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:
Îµá¼°Î¼á½¶ Î´á¾½ á¼Î³á½¼ Î¸ÎµÏÎ¬Ï?Ï?Î½ Î¼á½²Î½ á¼?Î½Ï?Î±Î»Î¯Î¿Î¹Î¿ á¼?Î½Î±ÎºÏ?Î¿Ï?
ÎºÎ±á½¶ Î?Î¿Ï?Ï?ÎÏ?Î½ á¼ÏÎ±Ï?á½¸Î½ Î´á¿¶ÏÎ¿Î½ á¼Ï?Î¹Ï?Ï?Î¬Î¼ÎµÎ½Î¿Ï?.
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?Î¯Î´Î¹ Î¼á½²Î½ Î£Î±ÎÏ?Î½ Ï?Î¹Ï? á¼?Î³Î¬Î»Î»ÎµÏ?Î±Î¹, á¼£Î½ Ï?Î±Ïá½° Î¸Î¬Î¼Î½Ï?Î¹
á¼?Î½Ï?Î¿Ï? á¼?Î¼Ï?Î¼Î·Ï?Î¿Î½ ÎºÎ¬Î»Î»Î¹Ï?Î¿Î½ Î¿á½Îº á¼Î¸ÎÎ»Ï?Î½,
Î±á½Ï?á½¸Ï? Î´á¾½ á¼Î¾ÎÏ?Ï?Î³Î¿Î½ Î¸Î±Î½Î¬Ï?Î¿Ï? Ï?ÎÎ»Î¿Ï?. á¼?Ï?Ï?á½¶Ï? á¼ÎºÎµÎ¯Î½Î·
á¼ÏÏÎÏ?Ï?Â· á¼Î¾Î±á¿¦Ï?Î¹Ï? ÎºÏ?Î®Ï?Î¿Î¼Î±Î¹ Î¿á½ ÎºÎ±ÎºÎ¯Ï?.
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, balanÃ§ant le feston et l’ourlet;
Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispÃ© comme un extravagant,
Dans son oeil, ciel livide oÃ¹ germe l’ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.
Un Ã©clair… puis la nuit! â?? Fugitive beautÃ©
Dont le regard mâ??a fait soudainement renaÃ®tre,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans lâ??Ã©ternitÃ©?
Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-Ãªtre!
Car jâ??ignore oÃ¹ tu fuis, tu ne sais oÃ¹ je vais,
Ã? toi que jâ??eusse aimÃ©e, Ã´ 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
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.