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The Trashy and the Sublime

We recognize the difference between high art and low art in other media. That axis is relevant for games, too.

Edward McNeill, Blogger

July 25, 2013

4 Min Read

There are certain TV shows that I enjoy watching, but still try to avoid. One example is TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a series documenting the lives of a impoverished rural American family. The show could be sociologically interesting, but instead it seems to prioritize ridicule and humiliation. I’ve found that I can enjoy it and laugh at the family of Honey Boo Boo easily enough, but only if I turn off my brain and give in to the shallowest, meanest aspects of my personality. If I try to watch with more consideration and compassion instead, the show just feels sad and mean. I can only enjoy the show if I cultivate the worst parts of myself.

If TV shows had opposites, Honey Boo Boo's might be something like HBO’s The Wire. This series was fictional as opposed to Honey Boo Boo's nonfiction, and featured sex, drugs, and violence aplenty, yet was still far more intelligent and enriching. The Wire pulled me into a complex, realistic, relevant story that made me think critically and reconsider my biases and assumptions. I enjoyed it immensely, but not as a guilty pleasure. Instead, I feel certain that it made me a better person.

I don’t imagine that anybody is surprised by this observation; we already have a cultural understanding of “trash TV”. In most media, we routinely and instinctively differentiate guilty pleasures from higher art. And yet, in the realm of games, we too often lump together entertaining games under the label of “fun”, as if our enjoyment and pleasure are all that matter. It’s not so simple as that.

Consider a game of slots. I rationally understand that a game of slots is rigged against me; no matter how well I play, I will never get the upper hand, and most of the time I’ll just lose money. However, I can still get pleasure out of slots, in the same way I can enjoy Honey Boo Boo. If I choose to turn off my brain, I can enjoy the lights and sounds, the fake “close calls”, the fantasy that I’m about to win big, and the feeling of false agency. I can only enjoy the game if I give in to my biases and weaknesses.

The opposite of slots may be Go, a game that can only be enjoyed by engaging with its strenuous strategic challenge. But I think a more instructive counterpoint might be Poker. When people play a game of Texas Hold ‘Em, they can enjoy the same close calls and randomized outcomes as slots, but the game is always asking the player for more. Poker confronts players with the option to play smart, to overcome mere luck and instinct and gain a true advantage. At high levels of skill, players must find advantages beyond probability, learning to read the competition and exhibit careful self-control to avoid tilt. Poker can be simple fun, but it also encourages players to think deeper, see through the game’s traps, and improve their skills over time.

The point of this example is that an enriching game doesn’t require educational content or an ascetic focus on strategy. In fact, I believe that most games are enriching to some extent, and often in more ways than one. Most commonly, any novel and significant challenge is enough to do the job. A challenging game requires players to learn new mechanics, discover the dynamics, train their skills, and apply themselves to the task until victory is achieved. I come out of these games feeling stronger, more confident, and more wise than I used to be.

Games can also offer value through narrative, much like other media. A good story, in any format, is naturally enriching; if it’s both internally realistic and novel, then the story is teaching us something new and true. If a story is shallow or nonsensical, we might still enjoy it for its fast plot or sensational moments (see exploitation films for example), but most sophisticated readers/viewers/players will recognize it as lower art.

I don’t want to focus too much on enrichment, though. That’s only one way in which games can ascend beyond guilty pleasures. Another way might be to remove the “guilt” from the “pleasure”. Much like a limited, decadent dessert, a game might offer simple fun without being shallow or exploitative.

Or, we could find value by discovering deeper sorts of fulfillment. Professors Eric Zimmerman and Frank Lantz have both argued convincingly that games should aspire to reach the level of the sublime. I don’t feel qualified to go into greater detail, but Lantz’s talk “Life and Death and Middle Pair: Go, Poker and the Sublime” is freely available and very much worth watching.

This discussion of “guilty pleasures” and “higher art” will probably leave me open to accusations of snobbery, but Zimmerman has argued that we need more of this kind of snob, and I think he’s right. We have plenty of stupid fun on the level of Honey Boo Boo, and the developers who are making more ambitious games should be able to feel proud of what they’re doing. At first glimpse, The Wire might look like just another formulaic police procedural, and it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not. It offers something deeper, and we should treasure it, like it deserves.

- @E_McNeill

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