Epic Life: The Big Break of BioShock, part the last
I promised to deal with one last problem in my “Games are Humanism” line of argument (now that the non-essentiality of the academic ruleset and the incipient humanism of even the least self-aware performance have been established): if we grant that playing BioShock can be doing humanities, where does that leave games that don’t force their players to reflect on their ethical systems? Or, what about Super Mario Bros.? For that matter, what about Call of Duty before it developed the semblance of an ethical dimension it seems now to have?
The analogy of classical literature is telling. Performing or listening to the Iliad bards, in the days before the development of the ethical tours de force of books 9 (Achilles says “Mommy says I’m gonna die–kinda makes a man think”), 22 (Hector says “I’m gonna die”; Achilles says “And that’s not all”), and 24 (Achilles says “We’re all gonna die, so I’ll be nice to you” to Priam), where the attentive audience’s understanding of military glory is undermined, deepened, and revised, was certainly not the same experience as it was after those extraordinary narrative developments took root in the tradition. But the essential root of the practice, whether for bard or for audience, was the same: the fictive elaboration of deeds of martial prowess and their consequences.
It’s part and parcel of my argument in Epic Life that the iteration of mimetic rulesets through performance creates a great chain of practomime; that great chain of practomime, in the broadest view, is the foundation of what since the renaissance we’ve called the humanities. The implication is unescapable, in my view, that a purely martial, graphically gory battle-book of the Iliad in its un-ethically-reconstructed state contains the seed of the ethical masterpiece we know today by that name.
Indeed, Super Mario Bros. as a ruleset iterated from Donkey Kong through Paper Mario and beyond has a sort of Cervantes-ish (even, at times, Rabelaisian) arc. And Call of Duty has a positively Iliadic one. To the extent that my task in Epic Life is simply to argue that gamers are humanists, I don’t think a reasonable person can deny the trajectory of such franchises towards complexity, nuance, and, best of all, reflection on their reulesets.
But my real purpose in Epic Life is to chart the ramifications of that argument into the way we play now. So next time, I’ll be re-defining “immersion” in such a way that a discussion of immersion can (in my view) at last be helpful to an understanding of where games fit in a richly human life.