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Out of Bounds

Since my workload escalated beyond manageability last week, I’ve been worrying about the future of Game Studies. When undone tasks loom so large that they block out the sun, rather than turning to face them like a man, I scurry into the shadows like an insect. A videogame-playing insect.

Videogames are for me principally a form of procrastination, and I suspect I’m not alone in this. I play games rather than do what I should be doing, especially when whatever that is involves concentrated mental effort. Games engage me on a level that allows me to turn my mind off. As Jonathan Blow said at his talk last week, part of games’ appeal may rest on their construction of a space where our roles and goals are clearly delimited and defined—in contrast to the rest of our lives. I play games so I don’t have to think.

This is not to suggest that games aren’t worth attention and study, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that the close readings and analysis commonly employed in other critical scholarship may prove too high-level given that we interface with videogames at an almost autonomic level. They might add a layer of metaphorical cultural significance to our experience of games but they won’t help us “understand” the experience itself any better because ultimately, the experience is outside of our understanding. It makes me think of Freud and the glaring fallacy of psychoanalysis—that one can rationally analyze the irrational.

This may also have been what Jonathan Blow was referring to when he discussed “ethical” game design. If what I’ve said above is true, then videogame designers have unwittingly let themselves in through the brain’s backdoor, gaining wholesale access to neural nether regions that non-digital games only access in a much more limited and sporadic fashion and that other activities barely access at all. Can we then really talk about meaning in games the same we do in books and movies?

“No,” says the gamer’s glazed look, his reflexive button pushing, and his worried parents who accuse him of not “using” his brain. The way we’ve been talking about games is the way Freud talked about dreams—using analogies. People write about writing, make films about film, and paint about painting. Where’s the game that plays about games?

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