Monday, June 9, 2014

David LeGault: Gaming as Essay

I find myself in need of distraction, of brief escape. With 40+ hours of my retail job each week, not to mention a one-year-old daughter and a constant stream of job applications and house hunting and (rarely) actual creative work, I find myself looking for ways to zone out during my much coveted free time. For me, this has traditionally meant video games: I'm thinking of hundreds of hours logged into an online Team Fortress Classic league during my high school years (including, regrettably, a team jersey made out of iron-on decals), countless fights with roommates via Super Smash Brothers: Melee, and—even now, as I write —spending hours at a time with Super Metroid or Half Life speed runs streaming on Youtube in the background as I do my daily work. Though these play-throughs reduce the game—remove story, transform them into pure muscle memory—there's still something to finally seeing the endings, the resolution to games I could never beat at a younger age, could never commit the time and energy to beat them now.

Most of my essays focus on an obsession, an attempt to justify. I am looking for a deeper meaning to prove that my favorite pasttimes are not a waste of time or creative energy. I suppose that's what is happening here, as well.

In terms of audience, I believe one of the biggest challenges facing the essay is that of premise, occasion. Oftentimes, the genre itself works against us: what risk is there to a story of disaster if the writer has survived to write, reflect? Why would a casual reader decide to engage with writing like Montaigne's  "Of Thumbs" or "Of the Resemblance of Children to their Fathers:" what interest is there in these idle thoughts?

That isn't to say that that stakes come entirely from premise, nor should they. I find that most of my own favorite essays take on the small, the seemingly inconsequential, and through language or juxtaposition or imagery, give value to what we otherwise find valueless.

Perhaps I'm more interested in the way in which the opposite is also true: how we as writers and readers will sometimes dismiss larger, broader subjects based on subject matter. I attempt to steer my students away from writing about the state finals for football/basketball/track/quiz-bowl, and they in turn challenge me when I make them read essays describing the aesthetic value of dust. Which one of us is right? Are we all misguided?

I write this because I worry I am becoming too narrow minded, that I am missing out on a lot of great work due to my biases against entire subjects, genres, mediums. And from conversations I've had with other writers, I fear a lot of us are missing out on challenging, surprising, and deeply intimate work.

Back to videogames. The value of the medium is that of control: it involves "you," the player, forcing you to make choices and actions of consequence. You are given control of a fictional world, can control the arc in ways you cannot in a movie or novel, and as games become more involved (games like Skyrim give you the option of robbing a shop or murdering a clerk instead of paying for merchandise, facing the consequences of your actions if you are caught), these choices and decisions become increasingly complicated. There are games that either reinforce your own set of morals, or allow/force you to compromise them depending on in-game or personal decisions.

I am thinking of games like Bioshock that make you decide if it's worth it to sacrifice others if it gives your player increased strength; I am thinking of A Dark Room—a text adventure game available for the Iphone—that forces you to murder and enslave in the hopes of creating a better civilization. I am thinking that most games now go beyond the simple "Reach the castle, save the princess" storyline and actually make you think about the consequences of your actions.

Of course the literature on games and gaming has already turned into it's own sub-genre of the essay. There's a certain uncertainty to this writing, an awareness of the typical response to video games as art, that gives this writing a unique sense of urgency as it attempts to validate itself. Tom Bissel's collection Extra Lives gives its subjects a critical as well as personal weight that shows how form and content can be mimetic (a point that seems equally valid to the essay in all its different shapes). Sundog Lit recently put out a games issue that highlights writing on the genre (the issue was guest-edited by Brian Oliu, whose own lyric essay collection on boss battles, Level End, is a must-read) This is not to mention Kill Screen Magazine or Cartridge Lit or countless other publications/websites/journals that I am certainly missing, the whole genre exploding with so much work that I cannot begin to keep track.

Though I have often looked to these games as a way of tuning out the world, I find that the really great ones tend to do the opposite, and Boss Fight Books, a new press specializing in books written about individual games (and admittedly, the inspiration for this post to begin with), is expanding the world of the game through interviews with game creators, history as it relates to the in-game story lines, as well as personal (and character) narrative. Narratives within the games become intertwined with personal histories, and the games are merely simulations for the ways our lives play out. Earthbound, a game that was marketed with scratch-and-sniff stickers, has a final enemy that is defeated through prayer—not in the game, mind you, but asks for you in your living room to offer that up. Chrono Trigger, a game playing with the consequences of time travel, kills off its main character who you can decide to save, or not. ZZT, a game represented by ASCII art, lets users create new worlds that can help explain our own. Each of these games plays off their writers—in the case of life-threatening surgery, or discussing the challenges of game-language translation put up against a job teaching English in Japan, against successful television careers and the 2011 Fukushima disaster. These books are fragmented, complicated, and showing the meaning that comes out of a hobby that my parents always told me was a waste of time.

I think the power of the essay comes from the examination of choices and consequences, how we cannot control our world, yet have a choice in our response to it. I think the gaming world fits so well within the essay because it is a world that we can control, that we help to shape. Unlike any other medium, it allows us to interact with a fictional story in a way that makes it true.

David LeGault's recent work appears in The Seneca Review, Wake, and Pithead Chapel.   He lives and writes from Minneapolis, where he is currently competing in Revolver Magazine's Write Fight: a single elimination tournament involving typewriters, physical distractions, and exactly one hour to create new work. He can be reached at

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