Research and Perception

There is a litmus test for whether video games are considered a genuine art form, and everyone fails it. Pictured below is Anita Sarkeesian, the woman behind Feminist Frequency, a website and blog that explains feminism through examples in popular culture. Last year, she created a Kickstarter for a video series on Tropes vs. Women in video games, an examination of the stock personalities and raisons d’être for female characters in gaming. The Kickstarter drew a huge amount of both support and hatred, and I’ll avoid letting this post turn into a directionless vent/rant, but what I find interesting is the image she used to show off her research materials:

Anita Sarkeesian  From any objective point of view, the purpose of this image is clear: Ms. Sarkeesian is taking her work seriously – look at all the games she’s compiling! If one wants to examine tropes, by definition a pattern or recognizable attribute that is common in a medium or genre, it makes complete sense to have such a vast library of evidence of draw from. But most people’s (including my own) initial reaction? Probably something along the lines of “So, she’s playing dozens upon dozens of games, and calls it research???

Our conscious minds can correct that gut reaction. Our reasonable, intelligent, objective state of mind can stop us from continuing along a faulty, misguided strain of thought. Yet its very existence is what concerns me.

The fact is, research can and is being done where video games are the source material. In order to conduct research, one must go through the art in a comprehensive manner with an analytical mindset. In the online journal Game Studies, researcher Greg Smith played Final Fantasy VII to study the role of dialogue in setting the game’s tone, and how dialogue conventions can be used in what many consider to be a primarily visual medium. Whether publishing in a scholarly journal or not, we as a society should start to process the idea that games aren’t just for pleasure.

Now, compare the image above to what is pictured below, a compilation of all the books I read this semester for my Classics of Rome class. (A class where we read english translations of Roman literature.)

Classics Books By contrast, this stack looks like a compendium rich with meaning. If I drop this stack on a table, it makes a clap guaranteed to shock nearby onlookers. The Classics stack is daunting. One almost trembles at the thought of having to pore over each page, as I did, in writing several papers. Unless you’re a classics major, a historian, or a university professor, the idea of going through all of this is off-putting.

Yet if I’d dropped a stack of Ms. Sarkeesian’s games on the table in front of you, the reaction would be happier and more appreciative. And that’s fine. Games are inherently a fun medium, and we’d be lying if we said that we didn’t enjoy playing them, even when it’s with a purpose. When I sat down to prepare for my blog post about Japanese/Western elements in The Last Story, I had to go back, load some old save files, and replay parts of the game. I spent several hours playing, brainstorming, and playing again, followed by a healthy dose of research and consulting my notes from my Japanese Literature class. And I had fun while doing this.

But I also had fun reading through (most of) my Classics books. Horace is funny. Juvenal’s biting wit was enthralling. Cicero’s speeches were utterly brilliant. Lucretius, while a tad didactic, was interesting. Seneca’s tragedies were like a car wreck from which I couldn’t look away.

Yes, I was reading literature that’s two millennia old. The books were numerous and lengthy, and at times they were dull. But I enjoyed reading them while I prepared for papers and exams, just as I enjoyed reviewing The Last Story for the Japanese/Western elements blog post. (And I’m not a Classics major, a historian, or a university professor. I’m an undeclared economics major.)

These two scenarios are nearly identical. I went through the work, taking notes, referencing older parts of it (by page-turning or older save files), and constantly developing a stream of thoughts and ideas that I could then shape into a definitive thesis. Games and books only differ in how one accesses them.

During Ms. Sarkeesian’s kickstarter campaign, one of the more dim-witted attacks on her project and her character was that she was ‘getting other people to pay for her to play games’. The spirit of that attack is completely wrong-headed, and it’s one of the main reasons why video games are unable to get themselves taken seriously as an art form worthy of literary analysis. You know what college professors do? Yeah, they teach a few courses, but they mostly are paid to sit around, read, and write. Why? Because we recognize that having a class of experts who can devote their time to research and analysis is beneficial to society.

As gamers, we need to become more aware of our perceptions in regards to games in different contexts. If we have a difficult time seeing games as potential research materials, as possible mines for analysis, then how can we ever expect mainstream society to do so? Games are art, and while we’re well-familiar with the entertainment side of that art, we need to become acquainted with the research/analysis aspect. If we see games as art, then we force others to investigate why, and that investigative process opens their eyes as well.

So, tell me: What do you see in Anita Sarkeesian’s photo?

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3 responses to “Research and Perception

  1. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a work you’re analyzing. If the only people who could say anything of note about art were those who couldn’t connect with it, there wouldn’t be any point to discussing it at all. That said, there’s a lot of intellectual mileage behind truly analyzing a work, so much more than simply going through it once and being done with it.

    Looking at that picture, I’m not really seeing how one would have the time to put in the necessary work if she’s truly playing all those games. Nor am I sure if those games are truly representative of the medium. But she hasn’t released a video about modern games yet, so I guess we can wait and see where she goes with it.

    • You’re right about the need to enjoy a work. If people didn’t enjoy or connect with art, then it’d be meaningless to analyze it. My point is that, just as we do with literature, we must be able to see games as something to both enjoy and analyze…and hopefully without distinguishing between “AAA games” and “art games”.
      Regarding Ms. Sarkeesian: She posted on facebook that her second video is close to completion, and the main problem now is striking a balance. She needs to demonstrate the pervasiveness of violence against women in games without going overboard in the graphic imagery.
      She did have a period of about 9 months between her Kickstarter and the posting of her first video, so I imagine the interim was spent going through everything.

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