A Dumb Article About Smart Games

Earlier today The Brainy Gamer took a well-placed swing at an insufferable article in The Atlantic Monthly with the insufferable Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid. The article starts out with a sideways insult (“video games are juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy”) and doesn’t get much better.

One of my pet peeves is anti-intellectualism, and I’ve been known to rail at length against the attitude that ignorance is cool. But, ye gods, Mr. Blow comes across as a huge wanker. During the course of the article Blow manages to “accidentally” play poignant moments from an audiobook of Thoreau’s Walden (while decrying Anna Karenina as trash, natch), tries really hard to enigmatically break into tai chi, and talks about how his latest game is filled audio of himself narrating his “deepest secrets” about being ignored in grade school. Seriously, dude? Gimme a break.

Of course, that’s just me getting in a few verbal blows on some jerk in a magazine, which is satisfying if not entirely mature or topical. The real problem of the article is that it’s a complete dismissal of the entire video game industry. Taylor Clark, the author, even starts a page by saying:

“There’s no nice way to say this, but it needs to be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb.”

Oh god, SO PRECIOUS. The second sentence just screams, “video games are for dumb man nerds” which is both rude and also shows a disturbing lack of comprehension about the current video game market. More importantly, though, the author has tried to slip two arguments through that first sentence as though they are common wisdom: that video games are dumb, and that it “needs to be said”.

The Brainy Gamer suggests addressing the first argument by creating a Smart Game Catalog, which is a great idea. There are plenty of games that have tickled my thinkin’ bits, and certainly more than the “handful” implied in this article. Want some examples? Plants vs. Zombies, SpaceChem, hardcore speed runs in Kingdom of Loathing (I have never done so much paper planning for one hour of play), Atom Zombie Smashers, Machinarium, Portal.

Seems like there are plenty of “smart” games to me. So wait, is Clark (and Blow) instead arguing that video games should be literary masterpieces? If he’s looking for story-telling prowess he should check in with the Mass Effect trilogy (ending aside, a magical story), interesting non-American offerings such as Deadly Premonition, and truly unique interactive story experiences like Yumi Nikki and more recently Journey.

Of course, there are plenty of dumb games. My response to that is: so what? Does this really “need to be said”? I doubt anyone with a genuine interest in games will be surprised to hear that they are not necessarily always high art. Does the existence of superhero comic books invalidate the art of Walden? Does the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey mean that the entire book industry is dumb?

By my definition games are supposed to be a form of play or sport that we find fun, whether smart or not. Way to smash open the entire industry with the unbidden revelation that people relax and waste time with.. time wasters. You just blew the elf ears right off of my head!

In short I, um, really didn’t like this article. The whole “video games are for manchildren” thesis is not only coming to us straight from 1990, but it’s also an incredibly simplistic (and, I would argue, privileged) approach that ignores other fascinating conundrums in modern gaming. I suppose none of those topics would have made Clark and Blow feel so clever, though.

Author: Jessica Cook

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4 Comments

  1. Yeah, I’ve not really been impressed with Jonathan Blow. Braid is a decent enough game, but it’s hardly an “insult the rest of the game industry for free” card. This isn’t a recent thing, where back in 2007 he was calling WoW “a drug”, applying a simplistic analysis of how the game does’t care “if you’re smart or how adept you are, it’s just how much time you sink in. You don’t need to do anything exceptional, you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else.” Yeah, pretty much ignoring the raiding aspect of the game and any elements other than what you might see in the first five minutes of the game. Kinda like writing Braid off as an overly painted up Mario clone after the first five minutes of play.

    Anyway, I gave that article a pass. Just reading various excerpts from other people have given me all the info I need to see that Blow hasn’t changed his tune; if anything, he’s cranked up the pretentiousness to 11. Blah. :/
    Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green´s last post: Precise terminology, or: a game vs. a toolset

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    • I didn’t know that Blow had a history of this nonsense, although I’m not surprised. I’m kind of sorry I bought Braid now. :P

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  2. You and me both….funny, the main character in Braid always annoyed me, along with the pretentious attempts at being deeply philosophical. I might have known.

    Blow clearly likes to style himself as quite the eccentric, but all I hear is self-absorbed, narcissist goofball. I didn’t know that greatness was achieved by belittling others. if his newly acquitted wealth is such a comedy to his existentialist aspirations, I recommend getting rid of it a.s.a.p. how about kickstarting some less lowly design concepts. the description of his new project sounded remarkably alike to Dear Esther.
    Syl´s last post: So…where to head first in the GW2 beta?

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  3. Did someones Boyfriend (or girlfriend) ignore them for WoW, or SWTOR, or .. just about any other game out there? I believe his feelings are hurt. :) And that is where his underlieing dislike (hatred) of the game industry manifests from.

    Rosie
    Rosie´s last post: 1.2 and the pain of Warzones!

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