POEMS FOR FINGERTIPS: HOW GAMES CAN HELP US LIVE BETTER - Andy Robertson
I’ve never been keen on silver linings. How can Heaven compensate for Auschwitz? On a smaller scale, the lesser misdemeanor of video game killing has often been justified because of supposed secondary benefits of staring at screens and shooting people in the head.
Whether learning pseudo history while killing people in Assassin’s Creed, developing strategic thinking gunning down opponents in Fortnite or teamwork as we teach teenager Ellie to kill in The Last of Us, these benefits miss the point.
Games are important, but not because we learn dexterity and cunning while we kill sex workers in Grand Theft Auto. They are significant, but not because we gain organisational skills while we set up mafia outfits to terrorize villagers. Like waiting for the compensation of an utopian afterlife to mitigate the darkness of the world, this completely misses the point.
Video games create other-worldly realities, sure, but they are enriching places to go because of how they receive us now, not because of skills or knowledge they teach us for the future. As we continue to return to their virtual streets, buildings, star-fields and caverns they become places in which we know ourselves better.
They receive us, and let us walk around the worlds they create. We get lost in the folds of their stories in a way distinct from books or films. To play a game is to poke around in a world in progress, with themes and narratives. It’s unlike any other media.
This is true, to some extent, of all games, no matter how simple or complex. The best examples used to be found mostly on PlayStation and Xbox consoles, but increasingly these experience are on smartphones, tablets and computers.
Many won’t have read this far. My perspective on video games jars with culture’s assumption that they are only for entertainment and usually played by juveniles. Meaning, value, spirituality and, let’s say it, art, aren’t what usually comes to mind.
The misunderstanding stems from video games appearing similar to other media. Games often include short non-interactive narrative movies between the action. They address the player like the reader of a novel. They are sold like summer blockbuster films.
Video games are also, let’s say this too, spreadsheets. Just underneath the living breathing ecosystems they paint are the brushstrokes of checks and balances; winning and losing. Sometimes these marks distract, but like brilliant brushwork the best games use these marks to build believable mechanics that match the storytelling.
In spite of appearances, then, games don’t tell stories like books or films. Narrative has to be searched out and overheard in the game world. The game creator isn’t in control of the camera or pacing like a director. The player dictates how fast the story proceeds and how much of it they engage with.
The experience of playing a game, and how games impact the lives of players, is much closer to poetry and painting than films, books and TV series. They are art objects: unlike other objects in our lives they don’t have a purpose. It’s their capacity to receive us into the virtual spaces they create that is so exciting and compelling for the player.
Like poetry, games help us live better not by the facts or skills they teach us, but by confronting us with what it means to be human. They create spaces where we not only discover who we really are, but hear — maybe for the first time — our own voice.
I love Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese, because it reminds me that I don’t have to be good to be accepted in the world. I deeply enjoyed playing The Last of Us, because it gently insisted I needed to compromise truth for the sake of living meaningfully in the world.
Another poem, Tree by Jane Hirshfield, came into my life when I needed to know the unsettling nature of life was inescapable. Another game, Journey, took me by the hand into deserted desolate lands that were suddenly made tolerable by the presence of a stranger.
Like poetry, games aren’t always easy to understand. The beauty of their form can make us feel like outsiders. Where do I start if I don’t understand rhyme, stanzas, form, meter, alliteration or other poetic elements? How do I start playing if I’ve not grown up with aiming, camera control, circle strafing, dual sticks or other video game basics? “Perhaps”, we tell ourselves, “games and poetry are simply not for someone like me”.
Good games, like good poetry, cross these boundaries and connect with us whether we are literate or not. Or, better still, good poetry teachers and game enthusiasts can illuminate what is happening in front of us and make it essential, vibrant and compelling.
Like moving beyond “If you can keep your head when all about you” and “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” finding games without the advertising budgets of FIFA and Call of Duty is a revelation. It’s here, in the broadening of our gaming diet, that we really start to discover what games have to offer.
I can save a land from monsters in Shadow of the Colossus, but become deeply unsure whether that was good. I can look after a child in a city under siege in This War of Mine, but have to choose between reassuring her and finding food. I can experience the passing of a lifetime in a few minutes in Passage, and be floored at the death of my wife. I can help my spouse flee from Syria in Bury Me My Love, only to discover my advice has lead her into the arms of brutal men.
These topics can be robustly addressed in film, novels and TV series, of course. In a video game, though, there is a unique fragile unpredictability. Our presence is required for the game to work its magic. We have to be in the right place at the right time, and not distracted in some other corner of the world.
So, when you encounter something meaningful in a game, the weight and significance of it is greater, because it so easily could have been missed or simply never happened.
Creating and advertising these kinds of games is difficult work that doesn’t turn an easy profit. It’s not by chance that gamers usually first point to big blockbuster titles as their poison of choice. That’s what industry giants wants them to do. It’s easier to make money selling the masses a rebadged version of the same game each year, than directing them to beautifully fragile experiences I’ve been talking about here.
You have to go looking for this broader pantheon of games. Over the last ten years I’ve been helping families, communities and faith groups find unusual games. It’s been fascinating to observe and document what’s happened. We’ve celebrated communion in a cathedral, using a PlayStation game, Flower. We’ve contemplated life in devotional services in big tops. We’ve journeyed at the Greenbelt festival with That Dragon, Cancer, one family’s game about their child’s story of illness. We’ve contemplated the death of our parents with a poetry world in Minecraft.
My favorite moments are unrepeatable. Not that I can’t tell you, but that they were unplanned beautiful moments which emerged because we relinquished control of proceedings and trusted the game to receive us.
There was the moment in the Cathedral during breaking the bread when whoever was controlling the game triggered an explosion of blood red flowers behind the priest. There was the apocalyptic storm raging outside the Greenbelt Big Top while we battled cancer in a tiny rowing boat. There was the online visiting player who helped lead our congregation through a desert and then decided to wait and sit with us, without knowing we were breaking bread and sharing wine.
Spend time playing a game and you can be surprised what it will teach you. Walk hand-in-hand with a game for a number of years and it can become a second home. Play and replay it like you would a poem. Gaze and move your eye over it like you would a text.
It’s this, not some secondary ends-justify-the-means silver lining, that make games - violence and all - important not to dismiss. The history of the human species has always depended on not letting the killing and murder in our big stories eclipse the value of life.
Andy Robertson (@geekdadgamer) provides families, churches, schools and communities weekly videos to introduce new meaningful games via his $1/month Patreon project. Click here to learn more.