Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Post-Modernism, the Intrinsic Meaning of Video Games and Snoopy

Snoopy is cool. That suave beagle from Charles Schultz's "Peanuts" is the hippest character in the comic strip, out-styling a crabby megalomanic, a philosopher with a security blanket, two androgynous girls and the most depressed and cynical bald six year old boy you will ever meet. Snoopy is a dashing extrovert who fights WWI flying ace the Red Baron in his Sopwith Camel and works on his manuscript "It was a dark and stormy night..." on his free time; no little feats for a dog who can't talk.

Yes, Snoopy is cool, so cool that he sleeps on top of his dog house rather than most of his contemporaies. And while he has been the outgoing and gregarious mascot of "Peanuts" and has adorned lunch boxes world wide and been featured as a balloon several times in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, he's outdated. He's almost sixty years old.

Coolness is always changing from generation to generation, and Snoopy is an obsolete model of hipness. That was the 50's; today's generation lives in a post-modern cynical world where kids are too smart for their own good to correspond with their opinion that nothing matters anymore.

It's hip not to believe anything anymore.

Lack of faith is something Buddha, Jesus, Ganesh and the prophet Muhammad can probably all get along and agree is not generally a good thing. However, the cool factor doesn't seem to be in atheism, the belief there is no god or higher power, but in agnosticism, the belief that it's impossible to determine whether there is a god or not; since there's no way for mortals to say definitely there is a god (since that's where faith comes in), some folks would just easily throw up their hands and say, "What's the use? Nothing matters anymore, because nothing means anything."

I am not a pastor, priest, rabbi, monk or clergyman; I'm sure you have your own religious beliefs, whatever they are, and even are confident enough to espouse your faith on a T-shirt. Awesome. Just keep doing what you're doing.

What this piece of writing is addressing is the world view that nothing means anything in the world. A dog, Snoopy or not, is a dog. A tear is a tear; it doesn't symbolize anthing because it doesn't have to - a tear comes out of your tear ducts when you cry, and people cry when they are sad. It all makes literal sense.

As the technology that powers the graphics of video games becomes more and more powerful, so too will they become more literal; never again will a soldier rush in from offstage to relate an account of a battle as happens in any Shakespearean play - in a video game, a cutscene with thousands and thousands of meticulously rendered soldiers will literally depict the entire battle for you. Why does anyone have to believe anything anymore unless you can see it for yourself?

You do have to feel some sympathy for these spoon-fed children of baby boomers who have been born into priviledge without having to endure hardship and challenge because it means said priviledge, having been awarded freely, comes free of meaning and significance. After all, they'll have to find their way somehow. Still, kids everywhere know and appreciate the sacrifice the "greatest generation" paid for the conflict of WWII, but that won't stop them from enjoying yet another WWII shooter that lets them enjoy war as a game.

Maybe you don't believe in anything anymore; maybe you don't think anything means anything anymore. You can believe whatever you'd like, but I'm telling you: the world is full of meaning; whether or not it's actually "meaningful" is up to you, but it's still full of meaning nonetheless.

If you need spiritual guidance, seek out your local guru or missionary. If you're lost, consult a map. Right now, I'm going to tell you what this video game blog has been doing and will keep doing: this blog will interpret and tell you about the meaning of video games.

I won't get into examples, since this blog is rife with them. But let's this be agreed upon: art can be defined as something that is made, intentionally or not, with inherent meaning and subtext. Since video games are art and qualify for this definition, we can then also agree that video games have meaning and subtext to them that may or may not be associated with the creator's wishes. This has all to do with that most powerful of literary devices: the metaphor; however, as noted, the metaphor has been enduring a losing battle as a viable construct in today's cynical and literal world view.

It begs to be asked: why do things have to have a meaning? Why can't things have no meaning? For example, abstract expressionist painters like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock made subjectless art that avoided all narrative and story. Classical composers like Johann Sebastian Bach made "pure" music that had such abstract titles as "Air in G" that served only differentiate works from each other and not as a title to suggest or describe themes, subjects or emotions.

However, all art has one thing in common: art is made by artists. As it also is begged to be said, artists are all human and so are people with unique experiences and perspectives. That said, even though a Pollock painting looks to a layman like the end result of a spastic 6 year-old during fingerpainting, upon closer inspection we can delve into the experience and perspective of the artist himself. Indeed, the thrown paint or messy smudges of a master painter can tell you as much about himself as it can the nature of the universe.

Video games are a product of definite planning and preconceived thought; and while that planning more often than not is used to make the spatter of blood more realistic (read: enjoyable) as does the movement of breasts more realistic (read: hyper-realistic), there is still a meaning there to be found, intentional or not. That's because video games aren't just art, but a culture, a amalgamation of thoughts and feelings. It's there.

Perhaps you don't see that Resident Evil 5 is racist; perhaps you don't see that the "viral zombie outbreak" is a close metaphor for the real-life viral problems Africa is dealing with (ie. AIDS, Ebola etc). Or, perhaps you see but don't accept it; fan boys all have eyeballs that see selective truths, after all.

Allow me to tell you of this first occasion I started thinking about subtext, hard. It was the playoffs, and a bunch of us had gathered to watch the hometown heroes lose, again. Anyways, right during intermission (the hockey game went into overtime) there was a commercial on that we all watched for BMW. It was very amusing: in it, a boy is riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. The camera is travelling with him to track his every move; while he is very unsteady and obviously new to riding a bicycle, he is enjoying it very much. Soon after appearing, our concern for the novice bicyclist is taken care of by a man who appears travelling alongside the boy, driving a BMW. He looks to be the father as he appears very concerned for the boys safety, whose anxious consternation contrasts the blissful joy of the boy.

We all watched the commercial in silence, and then when it was done I said suddenly, "You know what this commercial means? This man loves his boy as much as he loves his car." I think I shocked everyone with that, but no one was more shocked than me.

Post-modern or otherwise, art in this world hasn't stopped having meaning; instead, the cynic in us has stopped looking for meaning, especially provided that much modern art has adapted to the times by becoming very literal in depiction.

Hasn't anyone else wondered why the proliferation of super hero movies has taken over Hollywood? Marvel and DC have tripped over themselves seven times to Sunday as though they walked around with six legs in order to ship out yet another super hero movie. While some would say the advancement of computer graphics has allowed filmmakers to finally and faithfully be able to produce images that years ago would be cost-prohibitive and difficult to produce, I would say that the fantasy of absolute good fighting against absolute evil is very suitable for a target audience who is only interested in literal and absolute values and imagery.

Writers like Neil Gaiman have all but destroyed the traditional super-hero mythos in books like "Black Orchid" where the villian, being post-modern and aware of the literary foibles of villians, shoots the hero in the head and kills her - at the very beginning of the book. However, the post-modern audience is such that they are so savvy to the illusion of "good vs. evil" that they will sit through an entire movie knowing full well what it is without having to suspend their disbelief. Unlike a generation ago, people like super-heroes not because they represent other themes or ideas, but because this abstraction of "good vs. evil" is just enough of a literary construct to allow the audience to enjoy said spectafular CGI effects. This type of renting-out-of-awareness is similar to the phenomenon of celebrities who become famous only because they look attractive, like FHM models or women photographed getting out of cars who don't wear underwear.

Hey, savvy know-it-all kids: don't believe meaning. Find it, and then do what you will with it. For video games, it starts with accepting that something else is going on inspite/despite the story that has to do with technology gone amok/saving the world against evil/becoming a crime overlord/something or another that has to do with space marines, ninjas and large breasts.

Video game culture is defined by video gamers, not video games. So let's find it.

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