The following is the plenary address I gave today at the first SIEGE conference here in Atlanta on October 6, 2007. The title of the session was â??Games: Can They Be Important?â? My fellow plenary speakers were Ernest Adams and Daniel Greenberg.


Today it is possible to work though an entire undergraduate and graduate education in videogames. Whether thatâ??s a good or a bad thing is a topic for another conference. But it wasnâ??t the case for me when I was in school. I was trained as a philosopher and a literary critic â?? mostly as a scholar of poetry.

So, I want to spend most of my time today talking about poetry, not about videogames.

One of my favorite poets is Archilochus, who lived in the 7th century BC. He was the first major poet after Homer, and he is sometimes considered the first lyric poet. Archilochus was a mercenary by profession. He lived at a time of heavy colonization and war between neighboring isles, and his work characterizes his own conflict over conflict, as this fragment attests:

εἰμὶ δ᾽ ἐγὼ θεράÏ?Ï?ν μὲν á¼?νÏ?αλίοιο á¼?νακÏ?οÏ?
    ÎºÎ±á½¶ Î?οÏ?Ï?έÏ?ν ἐραÏ?ὸν δῶρον ἐÏ?ιÏ?Ï?άμενοÏ?.

I am both the servant of Lord Ares, and also of the Muses, familiar with their lovely gifts.

There was a Spartan proverb about war â?? something the Spartans knew a lot about. It goes, â??Come home with your shield or on it.â? Archilochus was clearly rejecting and mocking this absurd and self-defeating value in this short fragment:

á¼?Ï?Ï?ίδι μὲν ΣαΐÏ?ν Ï?ιÏ? á¼?γάλλεÏ?αι, ἣν Ï?αρὰ θάμνÏ?ι
    á¼?νÏ?οÏ? á¼?μÏ?μηÏ?ον κάλλιÏ?ον οὐκ ἐθέλÏ?ν,
αὐÏ?ὸÏ? δ᾽ ἐξέÏ?Ï?γον θανάÏ?οÏ? Ï?έλοÏ?. á¼?Ï?Ï?ὶÏ? ἐκείνη
    á¼ÏÏÎ­Ï?Ï?· ἐξαῦÏ?ιÏ? κÏ?ήÏ?ομαι οὐ κακίÏ?.

Some Thracian is delighted with a shield, because I had to leave it under a bush â?? there was nothing wrong with itâ?¦ but I saved my own skin. Nevermind the shield. I can buy another one just as good.

Thereâ??s a story, possibly apocryphal, that the historian Plutarch tells, about how when the poet visited Sparta, the locals threw him out of the city on an hourâ??s notice when they found out he had written this heretical poem. No matter the truth, Archilochus offers one of the first examples of how poetry documents personal experiences, not just epic ones.

Another poet whose work Iâ??ve spent a lot of time with is Charles Baudelaire, a French critic and writer of the mid-19th century. He was an heir and a misanthrope, and he played the part of the aesthete and the dandy. He abused prostitutes, opium, and absinthe. Baudelaire was writing at a time of great change, right at the outset of industrialism, in the period we now call modernity. The idea of living in a metropolis around many people, most of whom we donâ??t know and will never know, is familiar to us today. We share the same spaces and times together—sometimes more than we share them with people we know.

Today weâ??ve internalized this logic and often donâ??t even notice it, perhaps at our own peril. Sometimes we even celebrate it—the anonymity of the big city. But for Baudelaire and his contemporaries this was something entirely new, and unsettling. His most famous record of contention with this state of affairs is this sonnet, called â??A une passante,â? or â??To a woman passing by.â?

La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.

Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,

Une femme passa, dâ??une main fastueuse

Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;

Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.

Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,

Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,

La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

Un éclair… puis la nuit! â?? Fugitive beauté

Dont le regard mâ??a fait soudainement renaître,

Ne te verrai-je plus que dans lâ??éternité?

Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!

Car jâ??ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,

Ã? toi que jâ??eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

The deafening street was shrieking around me.

Tall, slender, grieving majestically in her widowâ??s veil,

A woman passed, with a delicate carriage

Lifting up and swinging her skirttails;

Sprightly and noble, her legs were like a statueâ??s.

As for me, I was drinking, restless like an eccentric,

In her eyes, I saw the livid sky where hurricanes begin,

The sweetness that charms and the pleasure that kills.

A flash…then night!â??Fleeting beauty

Whose glance suddenly gave birth to me again,

Will I see you again only in eternity?

Somewhere else, far from here! Too long! Maybe never!

I donâ??t know where youâ??re running, nor do you me,

Oh you who I would have loved! And you who knew it too!

This is a characteristic version of Baudelaireâ??s strategy for combating the alienation of the modern city. He does so not by engaging it, but by finding satisfaction in resistance. He focuses on the lonely heartlessness of the city. There is a kind of horror in it, but the poet embraces this horror to avoid the even worse horror of the impossibility of consummation. German critic Walter Benjamin would later call this the â??figure that fascinates.â? Benjamin characterized its delight as that of â??love—not at first sight, but at last sight.â?

Hereâ??s one more poem, this one by a contemporary poet, Charles Bukowski. Bukowskiâ??s father was abusive and his childhood was grim. He had terrible, awful acne and endured significant alienation because of it as a youth. He drank heavily, almost killing himself, and worked for the post office for over a decade. He wrote thousands of poems in his life, many of which continue to be published posthumously.

What follows is an uncharacteristic poem, actually, but I chose it for reasons that are probably obvious for this audience. Itâ??s called â??16-bit Intel 8088 chip.â?

with an Apple Macintosh
you can’t run Radio Shack programs
in its disc drive.
nor can a Commodore 64
drive read a file
you have created on an
IBM Personal Computer.
both Kaypro and Osborne computers use
the CP/M operating system
but can’t read each other’s
for they format (write
on) discs in different
the Tandy 2000 runs MS-DOS but
can’t use most programs produced for
the IBM Personal Computer
unless certain
bits and bytes are
but the wind still blows over

and in the Spring
the turkey buzzard struts and
flounces before his

It is a poem about contingency and accident. Reading it today â?? you can tell the era in which it was published â?? we might change some names but its spirit remains intact: the world is bigger than our disk drives and our file formats, and it continues rolling on, with or without us, unconcerned and disinterested in the trifles of our machines.

When we read the work of Archilochus or Baudelaire or Bukowski, we are reminded of the purpose of art. Sometimes we hear the accusation that the arts and humanities are useless, pointless affairs that donâ??t produce progress. The studentâ??s refrain, â??when am I going to use this in the real world?â? rings hollow in the ears of any professor who teaches works like these.

I learned a useful response to this accusation from a German philosophy professor called John McCumber, with whom I taught at UCLA. Iâ??ve written about this before, but Iâ??ll repeat that lesson here. Fields like business, medicine, and computer science seem â??practicalâ? because they are predictably useful. We can know in advance how to reap immediate gain from them. By contrast, the humanities are unpredictably useful; we cannot know in advance how they might serve us. The arts and humanities help us understand what it means to be human, no matter the contingencies of profession, economics, or current affairs. They offer insights into human experience that we need when all else fails. This is the knowledge that helps us recover from heartbreak, to make sense of tragedy, to combat arbitrariness. They are the works that rub up against us, that comfort and bother us. We need them when we least expect it.

Too often, we treat videogames only as an industry. Not even an industrial art, mind you, like film, which musters large teams at least occasionally for the purpose of exploring the human condition rather than the human wallet. Rather, as a commodity industry, like cosmetics or insurance. We know what we want from games and we consume them to get it. At times, perhaps much of the time, itâ??s more like choosing a lipgloss or a deductible than a new perspective. And we remain unusually content to put videogames in the service of distraction and fantasy, smooth experiences that reinforce rather than challenge.

Perhaps partly because of their computational nature, partly because of the accelerated corporatization of media, and partly because they were born out of the libertarian high-tech industry, we expect the importance of games to be immediate and concretely measurable, with sales charts and out-of-ten scores and MetaCritic ratings. To be fair, films have these things too, but they also have critics and reviews and â?? most importantly â?? a history of withholding their secrets, of keeping them safe for the future.

We donâ??t know much of Archilochusâ??s fate, but he more likely died at the hilt of a blade than at the head of a cane.

Baudelaire contracted syphilis early in life, a disease that usually went untreated in the 19th century, until it caused madness. He drank to excess and suffered a stroke in his mid-forties, which left him paralyzed and bedridden until his death the next year. Much of his work was published posthumously.

Bukowski enjoyed unusual commercial success for a poet, but never translated material comfort into mental satisfaction. And despite strong popularity in Europe, the poet never achieved much critical success in America during his life. He died of leukemia at age 73. His gravestone reads, â??Donâ??t Try.â?

Their works are worthy of memory not because they were successful, but because they are authentic. They characterized a moment, a set of experiences, a life historically specific yet unnervingly universal. We read these works not so that we can understand them immediately, but so that we might reflect on them later. They creep up unexpectedly and startle us with their relevance.

The French philosopher Maurice Blanchot argued that the work itself leads toward inspiration, rather than inspiration leading toward the work. We use the possibility of finding inspiration as an impetus for searching. We create art not because we have answers to relate, but because we have questions to pose. And we interact with art not because we seek answers, but because we do not know the questions to ask.

Videogames will not be important because we say they are now, in this room, with all the hubris and import of professionals bearing credentials and affiliations as validation. They will not be important because of novel new mechanics that pique occasional, temporary curiosities. They will not be important when they make Steven Spielberg cry over them or Roger Ebert review them. They will not be important when they find their place in Entertainment Weekly or in the New Yorker. They will not be important when they become a regular part of gradeschool curricula, and they will not be important when they help government agents identify terrorists, and they will not be important when they teach burger flippers how to apply pickles to charbroiled patties.

No, they will only be important when â?? and if â?? others can point to our medium â?? to particular examples of it â?? and locate moments of individual insight that mattered in their lives. This is a charge for which we have only indirect control. We cannot insure it with transistors and pixel shaders. We cannot will it, we cannot even expect it. All we can do is live as people, as flawed, confused, aggrieved, dismayed joyful, surprised, hopeful people like everyone who came before us, like all who will follow. And like them, all we can do is record those flaws, confusions, grievances, shocks, joys, surprises, and hopes.

We might choose to do so in videogames because they are a medium uniquely built for simulating life, for constraining actions, for creating roles others can embody. We might choose to do so in videogames because they are a medium of our moment in history. We might choose to do in videogames so because it is hard to do, because unlike the lyric poem they are a medium with more raw potential than proven triumph.

And then we can hope that history may preserve them, so that later â?? next week, next year, next century, next millennium â?? someone much like us might encounter them, and see a part of our lives in theirs.

published October 6, 2007


  1. Walter

    Nice speech, prof.

    I wasn’t at the SIEGE conference, so I don’t know if this issue was raised or not, but when I see the question, “Games: Can They Be Important?”, I can read it in one of two ways. One way asks if games as a category (or a medium) can be important. The other way asks if it is possible for *something* that is a game to be important. If I’m not mistaken, the default reading for most people encountering this question will be the first one.

    So long as we understand importance to mean that capacity for people to “locate moments of individual insight that mattered in their lives” in games, then I’m at a bit of a loss as to why that importance should be ascribed to the category or medium rather than to the specific works. There are legal reasons, of course, because law always wants to apply itself to types of media, and we would want to defend games as a medium as a way of protecting those works. We would also want to defend games as a category of *thought*, an abstract form about which we can reason and unravel new ways of communicating through it. These are valid reasons.

    But within the game industry/studies/fan/etc. communities, there is a real pining for legitimacy, which often translates into indignant defenses of “games” and “gaming” taken as a whole. So when I see this question, I sense a real danger that, whatever the criteria for importance, whenever it has been fulfilled, it will be used to rationalize a defense of and reverence for games as a whole, as a category (not just of thought), even if the majority of works and/or the most popular works have little interest in exploring the human condition. Much the same way that “film” is revered based on the prestige of the great works of that medium, allowing any example of it to be seen as an entrant in some great and noble tradition, by which it inherits a modicum of said prestige merely because of its membership in a category.

    I hope I’m not alone in finding this sort of legitimacy-seeking behavior and prestige-by-association absurd, and I’d be interested in knowing to what extent that informed the creation of the session, as well as the reading given it.

  2. Leon

    An amazing read. As a business student, I never really thought about the humanities much. But hearing about all those poets makes me want to go out and buy a consumer friendly poetry anthology or something. (haha)

  3. Jana

    re: “[Video games] they will only be important when… others can point to our medium â?? to particular examples of it â?? and locate moments of individual insight that mattered in their lives.”

    True! And here’s more food for thought on that…

    When the movie “Titanic” came out, I saw it. I hated the hype surrounding it, disliked much of the story line and various messages in it, left the theater frustrated that such romantic pulp was receiving so much attention.

    But some scenes stuck with me for days. The old couple holding hands in their bed as the water rose around them. The mother trying to calm her children even as they all knew death was imminent. Those outside the ship in the cold water, waiting for help that would come too late, if at all. And finally it hit me: one thing I took away from the movie was the reminder that there are things we take with us when we die, but those things are never material wealth: designer clothing and precious gems and fine cars. And I was reminded to treasure what I do have today — my family and my breath — and stop worrying so much about those temporary things I don’t have.

    So — rats! — that stupid, popular movie did illuminate my life after all.

    Are there any video games that have done that for you? (This isn’t a jab; it’s a sincere question.) I’m not an afficianado, so for me, it’s no. But I’m very curious to hear from those in or fanatics of the industry.

  4. Geoff

    re: Are there any video games that have done that for you?

    I’d like to mention a few. The first occurred near the middle of Final Fantasy VI. An apocalypytic event occurs, and the world you have inhabited is torn apart. When the game resumes, you have only one character (previously, you had a number of them), and are left stranded on an island. You try to tend to an old men there, but despite your best efforts, he eventually dies. The sudden shock and loss of my companions, then attempting to help this aid man, was incredibly affecting. It made me realize how powerless one can be in the face of death.

    Towards the end of Shadow of the Colossus, one has to cross a chasm. At first, it seems impossible, but soon you realize that you can get across – you simply need to get your horse, get it to run at full speed, and it should be able to jump the chasm. You attempt this, and it seems to be working – until you realize that you are falling. Just as all seems lost, the horse – your faithful animal through countless adventures – pushes you off, throwing you to the far cliff while it plunges into the depths below. I could barely continue playing after this – I felt horrible for what I had made the horse do, and what it had sacrificed for me. The moment made me realize what a responsibility we have to those who are dependent on us.

    Finally, a scene from Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. As I walked along a path, I saw a soldier crouched behind a car. As I approached him, he motioned me down, telling me to be quiet. I did so. Looking around me, I noticed other soldiers hiding behind nearby trees. I then noticed a group of men coming towards us. I suddenly realized what was going to happen. Shots rang out, as the soldiers opened fire on the men in front of us. Seconds later, they were dead. I turned to talk to the soldier next to me. “Thanks for helping” he said, “you stayed nice and quiet back there”. A wave of guilt washed over me – I had done nothing. I could have tried to save those in the road, but because someone had simply told me to, I did nothing. This moment emphasized for me how powerful a command from authority figures can be – and how we have to be careful we don’t mindlessly obey them.

    To me, these were all moments of “individual insight” that have occurred while playing videogames.

  5. Marcelo Moya

    This was an extremely interesant speech. I have spent a large part of my life reading poetry and playing videogames and when it comes to compare games to “genuine” arts is always handy to quote people like yourself, for me games are as important as a good album of painting, some of them left a mark in my life that i will not be able to erase never.

    Thank you very much, all the best

  6. genie

    Very interesting speech â?? itâ??s given me a lot to think about, but I have some reservations about the definition of aesthetic experience thatâ??s implied in it. You state that videogames will only become important â??when â?? and if â?? others can point to our medium â?? to particular examples of it â?? and locate moments of individual insight that mattered in their lives.â? This is the sort of revelatory experience weâ??re accustomed to expecting of artworks, and although it departs from straightforward modernist accounts in locating aesthetic experience in the individual and the everyday, it still clings to a kind of postmodern formalism that demands (or expects) that an artwork actually â??meanâ?? something, and that we can locate this meaning within the broader context of our lives.

    I suppose what Iâ??m saying is that I find it more useful, in discussions of aesthetic relevance or importance â?? particularly if I think of some of the most effective/affective artworks that have emerged in recent years (works by Anish Kapoor, Carsten Hollers, Olfaur Eliasson, Antony Gormley, Gabriel Orozco, and others) â?? to frame the experience not in terms of its meaning but in terms of its â??meaningfulnessâ??. The distinction is more than semantic â?? in fact, it hinges on the recognition that semantics, semiotics, and what weâ??re accustomed to thinking of as â??meaningâ??, represents only the barest tip of the iceberg as far as experience (and, indeed, importance) is concerned. Most of the artists above deal in one way or another with affective states rather than â??meaningsâ?? per se. Itâ??s difficult to express what kind of insight Eliassonâ??s â??Weather Projectâ?? leaves you with, or indeed how that experience fits into the wider context of an individual life, but thereâ??s little question that it was a profound experience for thousands of people who saw it.

    Thereâ??s a great deal of art â?? both contemporary and historical â?? that deals in these more subtle modes of experience and I think it tends to get sidetracked when we ask questions about videogames and art. Itâ??s clear that videogames draw on cinema and literature, but far less clear how they might relate to sculpture, installation, performance art, or other such forms. Discovering the importance of videogames lies, in part, with clarifying â?? or at least attempting to clarify â?? these relationships.

  7. Ian Bogost

    Game Poems

    Small games focused on constraint and condensation, for Atari VCS