Why we should be more confident talking about games we haven’t played

Torture in videogames, runs one argument, is too casual. The rapid, sadistic hurting of a recalcitrant enemy in your average military shooter is the gory equivalent of pressing a button on a vending machine that dispenses information. Cumulatively, such scenes also reinforce the highly dubious view that torture works. So in order to make us think about torture properly, a game should oblige us to perform it in a really elaborate and disgusting way.

Such, presumably, was part of Rockstar’s ethico-aesthetic justification when it was building what rapidly became known as ‘that’ torture scene in GTAV. It generated a lot of intelligent commentary, almost none in its defence. Using a videogame controller to extract a man’s teeth or smash his knees, people said, did not make them feel any more convinced than they already were that torture is wrong. Nor was it justified, they said, as a way to widen the emotional distance between player and protagonist. We already hated that guy, they said. Personally, I agree with them.

Did I mention that I haven’t played GTAV? Well, I haven’t. I mean, not for a second. I’ve read what other people have written about it and watched YouTube clips. Does this render my opinion about the torture scene invalid? Not a bit. We should all talk more, and more confidently, about videogames we haven’t played.

I take my lead here from the French critic Pierre Bayard’s wonderful text How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. It is not a cynical bluffer’s charter, but a serious argument about how books fit into our lives. There are, Bayard observes, Books You Don’t Know, Books You Have Skimmed, Books You Have Heard Of and Books You Have Forgotten. These categories map quite nicely onto videogames. GTAV is a Game I Have Heard Of, having read about it and watched clips. This is certainly enough to form a view about some aspects of it, given Bayard’s observation that: “Culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.” I can locate GTAV within the ludic system, and so can you.

You don’t need to have played GTAV to have an opinion on Trevor’s talked-about torture scene – and you shouldn’t be afraid of expressing it, says Poole.

A Game I Have Skimmed, meanwhile, must be one I have played only bits of. Woe to the hater who insists that any critique of a game by a player who hasn’t trudged through all 60 brown, grinding hours of it must therefore be invalid. If a game is rubbish for 59, or even just nine, hours, nothing that happens subsequently can redeem that tedious theft of your life. And anyway, videogames themselves – in a long-overdue development – are starting to enable such skimming, offering players invulnerability or even the chance to skip a sequence entirely if they can’t succeed.

Each person, Bayard says, has an ‘inner book’: a fantasy book that would be entirely congruent with one’s own personality. (My inner game must be some eye-bleedingly awesome mash-up of Ico, Uridium, Metal Gear Solid, Manic Miner, Ridge Racer Type 4 and Modern Warfare 2’s Spec Ops.) When we read an actual book, it is measured against our inner book and a third book is thereby created called a ‘screen book’. (It screens off certain aspects of the actual book.) No two people ever experience the same book in the same way – they never have the same screen book. This is just as true of videogames; indeed, it’s more blatantly true, given their algorithmic response to input.

When we talk together about a videogame, our two screen games meet in conversation and merge into a ‘phantom game’. These phantoms, Bayard says, are the imaginatively remixed artworks that “fuel our daydreams and conversations, far more than the real objects that are theoretically their source”.

“A pedantic insistence on familiarity with every word of a given real book – or every minute or level of a videogame – is really missing the point of much cultural thought and conversation”

The more we talk unashamedly about videogames we haven’t played, the greater will be videogame culture’s intellectual strength and creativity. So it is time not to confess, but to joyfully announce that I have heard of GTAV, I have skimmed BioShock, I have forgotten almost everything about the ZX Spectrum text adventure Circus (retaining only a memory of super-eeriness), and I don’t know anything at all about tower defence games. (Do towers need that much defending?)

Another big game I have only heard of is Beyond: Two Souls. Obviously, it’s a QTE-fest, and much of the rest of what I know about Quantic Dream’s latest plastic-cinema extravaganza I learned from Ellie Gibson’s brief and hilarious YouTube video entitled ‘Top Five Emotions In Beyond: Two Souls’. Is that enough to talk about it? Buy me a drink and try to stop me.

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