Games Are Art

Pokémon Go may be the most effective video game ever at making people move their bodies, but my interest has always been more drawn to those games that move the soul. Allow me to advocate for them for a moment. Just as listening to Explosions in the Sky makes me want to grab the nearest person by the lapels and force them to listen, force them to share that space of beauty and light, so, too, there are games that redeem gaming, that transform a trivial pastime into something that must be experienced.

You see, I kind of resent the technologically impressive but emotionally vacant games such as the aforementioned Pokémon debacle, because I desperately need people to understand that video games are good. I don’t mean they’re good in that they’ll save the world; I don’t believe in saving the world. I don’t mean they’re good entertainment; our amusement may be the death of us in the end. I don’t even mean they’re well-made, technical achievements, outstanding human artifice — I leave that to the engineers and the overclockers.

Video games are art, like music or painting. Not every song or picture reaches into our cozy soiled caves and yanks us free to awe at the clear night sky. But some do. As Roger Scruton writes, “Art ennobles the human spirit, and presents us with a justifying vision of ourselves, as something higher than nature and apart from it.” And the same is true for games. Everyone who has played games since their youth and still plays them as an adult has these secret gems, these titles they go back to again and again because, amid the fun of the genre, they somehow go further and call to the soul’s profundity. This they accomplish through superb visuals, great music, and, of course, excellent storytelling.

Here are five video games and why they matter to me deeply. None of them involve capturing monsters of any sort. They are literary and transcendent and life-affirming and beautiful. They are an epic, a dystopia, an allegory, a science fiction, and a tragic romance:


1. Final Fantasy 6 (Square, 1994, Super Nintendo)

I first played this when I was thirteen and it blew my mind. It is hard to convey its perfection. This little Super Nintendo game is still held up by many as one of the greatest ever. It is an epic, the story of a great journey and its global ramifications. It is an outstanding technical achievement, squeezing everything possible out of the limited technology of its day, with stunningly beautiful and detailed pixel art (even as I’m writing this, it’s astonishing to realize that this full forty-hour adventure only takes up 3 MB of hard drive space). It also happens to be quite a fun game to play, if you can excuse the ancient (and now dying) turn-based battle mechanics.

Far more important than all of that is the Opera Scene. Anyone who has played this game knows exactly what I’m talking about; tears may begin to well. You have to understand, first of all, that Nobou Uematsu, the composer for most of the Final Fantasy games’ music, is a first-rate musical genius. And this was perhaps his greatest achievement. The opera scene raised games to a level one might argue they have never surpassed. For what is achieved here with such rudimentary tools, both visually and musically, one is for the first time forced to recognize that games are art. In the video below, don’t miss the fact that the characters actually sing so perfectly in their little synthesized voices that you can almost hear the lyrics. Electrifying.


2. Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004, PC)

From the sublime to the sinister. If FF6 is an epic, Half-Life 2 is dystopian fiction. Rather than any one great moment (though there are many to choose from) it is the overall atmosphere of this game that staggered players on its first release. Never before had the helplessness, the oppression of living under a despotic tyranny felt so well-realized. Half-Life 2 is so good at putting you on edge in its first five minutes that for years I have not thought of HL2 as the video-game version of movies like Children of Men, but rather that the movies all aim at the game’s perfection.

Witness the totally creepy first five minutes of this masterpiece, which still looks fantastic (and is stupendous fun to play). Part of the emotional impact comes from the faces, which have probably never been surpassed for expressiveness and realism. There is a reason why HL2 is by critical consensus probably the best video game of all time, and certainly the best first-person shooter. “Wake up and smell the ashes.”


3. Valkyria Chronicles (SEGA, 2008, PS3/4 and PC)

This is the game on this list that I have played most recently, and it is in a way the least accessible. The first thing you have to get past is that it is unapologetically Japanese. It looks like an anime and the dialogue has the flavor of a direct translation. But this is also the game’s greatest strength.

You see, Valkyria Chronicles is a semi-fantastic allegory about World War II. You command a tank battalion and fight back against the evil Empire (guess who they represent). Though it focuses on the relationships between members of your squad and the love that binds them together, ultimately, WWII games are a dime a dozen. What makes VC unique is its treatment of the holocaust. After all, in a zillion games about World War II, none of them that I can think of actually deal with the Nazis’ greatest atrocities.

This one does. And because it is a modern Japanese commentary on a European phenomenon, it is excused to an extent from the most obvious and personal ruminations. On the contrary, VC approaches the terrible persecution of Jews and the concentration camps with a clear-eyed, almost naive humanity. It looks at the holocaust as a child, unable to fully comprehend but full of certainty that through comradeship and brotherhood, evil can be overcome.

A Japanese anime fairytale take on the holocaust. Only in games.


4. Bioshock Infinite (Irrational/2K, 2013, PC, PS3, and Xbox 360)

You know that weird sort of excitement that swelled up in your stomach the first time you saw The Matrix? You know how it was summoned by the perfect blend of astonishing production values, perfect art direction choices, adrenaline-filled action sequences, and a high-concept mind-bending plot that almost reaches the point of changing everything? That’s what it’s like to play Bioshock Infinite.

The third in a franchise known for its blend of historical and fantasy storytelling, Infinite takes you above the clouds instead of below the seas to a version of 1912 America in which (it turns out) everything has gone horribly, horribly wrong. As you sort out the story and take in the absolutely stunning vistas of Columbia, the city in the clouds, you eventually run into the time travel, the rips in space-time, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern references. The story is an absolute mindbender and manages to comment on Capitalism, Race, Religion as you electrocute your enemies and ride around huge set pieces on rails through the sky. Bioshock Infinite is exhilarating and leaves us pondering questions indefinitely the way only great Science Fiction can.


5. Transistor (Supergiant Games, 2014, PS4 and PC)

Transistor is actually also a science fiction, but the social commentary and the mind-bending plot pale in comparison to the best love story ever told in this medium. It turns out that the secret to good video game romance is “less is more.” Only one half of this relationship has a voice in the traditional sense, and the entire emotional weight of the game is supported by the actor’s performance. As the story progresses, expressed through a gorgeous Art Deco visual palette and the best game score in years, the feeling of “us against the world” mounts and mounts, building to a shocking-yet-inevitable conclusion that leaves you sitting speechless through the end credits. Like Final Fantasy 6, much is accomplished through little, and we are, for a moment, transported to a higher plane. A thin woman with a huge sword not only ceases to be trivial, it becomes part of a true work of art that we direct and inhabit, musical, visual, and tactile, a video game.



Originally posted on Hevria.

The Video Game Rabbi?

I’m considering it.

Elul is coming, you see, and the high holiday spirit is in the air. But all I can care about is video games.

Obviously, this is unusual for a Rabbi. I ought to be preparing practically and spiritually for that time of year when Jew and G-d renew their connection. And now, when our feet aren’t meant to touch the ground, my head is in a world that doesn’t exist. After years in Yeshiva and having received my ordination, I am still as involved in this youthful hobby as I have ever been.

At one point in my journey I would have just dumped the games and thrown myself into holy pursuits for a month. But that approach if now beyond me. I suffer no delusions of having firm self-control or willpower, nor of having been fundamentally changed by a few years of Torah study in a holy environment.

On the other hand, before I began my journey to Yeshiva, I would have just whiled the month away playing games without a second thought. This is now unthinkable. Elul! Tishrei! The greatest months of the year, temporal gifts unwasteable, fountains of blessing, heart of the Jewish always.

So, as seems to be my lot more and more, I am stuck between worldly and G-dly passions. Let’s face it: this is the Jewish lot in general.

I won’t try to explain here why video games are an excellent pursuit for humanistic reasons as many have argued in the past (As Shigeru Miyamoto famously said, “Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock-n-roll!”). I don’t know whether video games are good for you as a human being, but I know they are good for you as a soul.

In fact, the two biggest mistakes people make in approaching the high holiday seasons are averted in appreciating this unique form of entertainment.

The first mistake is when you take the whole Day of Judgement and Day of Atonement thing too seriously. More accurately, they take their role in these things too seriously. One gets it in their head that the holidays won’t happen unless one makes them happen and that the whole thing is centered around them and (worse) their behavior. Some people spend a lot of time carefully considering their past wrongdoing. Some people even spend ten days crying about their sins, and whatnot.

These are all good things, surely. They are even necessary. One must never think that they are real, however. They are as real as anything we do, which is to say, not real at all. Jewish action or inaction are part of a system, rules to be upheld or violated; the Torah’s commands are a framework that, based on our participation, lead us to a certain end goal. They are, in a word, a game.

The thing about a game is that it is, by definition, situational. The statement “everything is a game” is nonsensical; if everything were a game, then who are the players (who must exist outside the game), to what end did they begin playing, and when will they stop? A game is, in essence, a subset of reality, a smaller world with its own rules that one enters and leaves at will. The simple rules of the game allow for simple victory conditions, which are (usually) the reason one plays.

(All of this is true for chess, poker, and football. What makes video games so special is their immersive nature, their ability to recreate the experience of the subject in an entirely new reality; “you” don’t “go somewhere” when you play chess, but you do when you play Call of Duty, Minecraft, or Civilization.)

The nice thing about realizing that systems of rules directing us to certain goals are games is that it existentially “frees up” our higher reality. In other words, yes, we’re sinners. We’re terrible people. We didn’t do a tiny part of what we were meant to do. In fact, we don’t even do a tiny part of the feeling bad for all the other stuff we miss. We can feel bad about not feeling bad, and then feel bad about that, and then feel bad about that, all the way to Sukkot, where we get drunk just to forget our inadequacy. Or: We can realize that there is a reality beyond the game we play with our actions, that these holidays were before we came into being and will be once we have melted away, and that they will be happening this year just fine without our help or participation. We are perfect and infinitely desirable to the infinite G-d, and always will be, no matter what we do.

Once we see our high holiday scorecard and indeed the entire Jewish scorecard as a game, then we are free to participate in them without needing them; our existence or the existence of the game itself does not need our actions; it is our choice where, when, and how to participate, and even if, G-d forbid, we do not, we are still us, and He is still Him, and the world does not end.

It’s all just a game; if you’re too busy thinking it depends on you, you don’t have time to enjoy it.

The second mistake everyone makes in approaching the holidays and Judaism is a lot less common. It is the phenomenon, known to all players of multiplayer video games, of people who choose to play the game and then don’t take it seriously.

You see, once you realize that the system of rules laid out in the Torah is a game, you may think that participation becomes arbitrary and the whole thing loses any of its power. If I am not defined by my actions, if I do not need them, then what is to keep me on the straight and narrow?

If you can honestly think deeply about that question and still have it, you are probably the type of person, despised in my circles, who abandons a game of Dota at the beginning (it is hard to explain how infuriating this is without explaining the entire game, but suffice it to say, it’s evil.)

Why, you must keep on the straight and narrow because once you have agreed to play the game, you have agreed to play by its rules. The game does not define you and there is always room to go outside it, to reset, to start over, to simply exist. The chess pieces can always be put back in the starting position; this does not mean you should quit every game after a bad opening or that you should let your opponent win.

When you do play, you need to be in it to win, and that will keep you following the rules.

Though learning about Rosh Hashanah is not my entire existence, and the holiday will get on quite well without me, and, dare I say, I might get along quite well without participating in it, I choose to be involved because I understand what great things I gain for my participation. I am not defined by it, but once I choose it, I also choose to do it on its own terms.

There is a narrow path that leads away from self-centeredness, with a chasm on either side. To the left is the danger of becoming so absorbed in the thing outside of me that it and I are one and the same, and I am no longer for it any more than I am for myself. To the right one is at risk of writing off the outside as irrelevant and non-binding. The path in the middle is the path of the involving game. This is how both video games and Judaism prevent self-absorption.

So, the Video Game Rabbi? Is it possible? Is the world ready? I’m not sure. But I think so. After all, the world’s not ready for Rosh Hashanah either, but it happens every year. If we can find a positive, soulful way to partake in something so beyond us, a little digital entertainment shouldn’t prove too difficult.

Let the games begin.


Image from Flickr.



Originally posted on Hevria.

A Browser Game That’s Good For Your Soul

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

I’m sitting hunched over my strangely molded slab of metal and plastic, pressing at it and hoping for a response, desirous that something rescue me from the meaningless wash of the social media news cycles, feeds, people, demons. I need something human, something different. And then, like some lesser demi-Columbus, I stumble upon a glowing treasure of the Internet.

It’s midmorning and alongside my Facebook and Gmail lies a browser tab full of European street signs, which I consider closely, looking for one I recognize. I switch back to another tab, which displays a deserted two-lane street through an evergreen forest with no distinctive landmarks except for a yellow-orange circle on the roadside stating the speed limit in kilometers. It could be a street almost anywhere in the world. And that’s exactly the problem.

Wooded lanes are the bane of my existence when I play GeoGuessr. I grew up in the American south, so I at least know when the trees are not of the deciduous forests of the Eastern U.S., but I’m no botanist, and I mistake one street for Nebraska when it belongs to Western Australia, netting me a whopping zero points and a bruised ego. It could just as easily have been in Bolivia or Botswana, Finland or Fiji.

The premise of GeoGuessr is quite simple: You are presented the Google street image of five different locations, from anywhere in the world (there are other game modes that can limit it to certain areas or countries). You are free to move about the scene, just as on Google Maps. You can walk down the road; you can zoom in on landmarks, names, signage, anything. The goal is to point out on a map of the world where, exactly, you are seeing. The closer your estimation, the more points you get. It is fun. It is enlightening.

I get another nondescript road next, but this time I am aided by some handy life experience, the summer I spent in rural Minnesota. Those rows of corn stalks and the familiar-looking trees must be in the American midwest. I guess Iowa. It was in Wisconsin. Not bad.

GeoGuessr presents challenges like these at every turn, a series of whodunnits with our glorious world as the only culprit. They will demand every ounce of ingenuity you possess. At first you’re gonna approach it all confident-like. Like I did (“I’ve been to some countries. I got this.”), you’ll tell yourself that you can do it without the help of a search engine or Wikipedia, with just your wits to guide you. But then you will see strange structures and political advertisements and store windows that just might scratch at a long-buried childlike curiosity about everything. When that happens, take my advice: Give in. Make some searches. Explore. You’ll find delight in locating a single branch of an international chain to within five feet and getting full points on the challenge. Strangely, it is equally thrilling to try navigating the website of a Japanese convenience store and have your guess thrown off by hundreds of miles because you don’t know the difference between a mom ‘n’ pop and a conglomerate in other countries no matter how worldly you think you are. Turns out these stores are as common in Japan as 7-11s in New Jersey, but, of course, I didn’t know that.

After a few rounds, you start to feel a bit smarter. You know with an absurd pride that those little mailboxes that in America could be mistaken for lawn ornaments are in fact indigenous to Scandinavian countries. You learn that company names and addresses on highway trucks are only really useful for identifying the country but can lead you hundreds of miles away from where you need to be. This is perfectly logical to any American such as I who has taken a long road trip and noticed exotic license plates on the interstate. But you don’t realize that when you’re trying to get your bearings in Brazil, which, by the way, is a country approximately the size of the galaxy. And don’t get me started on Canada.

There is something profound about this little browser game. It is an opportunity for complacent, comfortable people like me to get thrown back on their own ingenuity and resources. It is a game for travelers and outdoorsmen that, paradoxically, is played over the Internet, from your bedroom, in your pajamas. The traveler would have it that nature and the wide world are great things, great things, greater than any person. Communion with the world can cow even the greatest ego; no one is great in the vast rice fields of China or at the foot of Kilimanjaro.

But I tend to think that the opposite is true, that the world is only a large collection of small things and that revelation and humility are in mailboxes (or websites) just as much as mountaintops, if you know how to look at them. What makes Brazil, Brazil, is as much the shape of the headlights on the motorway and the flowers in a small apartment balcony pot as it is the bustle of Sao Paolo or the stunning beaches of Rio. And that is what this game brings to light.

When the world is made into a mystery, the normal thoughts of the tourist flutter away. We must actually see to know where we are. The allure of the world lies at the place where the mind meets the mailbox. Ultimately, it is more about appreciating how small we are than appreciating how great the universe is, and that in turn makes the earth far greater than it ever could be if we strode across its surface assured of our own omniscience.

To play GeoGuessr is to assume the role not of the tourist but of the pilgrim. We are not in the place to assimilate everything into our lives but for it to assimilate us, to become lost in the identity of the other. It teaches us that the solution to being lost and alone is not to grow taller than the mountains and broader than rivers. On the contrary, that is the ultimate loneliness, for nothing will be worth our time. But if I can become small enough, the keys of my laptop will loom like fiery mountains and the motes of dust before my windows will seem like dandelions, driven by the wind.

Some might say that Google Street View is a triumph of mankind’s dominance. It is an astonishing accomplishment and a victory to photograph all of the world’s streets. But the deepest expression of that victory is my ability to learn awe walking down a long outback road sitting in my room, the two experiences meshed, mystery drawn into a non-mysterious space, the world made my home.

No speed limit necessary.


Photo from Flickr.


Originally posted on Hevria.