If you think of games like I do, you might wonder why people ever thought to interpret games in the first place. Games have certain qualities that should make the medium resistant to interpretation, yet it’s done anyway. I went over a few in my last post, which were laid out by Susan Sontag. Games are young, they are mass culture instead of high art, they have “direct address,” and they have a formal vocabulary. Despite these, games are obviously interpreted. In this post, I’ll prove that games conform to Sontag’s criteria for an interpretation-resistant media as well as some other criteria which should help it avoid interpretation even more. After that, I want to explain why games have failed to escape interpretation despite having those qualities.
All of Sontag’s anti-interpretative qualities apply to video games. They are relatively young—academics generally do not recognize them as good or interesting, and there is no ingrained method of approaching games handed down from long-seated elites. Games are not high art—they are not held in high cultural esteem, they are not influential outside of the gaming sphere, they are not often housed in museums, there is a low intellectual barrier of entry, and games are not confined to the intelligentsia or high class. They also have a complicated vocabulary of form. Some common formal terms include mechanic, virtual sensation or game feel, hitscan, and depth. The last of Sontag’s criteria is a direct address. Games achieve directness through interaction and simplicity in subject matter. Interaction means that the artwork does not proceed without your input, and simplicity in subject matter means that games are usually not symbolic. They are direct in that they are engaging and require something of the viewer, and in that they do not obscure themselves in symbolism.
Aside from Sontag’s criteria, games also have two other qualities that should help them elude interpretation. First, games often have juvenile subject matter. Academics and would-be interpreters accustomed to serious subject matter in literature or film are driven away by the dominance of fantasy and violence in the subject matter of games. Second, games have an opportunity for consummation outside of interpretation: competition. In games, competition is a uniquely satisfying way to express love for a piece of art. Competition is such a satisfying form of consummation because it requires intimate knowledge of the game to perform, and because the skill required for competition showcases the depth of the game. The depth of a game is the primary contributor to its quality, so competitively playing a game is not only a statement of affection for a game but also a showcase of the game’s beauty. Competition is a huge asset for the medium of games for escaping interpretation. It diverts the passionate energy of gamers away from interpretation into a better form of consummation.
Despite games meeting so many criteria for a medium that should escape interpretation, games have not done so. The landscape of serious criticism is mostly interpretative. There is only a little formal analysis, and it is either shallow or used as a stepping stone to interpretation. There are a few big reasons why, despite the previously established advantages, games have failed to escape interpretation. First, interpretative methods are universal, and therefore default. They are universal because they naturally apply to anything. You can ask what practically anything means, or what the “message” of practically anything is. Interpretative methods are the default because players bring them over from popular commentary of film or literature. The youth of games means the methods are not handed down from prominent game academics, but they are still imported by the players themselves. They have been trained to approach art with interpretation.
The second reason games have failed to escape interpretation is that interpretation has undeserved cultural purchase. Interpretation is associated with more serious art forms and with academia. Those flattering associations mean people think interpretation is necessarily more in-depth, intellectual, or difficult than formal analysis. Aside from these incorrect assumptions about interpretation, people also misunderstand formal analysis and usually have not read outstanding examples of it, in part because examples are so rare. For many gamers, a formal analysis is just like a commercial review—a list of features and evaluation based on price. There is a false dichotomy in the minds of gamers that formal analyses must be shallow and commercial, while interpretative analyses are intellectual and academic.
Interpretation’s cultural purchase also means gamers who want the medium to be taken more seriously will apply interpretation to it. There is a contingent of gamers who are desperate for the medium to appear for mature, more serious, and more valuable. Instead of understanding and educating others about the beauty of games, this contingent mangles games with interpretation in a pathetic ploy for the validation of voices outside of the medium. This impulse to posture and prostrate is understandable, because it may have been caused by frequent attacks on games as immature, a waste of time, anti-Christian, causing misogyny, and even causing violent atrocities such as Columbine. These charges should be dealt with seriously and vigorously while recognizing the importance of not putting strict social restrictions on art. If games are dangerous in a way that is not artistically valuable, then interpretation is surely not the answer, nor is groveling at the feet of more mature art forms.
Interpretative methods are also arguably easier, so people naturally fall into them. There are two aspects of interpretation that make it appear easier. First, it comes with pre-fabricated vocabulary and tropes which are applied to the artwork, thus translating the artwork to accommodate those interpretative tools. The second reason interpretation is easier to perform is that interpretation can act as safety gloves to protect the consumer from the power of the artwork. Viewing a piece of art completely on its own terms and bringing as little to the artwork as possible is challenging and can be emotionally moving. Bringing in a critical apparatus is a way to tame the wild power of art. Sontag says it like this: “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.” Like all art, games can be hard to totally understand. It is not surprising that people would rather bring in a pre-established interpretative apparatus than start from the ground up with the work itself, or with methods that cannot be imported from other media.
Critics and consumers of games have elevated interpretation to a privileged position where it does not deserve to sit. There are a few strategies to unseat it. The easiest way is to note the diversity of games and the diversity of art in general. Many of the most familiar forms of art seem to be a good fit for interpretation, like literature or film. Considering the variety of art can remind us that interpretation and art are not actually a natural fit. Landscape architecture, absolute music, clothing design, pastry cooking, dance, and typography are all forms of art which do not cleanly map onto interpretation. These are forms of art which are valuable, but which usually do not have much metaphorical meaning or interpretative traction. They are simply beautiful.
The field of games specifically has great diversity, and the best games often cannot be reasonably interpreted. Doom (1993), Tetris, and Super Smash Bros. Melee are all accepted as masterpieces, yet they are not interpreted. Their value is in their beauty, and their beauty is in their mechanics. Doom is a first-person shooter whose fast and precise movement mechanics set it above most shooters produced today in terms of quality. Tetris is a puzzle game that achieves accessibility and incredible depth. It is an elegantly built game that would be seriously hurt by adding or removing any mechanic. Melee offers nearly unmatched depth with its large roster of unique characters, a few unique systems like DI, and its many advanced techniques. New techniques are still occasionally discovered fifteen years later, and its competitive scene has never been more popular. Many people only encounter a narrow range of cinematic games with a story that begs for interpretation. By broadening one’s view of games and art in general, one can see how narrow interpretation really is.
One problem with people appreciating the greatness of great games is that people generally do not master games. That’s in part because mainstream games have become more story-focused, so people feel finished with the game once they have reached the end of the story. However, the beauty in games is usually unclear until you have mastered a game and you understand its depth. Even when people put a lot of time into a game, it is often mindless time that leaves the player with a shallow understanding of the game. Part of taking games seriously is seriously trying to understand them. Just as you cannot understand what makes Moby Dick great by skimming your favorite parts eternally, you cannot understand what makes Melee great by playing for a few hours without learning any of the advanced or hidden mechanics. Since games are great in virtue of their depth, it is essential to play games actively and attentively. If people do not play games seriously, then they will not understand why the good ones are good. If they do not understand why the good ones are good, they will not understand why interpretation has no place in games.
The final method to dethrone interpretation in the minds of gamers is to embrace games as they are. This is a counter to one pillar holding up interpretation in particular: the aforementioned self-flagellation before more mature mediums in hopes of receiving validation. Much of interpretation in games is confusion about what makes art worthwhile because of this medium anxiety or shame. People are ashamed to play games, so they import interpretation to give games veneer of thoughtfulness, seriousness, and maturity. In the process, though, they assume that all artistic value comes from meaning. They obscure what makes games beautiful because they think games must be meaningful in order to be valuable. To cure that destructive shame, people should engage games as games, not as stories, fantasies, simulations, or virtual worlds. It is impossible to be distracted by the “shadow world of ‘meanings’” (Sontag) while you are experiencing the joy of skillfully playing a game with depth and satisfying virtual sensation.