Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Samuel Johnson and Video Games

The third critic that we’re going to sift through and borrow some ideas from is Samuel Johnson. Of the three thus far, he’s an interesting person because he doesn’t actually like critics. Or academia, or scholars, or really even the idea of the written word doing much except instruct or delight. The fact that he has earned the honor of being the greatest literary critic of his time is because Johnson, while putting together a dictionary, several philosophical treatises, and a discourse on English law ALSO wrote criticism on Shakespeare and numerous poets. He’s a strong example of what Adler was praising in critics in her burn session on Pauline Kael, the idea that a good critic handles a variety of topics and mediums. That they become famous for their work in one medium in particular is incidental, their engaging with a variety of topics is what made them be so innovative in the first place. Johnson is constantly applying political ideas to art, artistic ideas to politics, and cross-pollinating so many schools of thought that it’s no shock he was able to surpass his peers. If you take one thing away from Johnson, realize that he’s drawing on wisdom from numerous sources and not just one.

For the purposes of this essay I’ve decided to focus on the columns he wrote for several magazines in London over a period of years. After reading several reviews and his annotations on Shakespeare, it becomes obvious that he is dealing with an artistic culture that is wholly alien to the one we see today. Honestly, when you’ve got someone discussing the merits of writing a “realistic” novel you realize this is a person whose contribution to culture has long been masked by countless people building on top of it. Just so there’s some appreciation of it though, during Johnson’s life a type of poetry known as pastoralism was really popular. This was an area of literature I avoided like the plague so I wouldn’t be shocked if this was grossly generalizing, but I read enough Pope and Grey to get the basics. It’s a celebration of the simple life. Of being on the farm, not being concerned with materialism, and using elaborate metaphors about nature to communicate a sense of beauty. Ignoring the fact that living on a farm is far from being free of worry, one of the comments Johnson makes is that anybody can sit in a room and write the stuff. The realistic novel, on the other hand, requires real world experiences. He writes, “The task of our present writers is very different; it requires together with that learning which is to be gained from books, that experience which can never be attained by solitary diligence, but must arise from general converse, and accurate observation of the living.” He feels that this genre has a much higher standard applied to it because any reader is going to have a strong opinion about what the book is saying. With pastoralism there is rarely much to criticize except grammar or structure because it’s all fantasy anyways, with the realistic novel you can actually engage on a personal level. It’s all very obvious to someone today, but back then Johnson was championing a genre that was hardly so secure in people’s minds.

An interesting observation Johnson makes is how exactly variations in opinion on art even occurs. How do two people who watch the same play walk away with totally different views? We all know this happens but it’s interesting to see him explore the mechanics of why, “Every man who is called to give his opinion of a performance decides upon the same principle; he suffers himself to form expectations, and then is angry at his disappointment. He lets his imagination rove at large, and wonders that another, equally unconfined in the boundless ocean of possibility, takes a different course.” It’s that notion of expectations that really strikes at the core of where the critic can make their biggest error with a work. We all know the premise of a game well before we play it. What makes our assessment become potentially unfair is when we complain excessively that the work does not resemble how we envision that premise should play out.

That’s something we deal with in video games constantly. I recently picked up the History Channel’s Civil War game and have found the whole thing a huge disappointment. This is a period of history I love and yet the game has a completely different take on it than the one in my head. Gone are the banjoes and punk bluegrass I’d fill my personal Civil War game with, replaced with a shooter that tries to be Call of Duty with bad southern accents. The game becomes even more problematic because weapons from that era clearly aren’t handled the same way as they do in other FPS titles. As soon as I start playing I run to cover, pop up, unload my musket, and then realize that not only is the gun inaccurate, it takes forever to reload it. The game is instead a large exercise in beating the crap out of people with a rifle butt, which I suppose is similar to how many of the battles were fought but that’s hardly worth making an entire game out of. How do you go about saying something is bad and not just because it failed to meet your expectations? As much as I try to separate my vision of what a Civil War game should be, it’s equally misguided to claim that the game is actually good on its own terms. Johnson explains the distinction, “It ought to be the first endeavor of any writer to distinguish nature from custom, of that which is established because it is right from that which is right only because it is established; that he may neither violate essential principles by a desire of novelty, nor tear himself from the attainment of beauties within his view by a needless fear of breaking rules which no literary dictator had authority to enact.” Swap writer with designer and you can see the applications. The ideal when measuring any work art is just figuring out what are the conventions that are there for a reason and what are the ones subject to change. Being open to a game whose guns have slow reload times is one thing, that’s just custom being broken. Having a game where the only alternative is swinging the rifle around like a bat is breaking the basic appeal of doing an FPS in the first place.

I said earlier that Johnson didn’t particularly like critics and it goes back to why he liked realistic novels over pastoralism. What happens with a critic is that when you study an artist or medium, you naturally gravitate towards the articles and ideas you personally like. They comport with your view of the work and what it should be doing. As you continue to accumulate knowledge and comprehension, you also develop a base level of knowledge that the writers you enjoy also have. The consequence is that when this critic or scholar finally descends upon the world they discover they aren’t particularly good at communicating this knowledge to others. For starters, not everyone has been reading the same stuff so they don’t know what all the terms or preconceptions are that the critic is using. People have also been reading different essays in general and have their own ideas about the medium. Johnson explains, “A ready man is made by conversation. He that buries himself among his manuscripts…and wears out his days and nights in perpetual research and solitary meditation, is too apt to lose in his elocution what he adds to his wisdom, and when he comes into the world, to appear overloaded with his own notions, like a man armed with weapons which he cannot wield.” It’s not enough to just post ideas or write long essays on games. You’ve got to talk about them and hash the ideas out.

This touches on something that came up on a Brainy Gamer post the other day when Abbott was criticizing the general state of gaming forums. He points out that the general source of most idiotic behavior in forums is the invalidation game, of proving one another wrong and devolving into personal attacks. As many people in the comments noted, so many of these websites are so noxious that they actively avoid them. I’m not proposing you get involved with a ‘Wii Suckzor’ thread (though it’s funny to drop in a rational and well written opinion just to spook them) but just remember you’ve got to have an actual conversation about the stuff you’re writing. Part of how you keep an idea you’ve developed in action is by applying it to new situations and continuing to explore it. A critical approach, idea, or sense of style isn’t going to be communicated in just one essay. All of the critics we’ve examined so far have written for years and out of those mountains of work we’re just plucking out their best and brightest. It isn’t going to happen up in an ivory tower and it isn’t going to happen in a day. Johnson proposes, “The chief art of learning, as Locke has observed, is to attempt but little at a time. The widest excursions of the mind are made by short flights frequently repeated; the most lofty fabrics of science are formed by the continued accumulation of single propositions.” Whatever your vision for videogames, the way you fulfill that vision is by recognizing that it’s all just a series of tiny steps.

So as Johnson sums it all up nicely, “To read, write, and converse in due proportions is the business of a man of letters.” A good critic to Johnson has an understanding of what’s conventional and what’s naturally required in a medium, an ability to adapt your ideas, and the willingness to keep plugging away until you reach your goals. His final bit of advice comes from the relationship we have with those goals themselves. I’ve thrown around a lot of loose terms like ideas and theories in this essay because Johnson had a fairly narrow view of what any one person can accomplish. He use the Royal Society of Philosophers as example, they had enormous hopes of changing humanity and intellectual pursuits, only to be crushed when the miseries of life still persisted. People who stop and say, “What have I done with my work? My life?” seldom find answers they are happy about. We are all very little beings in Johnson’s view, better off wishing for diligence instead of power, finding fault with ourselves rather than the reality of life. The final complaint he has of scholars, critics, or any thinker is that they inevitably feel inadequate despite their accomplishments. He proposes that people take a different approach to evaluating their life’s work: “He that has improved the virtue or advanced the happiness of one fellow-creature, he that has ascertained a single moral proposition, or added one useful experiment to natural knowledge, may be contented with his own performance, and, with respect to mortals like himself, may demand, like Augustus, to be dismissed at his departure with applause.” That seems like a reasonable goal to work towards for any critic.

I think I’m going to take a bit of advice from Johnson and draw on a different source for the next essay. After reading 3 very different kinds of critics for 3 different mediums, I think it’s time to change gears. Several recent essays sitting on the backburner have gotten me reading Carl Jung again and I’m beginning to think he’s worth digging into more deeply. The more I play old games and discuss them, the more I start to wonder what exactly they should be doing with their curious form of communication. Jung, who used dream analysis extensively, strikes me as someone who will have some thoughts on what our actions represent when they are not actions we do in the real world. If games truly are just a series of interesting choices, it might be useful to start explaining what those choices mean.

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