Is it possible to have too much fun?

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the first essay ever published on the Cultural Gutter. Read Jim Munroe’s first piece at the Cultural Gutter, all the way from May 22, 2003!


Is it possible to have a pleasure circuit overload?

“Girls are to be kept away from those activities of civilization that over-stimulate the imagination and the senses, such as fashionable novels, paintings, music, balls, theaters… as this can lead to uterine epilepsy, sapphic tastes, and nymphomania.”

While this is Victorian-era advice, it’s reflective of how certain people deal with something that’s new and sexy: hysteria. It’s the same people who are now blaming video games, today’s over-stimulant of choice, for everything from obesity to mass murder. Even those of us who aren’t concerned parents or members of the religious community have a tendency to look at video games as a waste of time when compared, say, to reading a novel.

As someone who makes his living from writing novels, let me tell you that this is sanctimonious horseshit.
There’s no shortage of time-wasting novels, and plenty of brilliant videogames, and the dismissal of a medium in its infancy says volumes about the guilt we have about playing and pleasure. This snobbery prevents this hugely popular entertainment industry (a $13.5-billion annual gross revenue in the States alone places it ahead of Hollywood) from getting the critical focus it needs to grow. Despite the numbers proving that it fills a social need, there’s next to no serious cultural discourse about it.

I’m not just talking about critical reviews or in-depth profiles, I’m talking about people chit-chatting at parties. While it’s acceptable to discuss the cinematography in a movie you’ve just seen, try bringing up the inventive and creepy camera angles in Resident Evil Zero (Capcom). While you can recommend a page-turner to a total stranger without raising eyebrows, try recommending the brilliant Grim Fandango (LucasArts). Rueful grins and shaking heads are all you’ll get.

Why? Well, like porn, there’s something naked about the fantasy-fulfillment most video games offer – you can drive that big rig, shoot that terrorist and hit that ball in a way you never could in real life – that seems basically juvenile. Like science fiction, comics and other gutter genres, playing video games is something kids do.

And more often than not, people have had some unsatisfying experience with one kind of game and dismissed them as a whole. That’s like dismissing the world of film based on watching an action flick. Because there is very little discussion about games, there’s no vocabulary to describe how the experience was unsatisfying, and consequently find a type of game you might like better. While you might come away from a boring movie and say that the pace was too slow or that the acting was wooden, when most people quit playing games they don’t tend to say that the cut scenes were too talky or the interface was cluttered.

The medium as a whole has a much more inbred feedback loop than those that continually strengthen and stimulate the legit media. Hardcore gamers, the most vocal feedbackers game designers have, are often more impressed by more realistically rendered lava than cohesive storylines or intriguing characters.

So it becomes a vicious circle: designers aren’t given much incentive to raise the bar except technologically, and consequently the potential next-generation designers don’t find much to inspire them to pursue a career in videogame-making. Without the “I wanna make a game/movie/album like ‘X,'” it’s hard to keep the spark alive in any medium.

But plenty have pushed the medium in interesting directions. Because they don’t really know where it will go, it can be both exciting and frightening. While wandering freely around the aptly named Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto III (Rockstar Games), I was struck by how the most accessible and realistically detailed virtual city thus far created was not made by an urban planning thinktank or architectural company, but as a byproduct of a first-person shooter. And since the odds are that we’ll be spending more and more time in virtual environments in the coming decades (email’s the thin end of the wedge), what will it mean for us to have had our first experiences be psychopathic killing sprees? As fun as those sprees are, they’re only one fantasy among many that could be played out.

Compelling games and the questions they pose are what I’m going to focus on for this column. From the weeks solid I spent as a teenager unravelling text-adventure games to the hours I spent finishing Grand Theft Auto III last night, I’ve been engaged and excited by games – sometimes from afar, as there was a 10-year drought in between when I filled the void with art and politics. This mix gives me a sympathetic but critical eye on the medium, makes me a participant-observer if you will, and I aim to temper my enthusiasm with analysis of both the game itself and its place in our society.

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