Why Will Self’s outsider’s view of gaming is thought-provoking, despite the common misconceptions

Every so often, a celebrated littérateur opines on the subject of videogames, having just discovered or rediscovered them. A few years ago, novelist John Lanchester asked of the medium: “Is it art?” (His answer: maybe, one day.) Now Will Self has written an essay for the London Review Of Books about how his sons are obsessed with games, and – in a lovely flight of metacritical fancy – wondering what the literary theorist Northrop Frye would have made of it all.

Some of the cognoscenti might feel inclined to dismiss nonspecialist analysis, especially if it contains (as Self’s does) a few errors. But if we want games to lose their association with spotty boys, they are going to be part of a wider cultural conversation. And sometimes outsiders see things that we don’t.

Self, it turns out, has a keen eye for games’ mythico-narrative scenarios. Describing his 15-year-old son’s epic gaming sessions in his “man-cave”, he comments: “I’ve always been happiest about this when the kill zone is decked out in the furniture of established Nordic folklore – dragons, frost giants, axe-wielding berserkers, etc – rather than the inchoate mythology […] of that all-time gore-rest Call Of Duty”. What he finds distasteful in COD is Blops’s Nazi-zombies mode. His son and friends say that since the enemies are both zombies and Nazis, there can be no guilt about gunning them down. I’ve always assumed the same thing: their cartoonish double-down evil makes the Nazi zombies less morally troubling assault-rifle fodder than the nameless Arabs or Russians one is encouraged to bullet-riddle or torture in such games’ main campaigns.

But Self problematises this easy defence: “Even perpetrating the second death of a zombie diminishes the game-player,” he insists, “because it necessarily exposes him to all the grotesque nonsense the game’s writers have cooked up out of Third Reich horrors – the concentration camps, Mengele, the Mittelbau-Dora rocket factories and so forth – and then spiced with anachronistic steam punk conceits.” OK, so steampunk conceits are always anachronistic, but perhaps he’s right about the glib appropriation of the structures and machinery of Hitlerian genocide for mere fetishised set dressing to a shooting gallery.

Self’s point, I assume, is not that you shouldn’t make entertainment out of the Nazis – laughing at them is one way to show the appropriate scorn. Quentin Tarantino demonstrated this in Inglourious Basterds, a film that, I take it, aimed to complete and destroy the Holocaust movie genre by making it henceforth impossible to craft earnestly syrupy Nazi-based dramas that congratulated themselves on their righteous sympathy and comfortably distanced moral superiority. But the decontextualised exploitation of Nazi symbolism purely for its allegedly edgy (but morbidly clichéd) decorative glamour is – as when a Formula 1 boss enjoys a “Nazi-themed orgy”, or a princeling sports a swastika to a fancy-dress party – just dismayingly crass.

Elsewhere, Self’s essay muses on the theme of predation, endorsing the argument of Paul Trout that “our earliest mythologies” are based “in the experience not of being hunters, but of being hunted” by jawed megafauna such as the sabre-toothed tiger. He finds this a refreshing counter to the modern shooter that tells its customers they are alpha predators. But videogames have long played precisely on a tense alternation between being predated upon and doing the predating. (As Self could have noticed even in Pac-Man.) If we were only prey in games, they would be too depressing a phantasmagorical allegory of real life, since most of us are fundamentally prey to the rapacious dance of global capital, to crypto-psychopathic bosses, to barbarous bureaucracy. That’s why we enjoy the predator fantasies of videogames, as well as why (or so Adam Kotsko argues in Why We Love Sociopaths) we enjoy TV series whose heroes are antisocial predators, such as Dexter and Breaking Bad.

The main limitation of Self’s analysis is that all the games he discusses – Blops, Skyrim, WOW – involve a lot of killing, so he is driven to see games in general as a globe-rimming überfiesta of death-porn. We know that’s not the case, but that’s all he’s seen his sons play; and this widely shared misapprehension is hardly mysterious when the games that are the most expensively advertised, and so likely to impinge on a non-gamer’s consciousness, are indeed the mega-murder simulators. (My local Pizza Hut is offering a Halo 4 stuffed-crust pizza. I dread to think what it’s stuffed with.)

But one can wish that Self had witnessed something odder and less predatory. I would have lent him the game that has given me the happiest and least homicidal pleasure this month, Frederic: Resurrection Of Music, explaining gently that you play the composer Frédéric Chopin, risen from the grave in 21st century Paris and obliged to defeat a series of modern musicians in sonic duels by tapping the keys of a virtual piano in time to glorious techno or reggae remixes of famous Chopin tunes. Surely even Northrop Frye would have been delighted with that.

Illustration: Marsh Davies

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