The Gaming Club
To hear Chris Suellentrop, Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner discuss whether video games can be art on Slate's Culture Gabfest, click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 26:04 mark:
Let me first say it's a pleasure to cross swords with you, and I apologize in advance for the filleting I may have to give you in front of such a large crowd.
We are, for some reason, dancing around a real discussion of Modern Warfare 2. All three of you have teased some deep thoughts about it. It's the biggest seller of the year—maybe ever—so let's just get to it.
Many reviewers and critics, myself included, have spent many column inches talking about the campaign, and in particular the "No Russian" mission. Many of us predicted a firestorm of controversy. But it hasn't materialized. Why is that? The simplest answer is that people are ignoring the campaign and hammering away at multiplayer—the version of the game where, in the absence of any narrative (that means no "No Russian" mission), players simply run around shooting at one another. When professor/gaming enthusiast Michael Abbott polled 15 of his students about Modern Warfare 2, he found that only four of them had played the campaign within a week of buying the game. My own anecdotal data backs this up. At a Christmas party this past weekend, a friend of mine was eager to talk about the game. What did he think about "No Russian"? He thought nothing about it. He still hasn't played the campaign.
Still, it's a powerful scene and one that's worthy of discussion. For those of us who continually beat the drum for the artistic legitimacy of games, this ought to be the kind of thing we'd like more of. But opinions vary. As Leigh noted, Chris was profoundly affected by the scene, and Game Informer's Adam Biessener is "proud that our medium can address such weighty issues." My own take is much closer to that of Kieron Gillen, who summarized "No Russian" quite simply as "bullshit."
Because here's the thing: Everything that surrounds "No Russian" is silliness of the highest order. It's right-wing war porn that explicitly name-checks brainless, rah-rah action movies like Red Dawn and The Rock. Immediately before the realistic horror of the airport level, you are jumping a snowmobile over a huge gap like somebody on Nitro Circus (a way better show than Jersey Shore, if you ask me). This game's predecessor, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, had a sequence at the helm of an AC-130 that was chilling in its clinical detachment. Check it out—it's indistinguishable from documentary footage of the same gunship.
"No Russian," by contrast, hails from the school of shock tactics that have dominated our culture over the decade, in particular in movies like Saw and Hostel. Yes, it's horrifying. It moves like a nightmare, slowly and inexorably toward a stomach punch of a conclusion. But it's meaningless except in its capacity to shock. It doesn't raise the stakes for the rest of the campaign. It doesn't even make sense, by itself or within the larger story. It just wants to see if you'll flinch.
Again, millions of people who are playing Modern Warfare 2 don't care about this, if they even know about it. For them, this is a sports game, and its deepest meaning is where they're ranked on the scoreboard when the match ends.
Despite its commercial success, I don't think Modern Warfare 2 is gaming's ambassador to the mainstream, any more than Transformers is for film, or Twilight is for literature. Every medium has its smash hits, and they are not often the most daring or creative entries. Flower is a better choice, both because it is that elusive game that your mom can pick up and play, and because, in its way, it is quite daring. If you had asked me before this year whether I would enjoy a game about floating flower petals, let alone be moved by it, I would have laughed in your face, or possibly sworn at you over my Xbox headset. But there it is, quiet and self-confident, making a philosophical point about the environment without beating you over the head.
The bigger question is whether games need ambassadors at this point. When I look at the landscape in 2009, I see something for everybody. Fans of role-playing games flipped over Dragon Age: Origins. Shooter fans, obviously, were mainlining Modern Warfare 2. Action-adventure gamers got Batman: Arkham Asylum and the sublime Uncharted 2. Families got New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The iPhone exploded as a gaming platform, and, yes, Jamin, Canabalt is spectacular. (I played it on a friend's iPhone while standing at the Middle East Downstairs waiting for the Electric Six to come on and had to tear myself away to go see the band.) From music to strategy to head-to-head fighters, nearly every genre was well represented this year. That isn't a symptom of a fractured or divided community, but a sign that gamers are no longer part of a subculture. We are the mainstream culture. There's nowhere left for a game to be an ambassador to.
To bring it back around, all of that helps explains why my game of the year for 2009 is Borderlands. It's a hybrid of a few different styles, but the best way I've thought to describe it is "like World of Warcraft, if World of Warcraft were like Halo." It looks and plays like a first-person shooter, but is built around the notion of powering up your character by earning experience points, and hunting through dungeons for randomly generated loot. The developer, Gearbox, claims there are millions of unique weapons to find, and a thread on the official site about players' most interesting discoveries lends that claim credence.
Best of all, it's cooperative. I think any game would be fun to play with my friend Bob and our hastily assembled clan, The League of Extraordinarily Gentle Men, but Borderlands provides an especially sturdy framework. Players can help one another in surprising ways, none more satisfying than when someone unlocks a medical skill that lets him heal his teammates by shooting them. Brings a whole new meaning to the term "friendly fire."
Borderlands is like the gaming scene itself these days—cribbing from everywhere, it claims no country or creed. It forges an identity all its own, one that it's very comfortable with. As gamers, aren't you guys starting to feel that way, too?
Leigh Alexander is the news director of the game industry site Gamasutra and authors the blog Sexy Videogameland.Formerly an arts and entertainment reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Jamin Brophy-Warren is a columnist for GOOD magazine and founder of the forthcoming video-game magazineKill Screen.Mitch Krpata is a contributing writer for the Boston Phoenix and Paste magazine, and blogs about games at Insult Swordfighting.Chris Suellentrop reviews games for Slate.