Saturday, 6 August 2011

Article Afterthoughts: Shorting a Circuit in the Irrational Hate Machine

My boyfriend, in what was actually a very sweet gesture, posted my article The Best of Both Worlds on a regularly visited message board of his--which will go unnamed. I'm already fully aware of the rampant anti-intellectualism and misogyny festering on the site (although he still finds use for it, my boyfriend refers to the board as an "irrational hate machine"), but I still found it hard to accept when my piece, touching on the very contentious feminism and literary analysis, garnered mostly ridicule and dismissal. One poster openly refused to even read my article because he saw that it was authored by a woman. Others demeaned me, and it, clearly pretending to have read it (or, demonstrating the limitations of their reading comprehension). But it crossed a line for me when another user, a real prize pig himself, creeped upon my Twitter page, posted my profile pic on the message board, and proclaimed in all caps that I used to be a man. Finally: they were attacking my appearance. In retrospect, it took them awhile.

I became red in the face, wept like a little girl, and asked my boyfriend to never again post my work on that site. Not that I suppose it matters. I was angry for a little while (deep down, I still am); I wondered how people could be so cruel. But my obsessive rage forced me to think about what had happened: the common theme of that thread wasn't purely about misogyny, and it certainly wasn't focused on calling me ugly. No: the common motif was a dismissal of videogame analysis beyond formalism.

Those posters who read it, and I would bet my writing hand several of those who hadn't, dismissed the piece because it attempted to marry literary criticism with videogame criticism. Some took exception to the fact that I used James Joyce as part of my thesis on Bayonetta: how can one compare the genius of Joyce with something so absurd as Bayonetta. Let me just get this out of the way: never do I say that the writing of Bayonetta is as good as Joyce. My comparison was never based on quality. What I was doing, and I'm sure this is obvious to the literate, was drawing a parallel between the Joyceian style and the use of symbolism to illustrate character in Bayonetta. Many others accused me of "overanalyzing" it, claiming with certainty that there is nothing of literary value in the game. It's not like I played it four times, consecutively, or anything. And all those allusions and symbols and juxtapositions in the game? Just scenery. Don't think about it. There's nothing there, so don't reflect. Just do your combos and don't think about it.

It seems to me, and this is just my humble observation, that videogame criticism which attempts to get past the formalist analysis of game mechanics is still considered taboo by some.

Formalism is important; don't get me wrong. It's the basis of criticism. But it is hard to talk about worldview and meaning without looking through various critical lenses. And I am not, before you ask, suggesting that videogame theory and criticism is invalid in and of itself. Absolutely not. It's actually a profound and compelling body of study. But let's be real: videogames do not exist in a creative vacuum. To contextualize them in the world of art means recognizing when they borrow from other artistic media. So isn't it worth knowing the language of that media? When a videogame contains strong literary, narrative elements, might it be useful to know how to discuss those elements?

Let me tell you a little story. When I was a kid, I took swimming lessons at my local civic center. At first I was terrified, and I resented those stupid caps they made us wear. I had never gone past the shallow end without floaties, and I certainly didn't want to drown in the deep. I was comfortable where it was shallow. I could feel the bottom of the pool with my feet; I knew it ended there, and that's all I needed to know. But as lessons wore on, I slowly acclimated to deeper waters. Eventually, the deep end no longer seemed scary: it became mysterious and fascinating. I wanted to explore it. I wanted to dive down to the bottom, shoot back up to the top, and tell the adults of my magnificent exploits. In time, the shallow end stopped looking comfortable: it just looked shallow. Boring. Nothing to explore. As soon as I could, I was hopping off the high dive without much regard for the safety of my head. Once I learned to navigate the deep end, a whole world of swimming opened up to me.

I still like to hang out in the shallow end sometimes. It takes less energy; I barely have to be conscious of what I'm doing. But I always venture forth into the deep blue. Swimming is just no fun without it.

The point is, I feel like there's a significant percentage of the videogame community which wades resolutely in the shallow end. It's almost as though they've been there so long that they refuse to admit that a deep end might actually exist. And if that's where some feel comfortable, then I suppose that's all right. It becomes problematic for me, however, when they not only refuse to consider that games can be deep, meaningful, or even artistic, but they react with hostility when someone does. While that crack about my Twitter pic made me very self-conscious of my jawline, what disturbed me more was that this person deemed this an appropriate response to my article, to me. This goes past disagreement and opens up a whole can of worms about tolerance, empathy, ethics, and yes, intelligence.

But there's nothing there. Stop overanalyzing it. You can touch the bottom, right? Then that's all there is. Just put on your floaties and turn your brain off.


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