventure-y it hides itself) for which each individual path cannot rise above the feats of a novel, even though you need look no further than “The Witcher III” to see how patently false that is. For Bogost, story gets in the way of what he *wants* a game to do, which is to show the stuff of what the world is made of, the cool ways in which we interact with bits and pieces. But it’s not clear why we can’t have it both ways, or why games–still an early art form–can’t have it all.

“Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories.” Tell that to anyone who grew up playing interactive fiction games. Or, better yet, tell that to authors. Douglas Adams wrote “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in 1979 (after first releasing it as a radio drama in 1978–imagine that, that a word could conceivably and successfully exist in two different mediums!) but he also wrote the game in 1984. Instead of seeing these as unnecessary rivals, why not embrace the differing perspectives that each brought to the table?

One wonders what Adams may have thought about the question of “Why does this story need to be told as a video game?” Cynical financial reasons aside, I think it’s just as easy to turn the tables on Bogost: “Why shouldn’t this story be told as a video game?” That’s a question with a much simpler answer–because you don’t want anyone else to mess with your work. You don’t want them roaming off the path. And that’s fair! Of course, it’s a bit naive, considering that most scholars of art, film, and fiction are all about nonetheless thrusting their own interpretations upon a “set” perspective. We all want to “play” a work in our own way–a video game is just more honest about it, and for that, Bogost, like Ebert before him, lambasts the entire genre, unable to take it on its own terms, terrified that he might not be able to offer his own perspective as authoritatively if every player were able to create their own.

III. There’s More to a Medium

What’s weird is that Bogost concedes that the only difference between mediums is their form:

Poetry aestheticizes language. Painting aestheticizes flatness and pigment. Photography does so for time. Film, for time and space. Architecture, for mass and void. Television, for economic leisure and domestic habit. Sure, yes, those media can and do tell stories. But the stories come later, built atop the medium’s foundations.

Why, then, is it a problem for games, too, to place stories atop the foundations? Could you not tell a story through soccer? Has Robert Coover not attempted to create fiction on the backs of playing cards? You can’t point to the generic, lazy writing of a game like “Tumblestone” (which is primarily a puzzle game, like “Tetris” before it) as an example of how all games are flawed, any more than you could point to “Transformers” as, like, a sign, you guys, that cinema is SO over. There are going to be games with bad stories, trite ones. Cliche is going to be relied on, heavily. But that’s true of film, literature, and television, too.

IV. Common Sense

Just ask yourself if it’s really true that the original “Doom” is a “better” game because it isn’t weighed down by the plot of the new “Doom”? Would “Superhot” be better if it were just a series of action-packed vignettes with no interstitial tissue? How would “Pony Island” even exist without a plot? Now, I know that Bogost is attempting to differentiate (poorly) between an acceptable story–in-game objectives that move the player from point to point–and an artistic narrative, which is a holier-than-thou thing to be preserved for other titles. I just don’t see why.

Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”

At one point in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the escaped slave Cora finds herself working in a South Carolina museum, technically “free” but forced on a daily basis to model what it was like to be enslaved within a series of dioramas that white citizens gawp at. She thinks to herself of the various exhibits:

The enterprising African boy whose fine leather boots she wore would have been chained belowdecks, swabbing his body in his own filth. Slave work was sometimes spinning thread, yes; most times it was not. No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or been butchered for a tangle. But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting. Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.

Cora returns to this theme later on, as she hides in an attic in North Carolina, finding comfort in almanacs, because these “didn’t need people to say what they meant. The tables and facts couldn’t be shaped into what they were not.”

I find this particularly relevant today, in a world of alternative facts, where not only scientific truths are daily ignored, but where Trump would dispute the observable weather on inauguration day. Let us not be those monsters, sneering and hooting at the world that best suits our purposes. Let us not proudly set forth our accomplishments on the broken backs of others. Let us not be like the slavedriver who shows up in Tennessee and coldly compares Cora to a hog: “You need to be strong to survive the labor and make us greater. We fatten hogs, not because it pleases us but because we need hogs to survive. But we can’t have you too clever. We can’t have you so fit you outrun us.”

Stay alert. Stay educated. The chains are those of ignorance, the whip is the one that suppresses the vote.

Life Is Poorly Designed; That’s Why We Turn to Video Games

Ryan Avent has a terrific article here for The Economist‘s 1843 Magazine. I’m already well aware of how alluring video games can be, how they serve to stave off or at least distract from depression, or how they offer the sorts of in-game rewards that might seemingly be impossible to achieve in the real world. (This may explain the rise of competitive eSports.)

Avent goes a step further, though, in explaining this as if life itself were a video game. He doesn’t really dwell on the potentially good design decisions (gamifying chores or schoolwork), but he nails the societal implications of what happens when life itself fails those who are attempting to “play” (i.e., live) it. To wit: “The choices we make in life are shaped by the options available to us. A society that dislikes the idea of young men gaming their days away should perhaps invest in more dynamic difficulty adjustment in real life.” Not everybody can get a college degree, at least not immediately, and this begins to curtain opportunities; simultaneously, even those who have gone through the collegiate grinder may find themselves underemployed: unsatisfied,  unchallenged, and turning inevitably to virtual reality for that fix, that more instantaneous achievement or visible reward.

The designers of the game of life, such as they are, may have erred in structuring the game in a way that encourages young people to seek an alternate reality. They have spread the thrills and valuable items too thinly and have tweaked the settings to reward special skills that cannot be mastered easily even by those prepared to spend long hours doing so. Unsurprisingly, some players are giving up, while others are filling the time not taken up in rewarding, well-compensated work with games painstakingly designed to make them feel good.

It is not necessarily that people are turning to games because they are lazy, so much as that they are turning to games because they don’t have enough to do. Moreover, while the older generations may scoff or be confused by the fixation on video games as a reward, is that really any more unhealthy than drinking alone or with friends? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the root causes that drive people to alcohol or digital in the first place, to question why so many people feel a need to “escape” or numb themselves. Let’s take the judgement out of it, too, as if you can’t learn as much from a well-made game as from novel, TV show, or, really, any other form of art. The problem is not that people game, it is that gaming threatens to become more attractive and fulfilling than the real world, and that’s less a personal failing than a weakness of our modern society (or a comment on its porousness, such that there are now many new and unfamiliar ways with which to interact with it). Life is an unwinnable game; like Backgammon, it can at best be hedged against (assuming you know all the rules), but it can never be optimized.

Avent has plenty of light economic analysis in his article, too, speaking about how, if gaming is your luxury, you might not need to work as many late hours, or as hard, to earn yourself the freedom to spend more time with the Mario Brothers. He warns, too, of the unseen costs of the future–the creep of healthcare, rent, food,  inflation–that may ruin one of the many modern gamers who have immersed themselves in the Temporary Now. But the real Black Mirror-like twist of his article is this line: “It is not always clear when gaming is the refuge of the trapped and when it is the trap.” Admiral Ackbar doesn’t help us; we know it’s a trap. The only way change will come, then, is if there is some clear, achievable path to the next “level” in life–which is problematic if you believe, cynically, that those who are in control have no interest in seeing anyone else ascend.

The Difference Makes a Difference

In a November 2015 Reason article, Elizabeth Nolan Brown compares how our government is repeating the mistakes of its failed war on drugs by so adamantly going after sex trafficking. She suggests we’ve deliberately loosely defined trafficking in order to puritanically prohibit up any sort of prostitution, as well, and from there, she’s off and running on her argument about overreach.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and I’m still forming my opinion on a lot of those ethical issues. I’m happy to hear your thoughts and opinions, but what I’m most immediately drawn to is the data behind this scenario. When Brown points out that the government has been taking action based on outdated and often disavowed research papers, and that the media loves to leap onto shocking numbers, no matter how tenuously sourced, I grow concerned. Throughout the 2016 election, we saw many people mourning the rise of fake news (not just Faux News) and the many pants-on-fire lies blatantly committed by Trump. (Clinton’s false claims were both fewer in number and at least far closer to truthiness.) Shouldn’t we be just as, if not more, skeptical of the statistical improprieties that our government utilizes in order to galvanize the public to action? You’d think that we’d be more skeptical after the false narrative about WMDs that the government created post-9/11 in order to shepherd the fearful masses into a glut of redundant and over-expensive programs (Homeland Security) and wars (Iraq, Afghanistan). Why aren’t we?

“Regardless of whether the number is 300,000 or 30,000, something must be done to protect these children at risk of exploitation and trafficking,” said Moira Bagley Smith… But it’s exactly this kind of thinking that inflicts real-world policy damage. Whether there are 30,000 or 300,000 crime victims makes a great deal of difference in terms of fashioning an appropriate response, as does the context of the victim’s circumstances. Separating the mythology of sex trafficking from the facts is crucial for addressing problems as they exist, not problems as we might want, fear, or imagine them to be.

In our everyday lives, we are expected to be as calm and rational as an actuary. Those of us with the privilege of affording health care often choose between a variety of policies based on how likely we feel we are to need coverage; we do our best to be financially prudent when deciding whether to insure certain items. Given infinite resources, we would insure ourselves against even the most improbable events, but then again, if we had infinite resources, we wouldn’t have to bother with insurance. Why, then, is it OK for the government to spend so lavishly on things it likely doesn’t need? Shouldn’t we pay far closer attention to the numbers the government produces when it comes to military expenditures (when we already have a significantly larger and more advanced army than those of our nearest rivals combined)? From a purely logical perspective, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would rather see New York City expend its resources preparing for a volcanic eruption as opposed to beefing up its shoreline defense against rising tides and stronger hurricanes. As Brown puts it above, we must address the problems that exist, not the ones we fear or imagine.

It is possible, surely, that prostitution can lead to sex trafficking. (You’d think, though, that illegal prostitution would be far more responsible for this than legal prostitution.) Then again, so can going outside. It seems to me that once you remove actual statistics and risks from your decision-making process, you can justify any action, and actually end up causing far more harm than good, especially in the often invisible long term. Within the world of medicine, things like triage exist so as to make the best of a bad situation. Research often works the same way, as the most resources are often spent on the diseases that affect the most people–that’s where the customers/money lies, after all. I don’t think anybody would disagree than an individual with spinal bifida is suffering and should have better treatment options; if, however, that care were to come at the expense of those struggling with cancer, we might reconsider our moral calculus. There is nothing controversial about the suggestion that government grants should be based on need, and that that need should be driven by data–that is, after all, the way we currently do things. The issue is with false data, and those who knowingly propagate it.

In the case of sex trafficking, Brown notes how damning hyperbolic statistics can be, especially when they redirect resources away from options that are both far likelier to succeed and much less intrusive:

For a fraction of the money spent on these measures, state governments or private foundations could fund more beds at emergency shelters. [Lack of safe resources is often why homeless youths first turn to prostitution.] The resources that churches, charities, and radical feminists use trying to convince people that all sex workers are victims (and their clients predatory) could go toward helping that minority of sex workers who do feel trapped in prostitution with job placement or getting an education. For the majority of vulnerable sex workers, the greatest barriers to exit aren’t ankle-cuffs, isolation, and shadowy kidnappers with guns, but a lack of money, transportation, identification, or other practical things. Is helping with this stuff not sexy enough?

If by “sexy,” we mean agenda-driven, then that’s exactly the rationale Brown is getting at. Instead of following the numbers to where the most good can be done, she suggests that the government is being manipulated into overreactive policies by those who condemn certain behaviors. In fairness, Scott Shackford’s article in the same issue of Reason makes a similar case against liberals, suggesting that gay, lesbian, and transgendered citizens don’t need the government to step in to pass anti-discrimination laws on their behalf because the numbers don’t actually back up their claims. Here’s where I have a harder time agreeing, because now we’re talking about an issue that I actually care about, where I am less removed and more emotionally charged. But isn’t that exactly the place that we were just agreeing we shouldn’t be legislating from? That we should be listening to the data?

This isn’t saying that people aren’t discriminating against LGBTQ employees, mind you, and they absolutely shouldn’t. It is, however, suggesting that incidents in which bakers or even doctors unfairly treat certain people (1) don’t happen nearly often enough to necessitate political interference and (2) that there are enough alternative actions for these individuals such that the government need not step in. I’m angered by the idea that someone would refuse service to someone on the basis of sexual orientation. And I do think that this election demonstrates that there are more than enough pockets in which normal social resistance wouldn’t be enough, and where the refusal to service certain people might become so widespread that it would be far more than a simple inconvenience. (After all, Memories Pizza was forced to close after refusing to cater a gay wedding, but then made nearly $800,000 through homophobic supporters on GoFundMe.)

Ultimately, I guess it comes down to something as simple as cost to me, be it a moral cost, actual monetary cost, or expenditure of political currency. Activism might be free, but any governmental response takes time–and that cost goes up with increases in bureaucracy. Actually implementing policy is also likely to have an effect, whether you believe in backlash politics or not, as it immediately widens a rift between parties or shifts some of the once-undeclared voters and angers one group of individuals or another. The more direct the action, the more immediate this cost, so wouldn’t it be wise to make the passing of new laws and/or restrictions a last-resort measure? At the very least, if action needs to be taken for the safety or freedom of a group of citizens, shouldn’t there be clear data to back up the decision?

When we ask for radical, sweeping changes, don’t numbers grow more important, not less? I wish that even a single improper shooting of an unarmed black citizen would inspire police departments to change (to self-police), but is the massive hand of politics suited for the individual, or is it better employed to handle a consistent or systemic set of circumstances in which violence is unanswered, unpunished, un-prevented? As Shackford puts it, “there should be something more than an ever-shrinking number of unpopular…decisions before asking Leviathan to step in.” I feel torn between two desires and have no idea how to resolve them. Any ideas?


Transactional Costs (and Hidden Flaws)

Katherine Mangu-Ward offers up a seemingly great metaphor for how government contracts waste money in her most recent editorial for Reason:

Imagine you want a cone of mint chocolate chip ice cream. You walk into an ice cream store and say, “How much for mint chocolate chip, please?” They either say, “That’ll be $3,” or, “We don’t have that flavor right now. Try the shop next door.”

[The U.S. government] stands in the middle of the street and shouts, “I WANT ICE CREAM” until someone who makes a related product–pudding, say–comes by and says, “I might be able to make you some ice cream. What were you looking for?” Then the government says, “Great, we will draft hundreds of pages of specifications for the ice cream, and send officials to your R&D facility, your factory, and your distribution warehouses to supervise and advise you while you make it. That way we can be sure to get the ice cream we want. Also, you can’t hire any foreigners and you can only make the ice cream with American ingredients. At the end of the process, you can add up all the costs you incurred to make our special ice cream, charge us the full amount, and then add a little extra on top so that you make a profit.” Four years later, the government gets a $1,263 cup of slightly melted fudge ripple.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing are the bespoke pudding peddlers. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are Haagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s.

A few problems, though, that the ice cream overgeneralizes. To begin with, the government is rarely asking for a product that already exists. Compounding that, they’re often seeking technology for military or other secretive applications; the government has the ability and wallet to buy a wide range of already existing airplanes, but they want the flying fortress that is Air Force One, and they pay a premium to make sure nobody gets their hands on the plans.

Then again, current contracts with Lockheed Martin or Boeing still put the government in a situation in which they’re trusting a private contractor to handle secret information, and for all that Mangu-Ward suggests that the government “supervises and advises,” it’s fairly clear from the multitude of over-budget and past-deadline projects that they’re not actually keeping their eyes on the ball, nor holding their contractors liable. To use the ice cream example, this is akin to asking Ben & Jerry’s to cater your wedding, having a terrible experience, and then continuing to hire them anyway, a non-competitive situation that doesn’t exactly inspire the best work and is basically as far from capitalism as it gets.

Reason suggests that we have a wonderful marketplace; our government really should make use of it, at least so far as to lower the costs from its more “trusted” partners.

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