Insomnia | Commentary

Basic Instincts

By Alex Kierkegaard / June 15, 2009

Every error, of whatever kind, is a consequence of degeneration of instinct, disgregation of will: one has thereby virtually defined the bad. Everything good is instinct -- and consequently easy, necessary, free.

Friedrich Nietzsche


What is a better game? This is the chief question of game criticism -- indeed ultimately the only one. Please note that I said "better", not "good", for the question "What is a good game?" is just as meaningless as its opposite. There is no such thing as a "good game", taken on its own, apart from all the rest, existing by itself in some kind of eternal vacuum. Value judgements for and against can only be made in the course of comparisons between similar objects -- for if there existed only a single game in the world it would of course be "the best game ever" (though at the same time, it has to be said, also the worst...) This explains why the demand to evaluate something "on its own merits" betrays naivety and stupidity almost worthy of reverence. It is to some such claptrap that stupid people resort to when attempting to defend their crude tastes against the attacks of superior criticism.

So what is a better game? Unfortunately, this happens to be not merely the chief question of game criticism -- it is at the same time a philosophical question of the first order. Woe to him who attempts to answer it while lacking the necessary theoretical background -- he would be like a man wishing to build a car while being ignorant of the workings of the wheel, metallurgy, the internal combustion engine, and all the other technologies that the design and construction of cars presupposes. If he was unwilling to study them, whether because of stupidity or laziness or even simply out of ignorance of their very existence, he would need to possess not only an unheard-of level of genius in order to manage to reinvent all of them by himself, but also an extraordinarily long life span (think Methuselah).

It is not my intention to answer here the chief question of game criticism (though I will be answering it eventually...) -- it is my intention to explain the workings of the mechanism by means of which it becomes perfectly possible to evaluate games (i.e. review them), and to evaluate them well, without this answer. For, on the face of it, without the answer such evaluations should be impossible, since it is the answer that would provide us with the criteria on which to base our evaluations. And yet all of us have hitherto managed to evaluate games just fine -- we know very well what we like and dislike, regardless of whether we are capable of explaining, of articulating why; and a game that we like more than another is, naturally enough, as far as we are concerned (-- and that is ultimately all that we should be concerned with --) a "better game".

But how does one evaluate without criteria? the very notion is self-contradictory! -- This is yet another philosophical question of the first order (they seem to be everywhere these days!), though unlike the first one I posed a very easy one to answer: "The same way one has always done: by instinct."

At this point I will take a break from the proceedings in order to bring up on the stage and introduce an adversary. I am afraid that, much like Baudrillard, I too am always at my best "when challenging an adversary"; otherwise, like him, I tend to lose some of my sharpness. Fighting against phantoms can be tiring (besides being ultimately pointless), and while shadow-boxing has its uses, every boxing coach knows that live sparring is the best kind of training for a fighter (not to mention the most enjoyable!), and the same holds true for thinkers.

So today's adversary will be Charles J. Pratt, professor of Game Studies at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Mr. Pratt has recently done me the honor of including one of my essays in the curriculum of one of his postgraduate courses. Unfortunately, I am not certain I should take this for a compliment, because the rest of his curriculum is mostly terrible, not to mention that he places my essay in a "New Games Journalism" context, which couldn't conceivably be any further from where it belongs. This mistake is equivalent to regarding Nietzsche's writings as socialist or Baudrillard's as humanist (both unforgivable mistakes which have of course been committed and continue to be committed) -- but that's academia for you: If a mistake can at all be made, they will be sure to make it.

So I will now proceed to attack the only academic who to my knowledge has so far taken me seriously. To accusations of ingratitude or tactlessness coming from onlookers I can only shrug and answer with Nietzsche: "to attack is with me a proof of good will, under certain circumstances of gratitude. I do honor, I confer distinction when I associate my name with a cause, a person: for or against."

So what mistake worth challenging has Mr. Pratt committed, aside from lumping my Arcade Culture essay with the naive babble of the NGJ crowd? He has made an extremely misleading attempt to summarize the various so-called "modes" of critical thought based on which, in his estimation, people evaluate games. The article itself may perhaps be worth reading, for one can sometimes learn just as much from incorrect theories as from correct ones, but it is so full of the most grievous misunderstandings, of the greatest blunders on the most fundamental concepts, that it would be an odious business to comment on it in detail. If I was grading it I would be obliged to use, not a red pen, but a red brush.

Thankfully this is not necessary, for we really only need to identify his main mistake, the one from which all the rest proceed, which is his lack of trust in his own instincts -- indeed, at this point, it is to be doubted whether he even has any. Too much reading of other people's theories, too much theorizing in general, will do that to a person: it is the surest way of weakening and ultimately losing one's own instincts, the only tools in the last resort by which one can guide oneself, by which one can view things aright. Once the instincts have been weakened, error proceeds immediately. Instead of looking inside oneself to discover what one likes and dislikes, and eventually, in the long run, distilling from that the criteria, the rules, on which to base further, more accurate, more nuanced evaluations, one looks around him for what others are doing, how others are evaluating; and when asked, when forced to provide an evaluation (as professional reviewers are by their bosses, or incurable posers by their peers), one cobbles and patches together from the leftovers and bits and pieces of other people's judgements some abortive little theory, and ends up by spouting something hilarious along the lines of "its playability hinges squarely and mundanely on just how gamelike it is." -- This is the unavoidable, the inexorable fate of all those who undertake a thing not as an end, but as a means to further ends; of all those who want to seem what they are not, who wish to pass for something else; of all those, in short, who lack passion -- for passion is the driver, the prime mover of the instincts par excellence. -- Passion is what puts the instincts in motion, and is in turn fed and directed by them: without passion, there can be no taste. Without it, the question of taste does not even arise; for passion is desire, and how could anyone develop a taste for a thing one does not even desire? How could his evaluations ever be anything other than humbug? Anything other than random, arbitrary, self-contradictory, and ultimately nonsensical? And conversely, shouldn't the highest, the most nuanced, the more highly developed taste be found among those who are the most passionate? And wouldn't they also be the ones more likely to disregard outside influences, outside voices, outside opinions, again and again treating them with contempt and always unfailingly siding with their own instincts? -- But I can hear the murmur of the rabble in the background: it speaks of "objectivity", "lack of bias", and other noble, shining, fair illusions. Well, then, let's leave the rabble to its illusions: Those who are dreaming fair dreams are often mightily annoyed if they are rudely awakened from them, and, alas! every such awakening is and must always of its nature be -- rude.

But let's get back to my friend and current adversary, Mr. Pratt. What Mr. Pratt has done, in plain terms, the error he has committed, is to "jump the gun" on this matter. He has done the equivalent of a mineralogist who goes out, picks up from the ground one or two rocks at random, and then takes them back to his lab and proceeds to construct from them a theory of the inner composition of the entire planet -- or even worse, a number of such theories! (Mr. Pratt has four, lol.) But dear Mr. Pratt, theories, solid, profound, well-founded, lasting theories, cannot be constructed in this way -- only jokes can be constructed in this way -- for such theories what is needed are many samples, and not only from the surface of the earth! One must pick several spots -- several, not just one or two! -- and dig deep, as deep as possible, ideally deep enough to get to the center of the earth and back out the opposite way if possible, collecting more and more samples along the way. But for such a task one must be tireless, driven, relentless -- in a single word: passionate -- that is how worthwhile, lasting theories are constructed -- not by cursory perusal of random websites and pleasant reveries on lazy Sunday afternoons.

So let us finally get to the point: Mr. Pratt is searching for criteria on which to evaluate games. The way for him to accomplish this is to close his web browser, load up his currently favorite game, and play the fuck out of it. Play it either until he has become so good at it that he has grown bored of it -- or until he has simply grown bored of it, period. At that point the criteria will immediately manifest themselves out of his innermost being, and point him towards the next game, the better one. Because the ultimate, the higher answer to the question I posed earlier -- "How does one evaluate without criteria?" -- is that one doesn't; every evaluation presupposes criteria -- if the subject is not aware of them, if, that is to say, he is not conscious of them, why, then they will of course exist in his subconsciousness. And how does the voice of the subconsciousness speak out in man? Why -- through the instincts of course!

But, to say it again, for the instincts to be allowed to speak out truthfully, unobstructed; for their voice to ring out and make itself heard loud and clear, there must be real, genuine thirst there, deep desire -- not boredom, nor compulsion. Once Mr. Pratt is through with his currently favorite game (and it is absolutely vital that it be his favorite...) he must seek out the next game, the better game -- not because he is following my advice on how to construct a decent critical theory, but because he is burning up with desire to find it and to play it! He must, in other words, stop being a professor, or a journalist, or a blogger, or an internet forum blabbermouth, all of whom sooner or later end up pursuing games more as a means for generating material for "discussion", for chattering in other words, and less and less for the enjoyment they derive from them, until they eventually come to derive most of their enjoyment from the discussion, from the hits on their blog, the number of replies, the money in their bank account, their reputation among their friends, peers or the general public, from the feeling of overcoming others' views and imposing on them their own (a noble feeling for which a lot can be said, but not in this context), whilst the game itself they finally demote to merely a means of achieving one or another of these ends (or often enough all of them together, as happens with the professionals). At that point their comments and their criticism become entirely worthless, not only to others, but even and above all to themselves. Such people have lost their instincts, and thenceforward become physically incapable of seeking out and finding what is good -- which is to say what is better.

That is why the playground conversations of children have always contained more wisdom, more genuine and profound criticism, than anything that pathetically tries to pass itself off as such in today's specialist press. Because children, when they play games, become entirely engrossed in them: nothing else in the world matters -- nothing else in the world exists as far as they are concerned -- for them the game and nothing but the game is the end. That is true childishness -- it is also, as Nietzsche pointed out, mature manhood ("Mature manhood: that means to have rediscovered the seriousness one had as a child at play.") And thus the child immediately knows:

-How would Street Fighter II become better?

More characters! More stages! More moves! Bigger and more fluidly animated sprites! Faster and with more elaborate and brutal effects! With more and better music!

-How would Dune II become better?

More units! More structures! Larger map size! More and more unpredictable, more intelligent adversaries! Better graphics! Better music! Better sound effects!

-How would Wolfenstein 3D become better?

More varied locations and scenarios! (Shooting Nazis inside a castle for hours on end eventually becomes boring.) More sprawling, realistic environments! More dynamic situations! More enemies and more friends -- human ones if possible! And of course always better graphics, better music and better sound effects!

-How would Space Invaders become better?

Bigger and more detailed enemies! More detailed and colorful graphics! And can we make the spaceship, you know, move around the screen, and travel to different planets and space environments? And can those different locations each present us with its own set of enemies and obstacles, as well as its own particular music and atmosphere?

-How would Grand Theft Auto III become better?

More and larger areas! More and more varied missions! Greater variety of moves, weapons and vehicles! More elaborate plot development and as many alternative paths through it as possible!

Et cetera, et cetera.

What I am trying to explain, and it is quite a delicate, quite a subtle thing, is that the bullet-point, feature-list style of criticism which the pseudo-intellectuals and the artfags are pleased to look down on while they themselves babble on about "playabilities" which "hinge squarely and mundanely", is the only honest, the only genuine kind of game criticism. -- It is game criticism itself. -- The answer, then, to the question "What is a better game?", the answer to the chief question of game criticism, is essentially contained in the above feature-lists. Because all these features are -- make no mistake about it -- definite improvements, every single one of them: the instinct of the child who thinks only of the game and nothing but the game is never wrong. And if you observe attentively the evolution of these children's tastes (-- better yet, if yourself become a child and observe yourself --) as they devote themselves to this or to that game (meaning genre) and, like the mineralogist who has picked a spot at random and started digging, but who, once he has started does not stop but keeps digging deeper and deeper into the earth (for in the last resort if one digs straight down, one will always arrive at the center regardless of the starting point...), keep following their evolving tastes, moving slowly and deliberately from game to game, devoting more time to some, less to others, all the while adjusting and refining their original wish-list of improvements; you will eventually discover the rules that underpin their evaluations, for you will have collected enough data from which to infer them. All it takes to extract these rules, these criteria, from these data is an act of abstraction, an inference from the particular cases to the general one. That is how rules are constructed, "laws of nature", and criteria (and since man is a part of nature, what would those criteria which determine his tastes be if not yet another "law of nature"?) Now what do all these desirable features, these improvements demanded by the children, the most passionate, experienced and dedicated gamers, have in common? Therein lies Mr. Pratt's answer, and with this answer the instinctive criteria which were formerly subconscious become conscious. It is only at that point that superior criticism can begin.