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Hobby Horse Armour

I discuss the idea of games as a hobby, partially as a response to Keith Stuart's recent Eurogamer article on the subject.

Two weeks ago Keith Stuart wrote a piece at Eurogamer about his distaste for the term “hobby” when applied to games as a whole:

"So really, I will never call games a hobby, because I feel that intrinsic within that word, in the context of this medium, there is something reductive, something controlling."

We’re in a time of significant cultural tension; this partially manifests itself as a tug-of-war between a progressive “games-as-art” movement and a conservative “games-as-entertainment” group. For the purposes of brevity, let’s call them “aesthetes” and “hobbyists”.

In my last article I suggested some possible directions for, and challenges to, what I called “creatively significant work”. I’d now like to take a more general overview of what’s happening in this debate to see if anything productive can be drawn from it.

Parvis Equis

I share many of Keith’s reservations about the term “hobby”: specifically that it’s inherently diminutive. A hobby is a small thing: it even derives from “hobyn”, a word meaning “a small horse or pony”.

A hobby is engaged in for personal fulfillment: it is entirely owned and controlled by the hobbyist. The word has parochial connotations: model train sets; crotchet; building things out of matchsticks. These things can seem like Diet Art or Art Lite: people who expend a lot of time on creative work, rightly or wrongly, generally dislike hobbies.

The person doing the hobby gets to decide everything about it: it is entirely subjective and has no external goals or relationships.

Hobbies are comfortable; you could say they were deontological: they’re all about the process and never the outcome.

When you talk to a gaming hobbyist, you are speaking to someone to whom games are a profound comfort. They are a distraction, intended to alleviate boredom or suffering. A hobbyist wants to lose themselves in a world or a process which continually generates fun and enjoyment in a reliable manner. When they discuss their hobby with others, they talk about the potential for more of this to happen; they talk about the practical impediments to it happening and how to overcome them. They use their shared enjoyment to create a bond.

When you attack the nature of a hobby, you are attacking someone’s private personal fulfillment. Essentially, you are attacking them: the hobby is core to their personality and it is an external expression of it. You’re also attacking their sense of community: it is no wonder that people take any attempt to change the way in which gaming is perceived as a personal affront.

A Noble Pursuit

Hobbies, though, are a good thing.

The alleviation of suffering is inherently noble. “Everyone needs a hobby” might be a hoary aphorism (not to mention a weak punchline) but it definitely has some truth. Stress-relief and “downtime” are a vital part of modern life. Using games for this is potentially beneficial and should be encouraged.

Gaming hobbyists are also people who have a deep passion for the medium of gaming. Their conservativism comes from a place, quite literally, of love.

I believe that hobbyists and aesthetes both have a lot in common and a certain amount to teach each other. I’ll address each in turn.

Tilting at Windmills

I’d like to offer one key suggestion to hobbyists:

Art will make your hobby better.

For something to be truly entertaining and fun, it has to have some creative input. A creative person, be it a designer or artist, has to produce this from a synthesis of influences: it doesn’t just come out of nowhere.

If you like the gameplay in Rocket League, then it might be interesting to know that its genesis came from the addition of vehicles to Unreal Tournament 2003. Taking an influence and reinterpreting it is, essentially, the artistic process. That’s all that people mean when they say “games are art.”

The most common pejorative term used by hobbyists is “pretentious”. Here’s writer Kieron Gillen’s reaction to that word:

I‘m a working class kid. My dad’s a builder. Most of his brothers are in the trade. I probably should be. It’s one of the reasons why I tend to bristle at the word “pretentious”. Me even trying to write is a pretentious act. The idea of “just being who I am” was never an option for me if I wanted to do this.

I was going to put “emphasis mine” there but then I thought that would come across as pretentious. You know the emphasis is mine: even Kieron Gillen doesn’t speak in bold. Italics maybe.

If pretension is “affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed” then literally all creative people are pretentious. There is no good reason to believe that anything you are making has any merit at all: statistically it doesn’t. Until it’s finished, it certainly doesn’t, and unless you believe in its importance throughout then nobody else will.

If you think Proteus, or Dear Esther, or Keith Stuart’s article are pretentious then have a go with this:

A text is a “weave of knowing and not-knowing” (Spivak 120), a heterogeneous signifying field that, because it is constituted only in and through language, is infected with all the investments of desire, resistances, unrepresentables, and repression of language itself. (Feminine Knots and the Other: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Geraldine Hang)

This is the most long-winded way of writing “words can be confusing sometimes” that I’ve ever encountered. It’s way worse than anything I’ve seen in games.

Modern literary criticism is full of this kind of silliness, its “heterogeneous signifying field” could use a good mowing. A lot of the concepts there are interesting, but this really looks to me like they’re being thrown out almost as a reflex to impress an academic reader.

Ultimately though, I think criticism — and by implication this kind of pretension — is a good thing. I’d encourage you to see it as a symptom of something which directly benefits you, even if you don’t particularly respect it or want to engage with it. For the record, I think academic criticism is interesting but deeply flawed, and I don’t spend very much time reading it anymore. That doesn’t stop me from wanting it to be more prevalent in games.

So why is that?

Criticism is there because entertainment got good. The more ridiculous the criticism, the more entertaining the medium as a whole. When film started to be considered as more than just a trivial, throwaway medium, film-makers started to experiment with different ideas. If you enjoy superhero blockbusters, for example, you bet the people making those movies have some pretty pretentious influences.

What about boring, pretentious art-house nonsense that deliberately plays up to critics? That certainly exists and it’s fine, in a lot of cases, to shoot it down. I don’t think a man changing his name to “Sycophancy” and standing on top of a pole for eight years eating only raisins is innately interesting art (note: this hasn’t, to my knowledge, happened). Look for the content in something: if it’s not saying anything interesting then sure, feel free to dismiss it. The pole and raisins don’t have any particularly coherent meaning in this example I just made up: Mr Sycophancy just did those things because he thought they were weird. He’s not really saying anything. Demonstrating that, working through it and talking about it is much more interesting than shouting abuse at him though.

Sometimes I think people are scared of what they believe is commentary or art that is “above” them, so they lash out. I don’t think that really gets anyone anywhere: if you believe that a piece of art, a game, or a critique thinks it’s better than you then it is absolutely wrong and you should prove it wrong.

If you have a fully functional brain — sadly, I suspect I do not — then there is nothing you are incapable of understanding. Nothing. That’s why the idea of games being art is so exciting. No art (or indeed entertainment) is so clever that only a rarefied elite can “truly comprehend its beauty”. Again if anyone makes you feel like that, either they have done something very wrong or — sorry — you are simply being defensive: try to ignore both.

A lot of “high” art is actually extremely simple. Sure, an apple in a classical painting might signify the fall of man but it’s also important whether or not you like how it looks. Maybe you didn’t understand the symbolism straight away — fair enough — if you Google “what does an apple mean in a painting” then you’ll get the answer. People who have spent a long time immersed in those those concepts might get snobby about it: just as when people criticise your hobby, the reaction is a defensive one. Again, I would suggest ignoring that. Figure things out for yourself: if something is opaque to begin with that doesn’t mean it believes it’s better than you; just that discovering what is going on is supposed to be part of the pleasure.

Is it pretentious wankery that an artist would use an apple to talk about sin and the idea of knowledge? Not really: it’s just a short-hand; a way of packing in more content. To a person who knows that, the painting is more interesting and entertaining: it’s working on different parts of their brain at the same time. Now you know that, you can enjoy looking at other paintings more in the future; you’ll get more bang for your buck.

Criticism is supposed to be about making these things more clear and improving our understanding of particular works; building our vocabulary so we can experience more complex and exciting stuff in future. It doesn’t always achieve that — in fact it’s often more concerned with protecting its own interests — but I can’t imagine anyone thinking that’s a ignoble aim.

The Infamous Horseshoe Design

When everything is taken literally, it forces the creation of less interesting art and entertainment. I opened a game’s story with the line “it’s easy to forget there have been other cities” one of our testers very earnestly told me that this was “improbable”. If nobody was ever allowed to use metaphor, I’d suggest that things would be less fun.

If you complain about games that aspire to “deeper meaning”, I assume you’re talking about metaphor. The problem with this argument, as I see it, is that all games rely entirely on just that; there’s a reason that Neal Stephenson described his virtual world as the Metaverse.

Let’s take Doom for example. Here’s a great video of John Romero playing through the game. In the first few minutes he talks about not only the craft of making levels but even mentions the dramatic technique of foreshadowing. He talks, essentially, very much like an artist; I’d suggest that’s because he is one, and he’s wielding metaphor as well as he wields that pistol.

One of the main reasons that Doom is so compelling is that it is fast and violent: the 3D space feels real; the monsters are exactly the kind of demons anyone would want to gun down. Doom plays with your deepest, darkest desires to explore and control a space: to assert your dominance over a series of dangerous threats. You get to blow up bad stuff with cool guns. Doom works well because it’s metaphorically effective; it’s good at pretending to be something else. The technology, the graphics, the music, the way a story is barely suggested: these are all components of the metaphor.

Metaphor can be visual, audible or tangible. It doesn’t mean a flowery literary allusion; it’s an image which makes your brain fire in a particular way. It’s nothing more than a second channel of information; it’s emulates the way a stereo channel in an audio signal can make things sound wider and fuller. Sure, you can still hear the melody and the instrumentation in mono but stereo makes you feel like you are “inside” the sound. If a track is poorly mixed and contains too many out-of-phase elements, it’ll “collapse” when summed to mono: certain instruments might disappear. This means that you might not be able to hear the tune; this is very similar to the way in which poorly over-extended metaphors can collapse and detract from oh god what am I doing I think you get the idea and I’ll stop now.

I think being able to read and understand metaphor is important. So, every time someone says, “I don’t have time for hidden meanings” but then will happily play a first-person-shooter or a sports game, I feel that they’re being hypocritical. Your brain is gorging on metaphor. Your hobby is art!

Let’s go back to Sycophancy and his shit art pole. I suggest, again, that he’s doing you a favour. Someone might see that and take a single idea from it, then use that to make something you like. More likely, another artist might see it and go, “God, that guy up the pole was rubbish: I have to make something which reflects what people actually want.” The pressure of so many people talking about his stupid, empty, pretentious art will build up and push things in a new interesting direction.

So much creativity is an involuntary reaction: to your upbringing, to conversations you’ve had, to other works. If you really like Postal or Hatred, or even if you really like Depression Quest and Ultra Business Tycoon 3, those games wouldn’t exist without having something to rail against. Working out how to be more entertaining or to meet certain people’s needs is all about the back-and-forth which takes place in this conversation.

Attacking art in general, or people talking about art in any way they want, actually will just make things worse. You can’t play the game if you won’t sit down at the board. If you believe that an important characteristic of a type of art is to be entertaining, then make your case for that. If you do that eloquently, people will listen to your opinions.

Horse Trading

Culture is not zero sum.

If Eurogamer publish opinion pieces, that doesn’t mean they’ll publish fewer reviews. If Anita Sarkeesian says that a particular character’s costume is sexist, that will not prevent characters with such costumers appearing in games. If I make a Twine game about my cat, that won’t stop a new Call of Duty coming out every year until the sun collapses into a black hole and Stephen Hawking has to build a slingshot to get us out.

There is truly no risk and I wonder about where this myth has come from. Those who claim that culture is in peril usually have a secondary political motivation and should be viewed, I’d suggest, with skepticism.

To close this section, let’s have a look at the semantic argument. The idea of games as a hobby, and gaming as a hobby seem distinct. Games-as-hobby is often accompanied by the word “just”. This is the kind of conservative limiting rhetoric I’ve already flagged up: it says, “You may not take this seriously. You may not think about this too much.”

I hope I’ve demonstrated that this causes a bad environment for those who create games; it also guards against people appreciating metaphor, which prevents them having more fun. Telling people not to think is a dangerous game: I’d suggest giving up on that one because it’s impossible to win.

Gaming-as-a-hobby is different. People who say games are more than a hobby are not trying to take your hobby away from you. Your time dedicated to gaming is sacrosanct and they need to respect it. What you choose to do with it is entirely up to you: whether you only play FIFA or you seek out obscure Russian text adventures from 1982 to catalogue them in a giant black Moleskine, you’re awesome and don’t let anyone put you down.

A world where the only games are twelve-minute didactic academic feminist walking simulators is a genuinely disturbing dystopia which nobody wants to create. The whole point of art, if anyone’s advocating for it, is that it is big, complicated and full of different voices. Games should be a place where people are allowed to switch off, react and enjoy, as well as to think, analyse and critique.

Someone asserting meaning in something is not generally doing so to prove that they personally, are clever; they’re doing it to aid in their own thought process. They are inviting challenge. Discussing ideas is not a personal battleground of one-upmanship and treating it as such just makes everything worse.

If you don’t enjoy Dear Esther then that’s fine: I did. but I’d be happy to read your views on why I’m wrong. If you just say “it was pretentious bullshit” then you’re going to make yourself look stupid and many people won’t listen to you. They will think you are being defensive because you were worried about not “understanding” it; secretly, you were scared that the clever kids are all laughing at you. I know that’s not the case, but that’s how it comes across. Prove them all wrong.

If you want to change something, you have to engage: sometimes that means accepting it on terms you find distasteful initially. And remember, you can understand anything: that’s not an excuse.

But back to that personal battleground I mentioned. Here’s the most inflammatory, self-righteous thing Keith Stuart says:

And this is why I cannot call games a hobby. I know, I know, a lot of people do — and that’s fine, it’s up to them. I just think they’re sort of wrong.

Whoa, hold on! “It’s up to them” and “they’re sort of wrong”? Saying that people are entitled to their own interpretation and suggesting that their might be an element of that interpretation would could plausibly be disputed? How could anyone be so self-important!

Here are some of the terms and phrases which were then aimed at this argument:

  • self indulgent crap
  • a load of nonsense
  • not as pretentious as I expected
  • How about some actual game reviews for all of us with gaming as a hobby instead of pointless ‘articles’ like this tripe.
  • EG saves editorial money these days by publishing random A-level essays.
  • Games are a fun pastime. Certain games could be described as art but most are just designed fun. Its my hobby nothing more.
  • Contrary to popular belief, just because one guy paid to generate hits for EG says games are too important for *him* to call them a hobby…

An instinctual need to defend, limit and control does not help anyone’s cause. Linguistic prescriptivism — where you say that words have a single concrete meaning and that nobody can assume any secondary connotations or effect — is a big part of this. Here’s a popular comment on Eurogamer which interested me:

Keith, if you want to describe gaming as a passion, a lifestyle, a vocation or whatever, that’s up to you. But do us a favour — don’t talk down to those who, despite their passion for gaming, have full-time jobs and family commitments that prevent gaming from being anything more than a “hobby”.

Keith discusses a variety of sensations and meanings around the word “hobby” in his piece, but here it can only be defined in a singular way: opposition to the idea of a “profession”. Therefore, because Keith is a professional, he is naturally “talking down” to an amateur: someone who fits their interest in games around the other parts of their life.

This perpetual inferiority complex is something that hobbyists desperately need to shed. The demons of pretentious critics and the evil, scheming artists who make things to trip people up so that they look stupid are fantastically absurd. Nobody is talking down to you because, as I said before, anyone can understand anything: that’s what the aesthetes have internalised and there’s no reason that hobbyists can’t either.

I would urge anyone who considers games “just entertainment” and “just a hobby” to look at what they’re really asserting and what it says about themselves as a person. Playing games can be a hobby — I don’t pretend that I’m immersing myself in the lofty echelons of culture when I try to score stupid bicycle goals in Rocket League — just as reading can be a hobby. But it’s that “just” which always seems to creep in and the smallness of the word which do the damage.

Let games be what they are — a medium — and your gaming hobby will be infinitely improved. Maybe you’ll even start to see it as something more.

Our High Horse

This section contains some spoilers for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture which, if you are hopelessly enslaved to the drab and banal prosody of narrative, you might care about, I suppose.

For those who consider games to be art, I think the hobbyists present some real challenges.

There is a relatively new movement of games being developed which aspire to be something more than pure entertainment. They’re going for a metaphorical richness which we might more readily associate with literature or film. While that’s a great benchmark to aim for, I think it’s massively important that games don’t forget their heritage, or that we forcibly thrust “arty things” to the vanguard of the conversation.

Taking something seriously has the very real potential to make you look silly. If someone’s written an extended exegesis on the inherent dramato-semantic tension and dissonance evoked by the schismatic relationship between Mario and Princess Peach — I hesitate to Google this — then I’d suggest that was a bit daft. Although I have made the case for criticism several times, it absolutely must not make a mountain out of a molehill, otherwise it will face justified ridicule.

Just as I suggested to hobbyist, aesthetes must look at the actual content that games have and their real effects on both culture and the brain. Developers need to think about those things as well: just removing guns does not automatically create profundity.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a game which accomplishes several things with stunning brilliance but also hamstrings itself with some avoidable problems caused by a curious absence of formal awareness. Its Shropshire village is one of the most detailed and evocative virtual environments ever created: the sensation of walking around a real place is gloriously uncanny. However, a curious lack of consistent logic around which buildings are accessible undermines exploration and throws the player right back into “game mode”: forcibly trying everything until something clicks. The navigation aid, a mutteringly demented ephemeral spherey-thing, meanders hopelessly around the terrain: it seems that even arcane satnavs can’t deal with rural Shropshire. The glacial walking speed has been much lamented: it seems so odd that such a basic structural problem would happen in a game which is entirely predicated on walking.

This is the most damning, ugly thing anyone can say about a progressive work: I wish Rapture was a bit more like a normal game. I know: uncivilised, right? Just a bit more borrowing from formal tradition would improve the experience and enable some of its wonderful content to shine through. The build-up to the final sequence, where the tension around the apocalyptic event is heightened would be so effective without these jarring problems; the questions about identity and transcendence that the ending offers could have more weight. The lyrical, emotive, soaring score should sink in without mechanical interference.

Another issue which could use some work is pacing. The early dialogue is functional but drags hopelessly into Afternoon Play territory: endless parochial bickering and vague characterisation (heightened by the faceless humans) lends the whole thing an unintentionally planar and dull affect.

Overall, I think it’s an important and interesting game: I hugely respect The Chinese Room and I’m very excited to see what they do next. But when a game declares itself in “more than a hobby” territory, we need to start holding it to the same standards as existing art in all media: we need to stop making excuses simply because it is formally pioneering.

I’ve singled out Rapture because I’m able to be even-handed about it: I also know that the developers won’t hold my opinions against me and they respect considered thought on their work. However, I also believe that a large number of “art games” which have been released in recent years are woefully poor: they fail at their stated aims and are neither provocative nor entertaining. I’m not name calling here, because that’s not the point, nor am I going into any critical detail — that’s not my job — I’m just suggesting that we can do better.

If we want people to move out of their hobby comfort zone then we need to up our game. The playwright Tom Stoppard does a brilliant job of combining art and entertainment: his metatextual car crash Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is still funny today and still has a lot of meat for annoying arts students to get their teeth into. I’d love to see more “artgames” that take their aesthetic aspirations but combine them with formal awareness and — gasp —maybe even “fun and shooting”.

Manipulating boredom and other negative emotions for metaphorical impact is extremely difficult. Papers Please is probably the game which has done this best so far: it probably doesn’t reach the orgiastic tedium of something like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, though.

Finally, I’d like to talk about how aesthetes have handled this cultural divide: I suggest they’ve done so poorly. There is a lot to be learned from the audience who only accept games as an entertainment medium — they are not a mob of cultural philistines who need rehabilitation — many of them are people who legitimately use gaming to fill a particular need. Nobody engages with every form of media exclusively for cultural enlightenment: we all need entertainment and that should be protected.

We need to give hobbies some respect. I certainly haven’t in the past, mostly as I feel that I never have the time to do things creatively that I want to do. I believe now that I was wrong to think that way.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken up playing multiplayer games more seriously: it’s not really “for research” and it’s certainly not for artistic edification. I’m doing it because I like it and because I find it relieves stress. I’m also doing it to distract from some ongoing health problems I have which can be very frustrating at times. When I’m playing something like Smash or Starcraft, the pressure of creating something is gone: I’m just there, in the game. I’m never going to be a great player, I’m not making anything for anyone else but I have this burning desire to get inside the game and understand it. That need to become “good”, by some weird metric I define myself, is something that can underpin a hobby. Would I do this if I didn’t work in games? Possibly not. But a “hobby” is the closest thing I can call it.

This has helped me to see the perspective of hobbyists much more. Even if you believe you’re creating art, understanding the perspective of someone who approaches your creation with “what will I get out of this in the shortest possible time?” can be really edifying. Just as art can make a hobby better, so I increasingly believe that artists should try being hobbyists a little more.

We need more dialogue. Let’s make concessions: if one side agrees to stop shouting “pretentious!” and the other admits that, just sometimes, it’s nice to have a minimap then maybe we can all be friends?

Eh, who am I kidding? That’s never going to happen.


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