Chris Bateman on Videogames: Art and (not so much) addiction: Part I: Game Criticism and ‘Bateman schema’

(I’ve decided to bump this post forward of everything else because as I’ve told Antisophie: Goffman has been dead for 30 years, a post on him can wait a bit longer.)

This weekend, after swimming in an ice cold water pool, I decided to venture to see a talk held by the good people of St. Barnabas Church in Southfields, SW18, which is a couple of SW away from me, I went to see one of the few consistent viewers of my blog, Chris Bateman of Only a Game and apparently even has a wikipedia page! Bateman is also responsible for this game, the digital equivalent of an ad hominem, but I digress.

The topic of Bateman’s talk goes through a lot of bases, for example Kendall Walton’s landmark work on Mimesis as Make-Believe, a paper which has had influence in philosophy outside of philosophical aesthetics. Bateman also addresses two levels of critiques about games. One pertains to the extent to which they are engaging to the imagination and another is the level to which on a brain level, they appeal to certain categories of stimuli. Let’s start off with a bit of exegesis.

Games and the imagination

There is an implicit bias in Bateman against games modelled on action movies and more favour towards games which engage the imagination, where representation of the things imagined are as limited as possible. Something like Flatland or rulebook based tabletop games are implicitly favourable than the conventional blockbuster games that rule the commercial roost. I think this is immaterial to the point but I do find it interesting how our personal outlooks influence our philosophies in no insignificant fashion.

Bateman argues that the uniqueness of games are the ways in which they engage in exercising the imagination, perhaps even challenging them. There is something refreshingly avant-garde about this claim and if it were made about music I would wholly agree and claim it as an Adornian/modernist idea. Imagination engages the gamer’s mind in a variety of ways which are explained in much more detail in Bateman’s blog such as through his discussion of Walton’s prop theory and many of his other posts on his accompanying iHobo blog, often much of it I barely understand.

What I will say is that there is an analogue with the modernists of the last century with their ideals of authentic art against inauthentic art with visionary games and anodyne games. This invariably cuts into the issue of the commercialism of games in a similar way that Adorno was concerned with the inauthenticity of the anodyne nature of mass culture. One significant way in which the analogy does not work (and probably an important one) is the means of production. Adorno considered much of the dullness of mass culture to be linked inextricably to its means of production. Bateman by contrast works in an industry where the commodity (the game) can be potentially digitally reproduced and offers a potentially unlimited resource as a game can be reproduced digitally through the likes of Steam downloads or other such non-physical retailers.

The idea of criticism and and the idea of success

Implicit in Bateman’s discussion is his idea that video games are an art form and his work has gone beyond the question of whether games are an art form (which I’m sure is almost a banal question for many people these days). What is more interesting is that Bateman seems to be creating a notion for game criticism in a way akin to literary or music criticism. Maybe one day someone will do PhDs in gamer criticism in English Language departments, mostly because some English Language departments in universities hardly even do things like erm, 18th Century novels or Medieval literature, you know, the staples, but I digress (again). Another factor that we might consider about games is the notion of success. What is a successful game? We can consider this both in terms of commercial and aesthetic success, and of course, aesthetically successful games need not be commercially successful. We shall come across this issue later.

Games and categories: introducing the ‘Bateman Schema’

The other aspect of critique about video games involves sets of categories. Lets call them Bateman Schema. Bateman linked these to neurological concepts, namely, generic sectors of the brain and localised sectors that link to certain kinds of responses. For example, fear is a potential aspect of a game, namely simulated fear. The offer of success is another, the potential for co-operation with other agents/players; dealing with randomness/unpredictability. Bateman links these concepts with brain regions, sectors and hormones. I think for a large number of reasons this is very difficult as the onus on this claim is empirical and raises methodological issues such as the naturalistic fallacy, the critique of ‘neurotrash’ or the potentially misleading way of identifying areas in the brain as unified autonomous structures and mechanisms, in other words, can we really say there is a ‘fear’ centre of the brain? The idea of neurotrash is addressed by the philosopher Raymond Tallis, who is also a medical practitioner who relies on brain studies for his work. .

This is not to say I find these categories abhorrent or wrong, far from it. Whether these categories or not are biological is an issue I could happily put aside, I think something like a ‘Weberian ideal type’ or akin to a Kantian/Aristotelian conceptual category would seem more relevant as it is less metaphysically suspect (well maybe not a Kantian category).  The typology of concepts established by Bateman are what I said to him are the most interesting and innovative aspects of his notion of game. Especially towards the critical notion of a game’s success. Many of the aspects of a game’s failure or success can be determined to the extent of these categories. A game which has much to offer in terms of fear and the payoff of surviving that fear (success) or the degree to which a game may fail may be determined by these factors. There was one category in particular which really resonated with me, which isn’t particularly a strong one for many games and that is association.

I have a strong association with playing the piano, often when I play, I go through many memories and feelings, many of these feelings and memories won’t make sense to anyone else and it becomes a highly personal experience. When I thought of this, I also thought that playing the piano isn’t a game, but it is an activity of playing. Bateman identified the semantic indeterminability of the french ‘Jeux’ (meaning both play and game) to highlight this. Playing is a slightly different activity to gaming highlighted by the instance of playing the piano. Maybe piano playing is a game, but I hardly succeed at it, and I don’t really involve other people and the amount of fear in public performing is so terrible it wouldn’t make a very nice game!

I was also thinking of games that I have fond associations with. Franchise games are very good at this. One of my all time favourite games is Grandia II, which I found in a bargain basement sale when my dad was buying a washing machine at comet years ago, when a game establishes a world that is convincing and characters with conviction, you can develop feelings for them and engage with them. It is this notion of association that makes a game personal and yet a very active activity. It is in my view the one way in which my experience of Mass Effect 2 and 3 favour better than when I played Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, because the world in the latter was not emotionally or personally engaging enough with the Dohvakin protagonist (who is rather wooden).

Bateman’s categories allow a way for gaming criticism to emerge. Good games and bad games can be considered through these schema. Bad games are a very good case in point, there are some games that I’ve played where the amount of fear is too high, or the success payoff is too low that I have lost interest in it. There are many games which I’ve admired for many reasons which eventually fail in one aspect that sometimes I may stick with as a way of compromising and accepting that other aspects outweigh the bad things (my general experience with JRPGs with generic storylines but fun level/skill trees). I do think that with these criteria, each of the schema that Bateman has advanced to not have equal weighting. Modern Warfare may be critically well considered for the degree to which it integrates multiplayer elements, but maybe not in terms of an engaging story or necessarily fear. In other words, what makes one game successful does not apply as a rule of thumb for all games. Again this schema raises the question of whether our notion of success is commercial or critical. I can perfectly envisage for instance, that using these Bateman schema (I think I’ll call it that from now on).

What is very unique about the Bateman Schema is that this is his best case for making games an art form. This is because these factors are experientially relevant to the agent, in addition they are perhaps unique to games in a way that other art forms are not. So in short, I think the Bateman schema provide a very useful way of considering games in a way that is aesthetically relevant. It may also provide a scheme and methodology for considering a game’s commercial success on a pre-release basis (if one were thinking as a market researcher), and this also highlights the ambiguity of what success is for a game? Is success critical (i.e. based on its individual merits) or commercial (based on its sales)? Bateman in various points of his writing prides himself on having worked on the games of the Pratchett Discworld series, which he claims were commercial failures but had a cult following. It’s interesting however that his more financially successful game was Bratz: Rock Angels, this fact aggravates this division of our notion of success. Bateman’s characterisation of games through this dual approach of imagination and the brain centres can be used to frame conceptual problems that are not necessarily solvable, but exist in games inherently as a commercial enterprise that may be also an artistic endeavour.

In my next post on Bateman’s talk, I will address a more specific issue which relates more to my own familiar area of interest. This is the issue that I chose to bring up with him in person.