The Gaming Club

The Cleverness of Angry Birds
The art of play.
Dec. 16 2010 5:22 PM

The Gaming Club

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Screengrab of the game Angry Birds.

Hello, everyone. First, I agree with Tom: Seth, dude, you're projecting. Speaking for myself, I don't feel at all defensive about video games, not least because I hold no brief for them. You're the guy who plays for "at least 1500 hours a year" and is paid to write about it. If you experience "self-loathing" because of that, it's a shame. I don't see how anyone can deny that the cultural status of games is contested—it manifestly is. The Times is right to review games in its culture section, but that isn't a lead which has been widely followed.

And that's a good thing for games. They are entitled to a space in the culture section but shouldn't mind too much that, on the whole, they aren't given it. Respectability is a terrible thing for any art form. People wrote better novels when the cultural status of the novel was contested. When there were doubts as to whether serious people should read them, they were a lot more exciting—more interesting, more energetic, more various. Now the novel's cultural status is generally accepted, and the form as a whole has taken a lurch toward piety. Poetry achieved general reverence at about the moment it began to permanently lose its readership. Many literate adults regard gaming as beneath their notice. Good. Long may that remain the case. As the art critic Dave Hickey writes in his masterpiece Air Guitar: "[C]onsider for a moment the enormous benefits that would accrue to us all, if art were considered bad, silly, and frivolous. Imagine the lightness we would feel if this burden of hypocrisy were lifted from our shoulders—the sheer joy of it."

Advertisement

As for the "fun" issue, touched on by Seth, and Tom, and Chris; well, it's an interesting one. It goes to the question of how extensive a register of feelings and experiences games can embrace. In my view, this is one of the huge strengths of gaming, because it can range all the way from pure play—"fun"—to intensely adrenalized experiences of fear and urgency, to a whole range of feelings involving the player's agency, his curiosity, his degree of investment in a character. Add to that the fact that gamers can compete with each other and the range of human stuff that brings into play. Then add the fact that the best games feature an increasing element of emotional involvement and complication. (Spoiler Alert) That last was one of the great things about Red Dead Redemption: There are lots of games with artificially downbeat endings, but this one felt genuinely sad. The side mission which actually finished the game and triggered the credits sequence brought a real emotional complexity, since the revenge sought by John Marston's son was an action you felt you had to do, while it also left you aware that revenge wouldn't magically make anything in the past better. The game's emotional architecture tries to be as developed as the architecture of its gameworld. Fun is too small a word for the things games can do.

Having said that, the fun aspect of games is, let's admit it, fun. A lot of the gaming pleasure I had this year was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the serious works we've been discussing. I hope the Kinect opens up a whole new arena for high-end gaming, but for the meantime I'm happy with the various entertaining and silly things you can do with it, such as Dance Central and the anti-couch-potato stuff on Kinect Sports. I agree with Chris that the Wii seemed to show the limits as well as the potential of this kind of gaming. But there are lots of good things that can be done within those limits, and as the father of two preteenage boys, there is a great deal to be said for the pure spirit of play you get in the world of Mario. As Chris said, these games are abstract; they are about play for its own sake. I like that. Today's children don't get nearly enough of that. Maybe one of the reasons they like video games so much is it's one of the only areas in which they are allowed to simply enjoy themselves without purpose and without supervision.

Fun also featured prominently in some of the other things I've enjoyed most this year: the profoundly nonserious iPhone and iPad games Angry Birds and Doodle Jump. Doodle Jump came out last year, but it's an entertainingly daft little game in which you bounce a character up through a series of platforms. Its mechanics are about as simple as a game can be, just as those of Tetris are—and it's not much less addictive than Tetris. Angry Birds is even more habit-forming. I know several people who have crack-cocainelike problems with it. The game consists of the goofiest idea imaginable: Pissed-off birds are shot out of a catapult to knock down complicated fortresses constructed by pigs. Some of the pleasure lies in the physics, which are nicely real-feeling, as you knock down pillars and walls en route to bringing down the pigs' edifices. You progress through levels of increasing complexity, many of them quite difficult, and all of it wholly pointless. It's great. Until this piece in the Times pointed it out, it hadn't occurred to me that part of the cleverness of the game is that the birds are angry: If they were cute and fluffy, catapulting them into walls might seem a little strange. I hope that there's more to come on the iPad, which as a gaming device has a lot of potential that hasn't yet been unlocked.

A year which had both Red Dead Redemption and Angry Birds is doing pretty well and certainly can't be accused of lacking variety or range. I'd also like to endorse Seth's praise for Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Do the Assassin's Creed games get more fuss made of them over here in Europe than in the United States? Gamers I know love them, but I get the impression they pass by more quietly in the States. Still, Assassin's Creed gives me the chance to mention an aspect of games we haven't touched on, which is how beautiful so many of them now are. Nicholson Baker dwelt on this in the New Yorker a few months ago, and he was right to do so. From this point of view, for me, Brotherhood was the year's standout.

I expect my sense of the last 12 months' output to change when I've caught up with some of the things the other Game Clubbers have been discussing. I'm especially excited about Enslaved (I know Alex Garland, who's a super-keen gamer, but I didn't know he'd written one), and also Kane and Lynch 2 ("like being punched in the head by a guy with whiskey breath for about four hours"—what's not to love?). I'm going to give StarCraft II a whirl, also. And as for Mass Effect 2, it might be too late to write to Father Christmas, so I think I'll have to e-mail him instead. That would make this the first year in which all four members of my family have asked for a video game for Christmas. My wife, a holdout in previous years, has asked for SingStar. This, trust me, is rock-solid proof of gaming's increasing cultural penetration.

Thanks everyone, this has been a blast. Season's greetings to all you gamers out there, and best wishes for the next 12 months: May your cut scenes be engrossing, your lag times low, your side missions worth the effort, and your online exchanges mannerly.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

John Lanchester is the author of three novels, a memoir, and, most recently, a book about the financial crisis, I.O.U: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. He writes for the London Review of Books, the Guardian, and the New Yorker.