All art is designed to alter the audience’s minds.
Even more accurately: all art is designed to alter the physical structure of the audience’s brains.
Art reshapes the biological world. And from that foundation, perchance, art can change the world at large as well.
At the simplest level, the changes wrought by art are memories. Each new memory is created through physical changes in the composition of our brains – freshly pruned connections between neurons, or new synapses that begin reaching out from one cell to another. The pair become more or less likely to fire in concert.
If ever an artwork doesn’t change the physical structure of your brain, then you won’t recall having experienced it. If you happen to see that painting, read that book, or hear that song again, it’ll be as though it were the first time.
Most artists hope to create works that will make more significant changes in their audience. Not just that the artwork will remembered, but that the audience might think of the world differently, perhaps even act upon newfound philosophical priorities.
I played a lot of video games while growing up, including first-person shooters like Wolfenstein, Doom II, and Golden Eye. But despite the plethora of violence that I immersed myself in – artworks that constantly suggested I could murder my problems – I’ve never wanted to hold a gun. Luckily, video games didn’t change my brain that way.
But a peculiar commonality between all the video games I played did fundamentally alter my view of the world.
By the time I started playing, most computer games had save functions. A player could create a backup copy of their game’s progress just before a tricky section, and then the player could repeat the ensuing challenge again and again, loading the saved copy after each new mistake while attempting to complete that section of the game perfectly. (A mid-nineties rock album – I believe by the band Ben Folds Five – toyed with this idea of computerized perfection by claiming in the liner notes that each measure of every song was recorded in a separate take, all to give listeners an experience absolutely free of musical mistakes.)
Over many years playing video games, I grew so accustomed to this opportunity to save my progress and repeat sections again and again – whether in openly violent games like Doom and Diablo, in games where the violence was partially abstracted like Civilization 2, or even in peaceable games like Sim City and Sierra’s pinball simulator – that I felt confident whenever I played. I was absolutely certain that I’d eventually get things right.
In video games, a player could always try again.
And so an awful feeling gnawed at me when things went wrong in my day-to-day life, outside the world of games. Whether it was asking someone to prom, running poorly in a track meet, going through a bad collegiate break-up, or a depressed semester that culminated with my research advisor asking for a progress report about the work I (hadn’t) done in his laboratory: I wanted to reload my save file. If I were playing a game, then I’d be prepared. I could zip back and attempt the previous few hours – or months – again.
With repetition, I’d get it right.
Which isn’t a desire to re-live the past, exactly. Instead, video games cultivate a desire to bring all our present knowledge with us. The past, but blessed with portents from an unrealized future. If I’d gotten to try again, I would’ve been a different person – wiser, more experienced – who could make different choices from my prior self and thereby reap a more glorious present.
In his game Braid, Jonathan Blow describes this dream:
Tim and the princess lounge in the castle garden, laughing together, giving names to the colorful birds. Their mistakes are hidden from each other, tucked away between the folds of time, safe.
While playing Braid, players don’t even have to save their game. There are six buttons: left, right, up, down, jump, & “rewind time.” With any mistake – the game’s protagonist tumbling aflame toward the bottom of the screen – a player simply presses “rewind time” and tries again.
Even midway through my life, I still experience this misguided desire. Perhaps it’s worse in people predisposed toward rumination. I find myself thinking about how phenomenally well I could re-live my youth, if I were able to keep my knowledge from all this practice that I’ve had living but was somehow given the chance to try again.
And that, to me, is the most horrible fallout from playing video games. They inculcated such a strong expectation that there would always be identical second chances. Not just the potential for forgiveness or redemption, but an opportunity for repetition until perfection.
I assume this sensation was experienced by people even before anyone played video games. I also assume it’s stronger now. And commoner.
Still, there are certain types of artistic messages that video games convey more adroitly than any other media. When we play a game, we control what happens. Our impulses are reflected in movements on a screen. This is a powerful way to engender empathy.
First-person narration in books does something similar. At times I cringed, but I still thrilled at the protagonist’s misbehavior in Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! because I’d felt welcomed into her experiences. (A bold novel, since our culture considers Bukowskian misbehavior to be much less acceptable if described from a woman’s perspective – Anna Kavan’s Julia and the Bazooka was never granted the same cachet as William Burrough’s Naked Lunch.)
Even with the mind-control fungus in Hiron Ennes’s Leech, the first-person narration swayed me to root for the fungus’s destructively selfish pursuits.
Nearly all the games made by the designers at the heart of Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow have narratives that are rigidly circumscribed. A game’s protagonist might jump only when the player presses “jump,” but in this sort of game – heavily scripted, with a pre-programmed “correct” way to win – players have only the illusion of choice and freedom. The artwork’s audience is forced to follow a single structured path (much like how Mario can’t even turn back to revisit areas that have passed off the left side of the screen) if they want to experience the story.
The designers in Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow don’t allow emergent behaviors into their games (which are generally the most interesting and / or bizarre aspects of artificial intelligence, all the strange interactions that occur when a sufficient quantity of simple systems concurrently pursue mathematically-designated goals. A few years ago, researchers O. Peleg & colleagues found that a very basic algorithm could replicate the gravity- and wind-defying stability of honeybee clusters. And a simple word prediction model – albeit trained on a huge trove of data – creates the lifelike creepiness of chat algorithms.)
In the games described in Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, a player’s choice is generally to either do the “right” thing, which will allow the game to progress, or to stop playing and never reach its ending.
Which does carry an inherent drawback. Artists want for an audience to be able to experience their creations. But when that artwork is a game, many people find themselves excluded.
Recently, my youngest child started drawing video game levels on paper (despite living in a house without a television and having never played that type of game), so over spring break I invited them to sit in front of my 17-year-old laptop computer and play Braid. I thought this would be a good introduction to gaming because there’s no risk – with the “rewind time” button, the game’s protagonist can’t die.
But my kids couldn’t coordinate the button pressing required for jumping between platforms. Neither can my spouse. I think Braid is a fantastic piece of artwork, but without me sitting with them, ready to press the buttons at the tricky parts, they wouldn’t get to experience it.
The game Limbo, like Mario, is a left to right sidescroller, and the player begins by moving through a forest world where other children have set murderous traps or will attack you when you approach. Limbo is replete with puzzles that can’t be solved without multiple attempts – often the signs of danger won’t be noticed until you’ve succumbed to them several times – forcing the player to watch their protagonist die again and again.
I felt like the experience of playing was changing me, making me inured to the game’s incessant horror and tragedy as I continued. If the final levels of the game had included puzzles in which the player had to move from right to left and construct traps to thwart the next “generation” of characters attempting to escape the forest, I think the game would’ve been more compelling. It would have had a closed circle of meaning and conveyed a powerful message about trauma and its aftereffects.
My youngest child is in a multi-age classroom where several students are lashing out in pretty terrible, disruptive ways – my kid has often sobbed at bedtime while describing things that happened. But the outbursts are coming from kindergartners and first-graders. No child that age wants to be terrible! No child wants to rage and scream and invite punishment. It takes problematic occurrences earlier in life, and not enough support in the moment, for a child to devolve to that.
A game like Limbo (with a more compelling ending) could readily teach this, because players could reflect upon the changes that had occurred in their own behavior from the beginning to the end of the game.
Video games, by putting us in “control” of characters in desperate situations, can demonstrate how close we are to ethical slips. Video games are the art form best suited to inspire their audience to reckon with their own behavior. (Admittedly, players don’t always undertake this reckoning.)
For instance, the game Grand Theft Auto 5 asks players to torture a character in order to continue the story. I don’t think that kids should have been exposed to that game, but for adult audiences, I believe there’s real value in demonstrating what regular people will do when they feel trapped or bullied into unethical behavior. In demonstrating what you might do.
There was no way to experience the rest of the game without committing torture, but then again, GTA was just a game – not getting to experience the rest of the plot isn’t a huge punishment, is it? And even so, most players chose to torture. How much more severe do you think the pressure would be if you’d devoted your life to a certain career and then felt like all your progress – your income, your identity – would be wrenched away from you if you failed to conform with a culture of unethical behavior?
Occasionally, when other volunteers visit the county jail to help with my classes, they’ve expressed disappointment afterward that I’m always friendly and polite with the correctional officers who work there. I ask about the COs plans for their weekends (at the jail, staff are typically assigned a 9-day work week, with three weekend days and a back-to-back pair of “Wednesdays” mid-week, so you never know how close somebody is to their own personal Friday). Everyone who volunteers at the jail is, like me, extremely liberal, and sometimes the other volunteers say that it feels disquieting to be chummy with the people administering state-sponsored violence and incarceration.
But it’s not the fault of anyone who work in jail. Honestly, the jail staff is in jail every day they go to work, and we live in a country where most people have to work in order to have enough to eat. (I’m very privileged, but much of my extended family has been on food stamps at some time or other, and the money always ran out before the end of the month.)
Even at jails or prisons where the staff are openly abuse toward inmates – or police departments that cultivate a culture of brutality – it’s worth considering what pressures caused people to break and behave that way.
Video games – with their twitchy dexterity challenges that cause our hearts to race – can demonstrate the ways that we, too, might break.
Playing Minecraft at the local YMCA, I watched my gentle vegan child swing a pickax at a sheep.
If I were playing, I’d probably do it, too. Just to see what happens.
The moving pixels stopped moving. The sheep became a resource.
I haven’t learned to program yet, but the first game I make will probably be called Psalmist, where players write poems to conjure forth a deity. The deity would become the player’s character, with its controls made intentionally buggy in ways that reflected the player’s style of worship. If a player wrote something like Psalm 137 (“Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”) they might reap a god wrathful enough to lunge and squash the player’s own people even as the player attempted to navigate toward an enemy city.
Automated text analysis isn’t good enough to understand poetry yet, but a simple statistical model could register the emotional tenor of the words, whether there was frantic or lugubrious pacing, tight or loose syntax.
The main problem, in making a game like that, would be a question of artistic intent: it’s easy to imagine incorporating deities into strategy games like Starcraft or Civilization, but do we need another work of art that reinforces players’ assumptions that it’s good to conquer the world? To extract every resource and crush enemies?
Near the end of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, a protagonist says,
“Art doesn’t typically get made by happy people.”
And while it’s true that all art aims to change the world, I think it’s possible to simultaneously experience both happiness and a recognition that the world has many flaws.
When my spouse and I moved into our home, I remarked that our bedroom ceiling looked wrong. “The round light fixture, the square walls, they don’t look right. There ought to be a maze.” Every time I looked at that ceiling, something felt off to me.
Then, two years later, I painted the maze that I thought should have been there all along. (I painted while standing precariously on a folding chair, and at one point slipped and dumped half a can of black paint on my face and dreadlocked hair. The next day I was telling this story to a local poet, and he said, “Oh, and it’s not like you even needed to paint it, which probably makes it worse.” Except that I did need to paint that ceiling – it hadn’t looked right to me!)
It’s not that I was unhappy then, or am blissfully happy now – we make art to make the world that we think ought to be.
Whether from a place of happiness or unhappiness, artists want the world to change.