“Intellectually Challenging” Doesn’t Mean “Not Fun”

Anthony over at Rev Rants has a new video up in which he discusses how every time somebody points out that video games should move away from the “guns and chainsaws” mentality that so many games seem to have and focus instead on creating games that address serious philopsophical issues, there are generally two camps: the ones who smugly agree, and the ones who get righteously furious at the idea that games should no longer be “fun.”
And that’s where I lose the argument. Anthony brings up some very good points about how if games are to to treated seriously as an art form, they have to be about more than just the physical challenge of pressing the right buttons at the right time to kill your endless stream of enemies in the most creative ways possible, but I take issue with the fact that he doesn’t really go into what I consider to be the major problem with this argument.
Media that challenges us intellectually can and often is really fun.
Now, I’m not saying that he doesn’t believe this or that I have a problem with the video, which I think is largely spot on, but rather that in arguing for games to be more thought provoking, he neglected to explicitly point out that that doesn’t mean the game isn’t suddenly fun, as if every medium has to have its share of “interesting” things and “challenging” things, and checks them off a list to fill certain quotas in order to qualify as “art.”
Some of the games he mentions, for example, are not only thought provoking and interesting, they are also a real blast to play. Braid is one of my favorite games that he mentions. It was clever, artfully designed, did really fantastic things with mechanics, and told a story that produced a wonderful twist ending without significant cut scenes, dialogue, or anything that explicitly spelled out what was going on. It was a beautiful game that told a great story with a lot to discuss, and was still hours of fun.
Similarly, Journey was fantastic. It was gorgeous, emotional, and thought provoking, but also a whole lot of fun.
Far too often, the idea comes up that something, anything, can be fun or it can be intellectually challenging, but it can’t possibly be both. I hear this most often when I talk about texts and do close readings of them. The common refrain is “Can’t you just enjoy the movie/game/song/book/whatever?” or, even worse, “When I watch a movie/play a game/etc., I don’t want to have to think about it.”
When did thinking become this gigantic burden? Seriously, I’ve been thinking for the 30+ years I’ve been alive and, quite frankly, it’s the most fun thing I do.
The Rev also brings up movies in this as a medium that struggled to attain a reputation for artistry, and even mentions in passing the idea of a “Citizen Kane of video games.” He does this to point out that despite how many absolutely awful movies come out every year, there is a “bedrock” of artistic films that prove that movies can be an artistic medium, giving big studios an incentive to create films that are contemplative, so we can have the American Beautys and Fight Clubs and even Willows (which I just watched again a couple of days ago because it has some of the most perfect storytelling I’ve seen in film) without those who for some reason I couldn’t begin to articulate don’t enjoy thinking too much missing out on another American Pie or [Fill in the Blank] Movie sequel. The existence of Casablanca does not preclude the existence of No Strings Attached. Because The Godfather was made does not mean that Corky Romano was not. And the filming of Arsenic and Old Lace did not prevent the filming of The Hangover, much to my continued chagrin.
To an extent, I think this goes with Anthony’s point about how a medium doesn’t have to be one thing, in that video games can be serious and they can be fun, but I feel like he’s separating those two ideas. A video game, like any medium can be serious and fun in a single game. In fact, I would hope that is the objective in most cases: to make a point and make that point enjoyable. I can appreciate the technical aspects both in terms of film and writing of Casablanca and still be deeply invested and entertained by the plight of Rick and Ilsa.
There are two more supplementary points to this video I would like to make. The first is that the Rev makes a point I rather disagree with around the 5:27 mark when he starts to talk about comics. The point he makes is that while there are some amazing indie comics doing interesting things, the mainstream publishers are basically super hero comics, with the implication that super hero comics can’t tackle meaningful subjects in a serious way. While I love and respect a lot of indie titles, I think this seriously underestimates the ability of super hero comics to deal with important , human issues. It doesn’t take a whole lot to see the metaphor for the civil rights struggle in X-men going back to its conception, nor Stan Lee’s refusal to change a story line in The Amazing Spider-man that dealt with drug addiction in order to get a Comics Code Authority seal for those three issues. There were the Green Lantern/Green Arrow crossovers that were designed specifically to deal with social issues, and to do so by pairing a highly liberal with a highly conservative superhero so they would be able to really delve into the ideological divides present. Shortly after taking over Green Arrow in 2004, in fact, Judd Winick started a storyline dealing with Speedy (Mia Dearden) testing HIV positive that was sometimes ham-handed, but a real attempt at dealing with a serious issue that didn’t drain a drop of entertainment from the comic.
Beyond those, look at the Marvel series-wide events, most specifically the Civil War, but also Fear Itself. I make no secret of the fact the Marvel Civil War is one of my favorite comic series of all time. In the midst of the War on Terror, Marvel decided to take a hard look at how we balance our need for security with our civil liberties and used its major characters to do so. And it doesn’t just focus on the heroes themselves: it takes the time to explore how it affects everybody and the historical connotations of what we’re doing. At the end of one of the Frontline issues, for example, there is a small vignette about a couple of Japanese Americans reporting to an internment camp, and the panel sticks in my mind is where the father is telling his child that the reason why they left their home and have to live there now is that they’re “good Americans” and this is what their country requires of them.
Superhero comics are absolutely able to be serious and give insightful treatments to real problems while still remaining fun.
The other thing that this makes me think of is the current problems within the atheist movement vis-a-vis whether atheists can speak out against social injustice in light of their atheism and skepticism or rather, as some people have argued, atheism is just a non-belief in the supernatural and anything beyond that is out of bounds. Much like video games can be more than one thing, so can the atheist movement. If we’re feminists because there is no rational reason to oppose equal pay for equal work or the perpetuation of rape culture, that doesn’t mean that suddenly people will start believing in Bigfoot. Anthony says that those who agree that video games should be about more will “look down their nose” at others who don’t, but the counterblast is often just as guilty of that behavior. Applying that to atheism/skepticism, there is a fair amount of “Well, I’m a real atheist because I don’t spend my time discussing LGBT rights, which have nothing to do with psychic scams,” and that’s not only not helpful, it’s a callous attempt to avoid bringing skepticism to its logical conclusion. That being said, it’s also not prohibited to focus your energy on combating pseudoscience just because my energy is on how blind faith in bad ideas makes otherwise good people do terribly cruel things to myself and other queer folks.
Things don’t have to be just one thing. Games don’t have to be either fun or contemplative. Superhero comics don’t have to be exciting or socially meaningful. The atheist movement doesn’t have to be just about stopping quack doctors from scamming people or stopping quack preachers from advocating for the death of homosexuals. We are capable, as humans, of doing many things for many reasons, and it’s important to realize that it’s not a zero-sum game.
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2 thoughts on ““Intellectually Challenging” Doesn’t Mean “Not Fun”

  1. I want to make a comment, but I feel like it will either be a long rambling thing or I will neglect some of the great points you make.

    “as some people have argued, atheism is just a non-belief in the supernatural and anything beyond that is out of bounds”

    I’d go so far as to say that it’s *important* that atheism not just be seen as non-belief and instead try to battle social issues. Theists like to pick on atheists and ask how can they have a sense of mortality without a belief in god. I think if there were atheists groups working for social justice and good causes, that argument would eventually fade away (even though it’s a ridiculous argument anyway).

    • First of all, feel free to ramble here any time you like. %)

      Secondly, I couldn’t agree with you more. To paraphrase PZ fairly recently, if we don’t apply our skepticism to improving people’s lives and the world around us, what’s the point? Just to be smug and self-satisfied in our own rightness? To stand up against the threat of UFO abduction stories?

      I think you hit the nail right on the head. If we are to be “good without god” as the phrase goes, then we need to be actually good, and that means standing up to the marginalized and those oppressed by irrational thinking.If we consider irrationality to be a bad thing, we shouldn’t tolerate it in any context.

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