March 11, 2003

Anta Baka

Towards an Analysis of Video Gaming qua Social Interaction

With special guest Joseph N. Liss

What can juvenility and vulgarism mean on the University of Chicago campus? Culture is culture, and contemporaneity is important, and personally we find Sony and Nintendo about as useful to consumers of our time as Emile Durkheim. Therefore, we saw it fit to publish a survey of video gaming on campus. If intellectualism and mindless pleasures can go together anywhere, it would be here. Therefore, to help you digest your Kant with your Contra, we present our own Critique of Aesthetic Judgment for the phenomenon of the video game.

For those who favor sobriety, video games can provide all the derangement of the senses of alcohol, without the vomit in the bathtub (excluding, perhaps, Custer's Revenge). First-years who find regular socializing in the decrepit opulence of the Shoreland problematic have, in fact, been known to bond in the color-keyed plasticity of Super Mario Kart 64's Block Fort. Last year my roommates masterminded an eight-hour video game festival in the lounge of Filbey House. I was shocked by the legions of sallow gamers who crept out of every nook and cranny to take up an N64 controller. Super Battle Bros. may not be Scav Hunt, but who's complaining when you're showing your rivals what Link's sword tastes like?

Alcohol does seem to be the closest analogue to the video game, and I don't think it's too specious a comparison. Both are brain-killing recreational products which are exhilarating in groups, can provide stress relief when alone, and pose serious risks of addiction. Video games may even be classified according to a proof-measurement. Super Mario Bros., for example, is the equivalent of your Miller High Life, and Super Mario Bros. 3 could be considered the tawny port of the Nintendo. Super Mario Bros. 2 is a different story, most resembling absinthe; and like absinthe, it ought to have been banned in this country. This is a game in which you are obliged to kill a pink-ribboned dinosaur by throwing back at her the projectile eggs she spits at you. This might be a helpful case study in the quest to find out what the hell is the deal with Japan, where the game was released as Doki-Doki Panic. The enjoyment of video games is likewise comparable to the sense of taste; like food and drink, video games are susceptible to exacting criticism, and yet are devoid of significance. Unfortunately, video games are also devoid of nutritive value and, with rare exceptions, don't give your fat ass any exercise either. (A notable exception is the NES' Track and Field, a game which is quite possibly more of a workout than a mile run, especially since you have to do 12 consecutive races [on the Powerpad!] with about six seconds of down-time in between.)

Another appealing feature of video games is the degree of control they afford the player. Mega Man's multi-directional Metal Gear, for instance, seems to respond much better to my fingers than my grades do to my cerebrum. And speaking of Mega Man, can I just represent right now for the little blue guy's zero-friction ass-slide?

One point of controversy between us devoted souls and our parents/siblings/well-adjusted peers is the actual recreational value of watching another person play. I'm going to sum up my argument in one sentence: Watching The Two Towers is roughly equivalent to watching your friend play Warcraft III, except without the narrative economy.

Yet communal game watching is exactly the point in the case of Dance Dance Revolution. This is one of the only games acceptable at an otherwise semi-classy college ghetto party. Just remember they're laughing with you, not at you. So dance, shake up the liquor waiting placidly in your belly, and make your downstairs neighbors think there's a giant three-legged dog break dancing in your apartment.

But we tire of ceaseless action. There remains a desire to be told a story, and one genre stretches the frenzied and compacted medium out into 50-hour interactive visual novels--ideally, at least. This is the role-playing game. The standard of excellence in this department is Squaresoft; the very word is a token of reverence among initiates, nearly an assurance of greatness (excluding The Bouncer, in which it is an assurance of excessiveness). Their hallmark is the notorious Final Fantasy series. This is the alabaster pinnacle of art as far as video games are concerned, the one truly worthwhile solitary gaming experience. For those cold and abandoned nights of despair, too distracted to work and too anxious to read, there's nothing better than fixing yourself a night cap, plugging in an FF title for old times' sake, and fading into the strange, fantastic light of a world with the wistful authenticity of childhood imaginings. It's Wordsworthian, really.

Of Final Fantasies, the best and most famous is FF VII, the Divine Comedy of video games, every strand and detail somehow coming together into a perfect, near-inconceivable whole. Plug it in and give your immediate future to take part in one of the grandest visions ever to grace a television set.

Hidden Treasures:

Joe's Pick: In 1979, two troglodytic MIT students invented an austere, ominous, perversely funny problem-solving game. It really belies the term "video" game, because there's nothing to look at; it's a text adventure. The title: Zork. And so a legend is born, thrives briefly throughout the 80s, and then dies because people are illiterate. I'm sure free emulations of all the old Infocom classics can be found among cyber-antiquarians. See you this side of Flood Control Dam #3.

Yoshi's Pick: That would have to be Chiller, a little-known game that I haven't even played. Nevertheless, NK tells me that this ancient shooter, released back when we were all four or five years old, includes "defleshing" female torsos and groaning torture victims. The story is tenuous at best--how can you really justify capping dogs that are carrying human heads? You can't, but who would want to, anyway? In short, this is a pixilated forerunner of Doom, definite evidence that old school games were even more hardcore than current games.