Miasma of Excellence

I’ve been hearing a lot about Mad Men, and as a person who doesn’t watch television, I’m finding it surprising that I’m so intrigued. Most of the talking I’ve read or heard about this title concerns feminism and how it portrays an intriguing, well detailed examination of gender politics of the time, even if it’s infuriating (I’m assured there’s much more to the show, but this subject caught my particular interest). However, with all the talk I’ve heard about it, I was rather surprised to learn it doesn’t appear to be doing the best in ratings. This particular article points out that while other shows may have a higher rating, this more popularly has become a zeitgeist:

It’s a recurring phenomenon, said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“It happens in literature all the time,” Thompson said. “Everyone knows about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but a tiny percentage of the population has read it. But we all know about it and it’s highly influential in American literature.”

As someone who goes on dates and often finds himself at a loss for conversation because he doesn’t watch television and most dates don’t seem to play videogames to the same extent or read anything beyond magazines, this struck me and got me a-thinkin’. I feel we’re approaching this with videogames as well. I certainly feel guilty when I admit to dozens of games I’ve never played or have played but not completed, of which I’m still aware because of their influences and hearing/reading the conversations concerning them. These titles include the Halo, Metal Gear Solid, Grand Theft Auto, and, for the most part, Silent Hill series. Sure, I could talk about them and probably theorize about what I’ve seen of them, but I have no actual experience with them; any conversations that occur with me on these subjects are ones I expect my statements to be challenged, provided with examples, and then have me provide more questions or hypotheses.

I should feel no guilt over titles I haven’t played, though. Just as I should feel no guilt for the half-finished Don Quixote currently sitting right beside my bed, or the Moby Dick still staring at me from my bookshelf. My mother has confided in me that her greatest fear in death is not being able to read all the literature in the world and that which has yet to be produced. I want to play as many games as possible, but I realize I am a human being that requires at least four hours of sleep a night (this led my colleagues in college to call me an elf who merely went into reverie), needs to work to earn money, eat, and then experience all these extraneous but essential activities to set my mind to work.

This is why I enjoy the concept behind the Vintage Game Club and the encouragement from the blogosphere to try older games I dismissed or had forgotten in the rush of new titles. There are a number of games out there to try, but there are just as many that I can accept I may never actually play, or play and never finish. While I have yet to read Moby Dick, I have enough of a knowledge to talk about the symbolism apparent, as well as discuss it in a myriad of literary criticisms from Historicism to Queer Theory. It may not be the most well-informed theory by itself, but I would normally reserve such observations to chime in on a conversation that is already occurring.

“You get one of those programs that grip the elite intellectual minority, the people that are writing and about talking about culture, and the influence extends a lot further than the actual audience would indicate,” he [Thompson] said.

There are a few issues with this quote, notably the connotations of the word ‘elite,’ but I feel it speaks to the current situation in which we find ourselves. There are certain games like Eternal Darkness, Bioshock, Braid, and No More Heroes (just to arbitrarily list a few that garner much discussion and critical thought in the blogs I read and with friends whom I have discussions) that definitely excite conversations, whether or not people have played them. If you are a person to frequent gaming sites, you probably have an opinion on Braid, whether or not you’ve played it or intend to do so. It’s hard to miss on these gems that offer something beyond their intrinsic value as games–they offer new approaches, new discussions, and a glimpse into what we want from the future. The most amusing part is, that you don’t even have to be aware that you didn’t miss out on it.

Fast forward to what I expect to be doing with the rest of my day: I feel that there will be many people who pick up Fallout 3 and have never played its predecessors. While I could likely be crucified for the following statement by some groups, I’m fine with this fact. If nothing else, it brings to light a portion of our gaming history and the marvels we’ve already had which we can take for granted. You don’t have to read all previous iterations of the old tropes to understand the basis of the story, though it can enrich the experience. Suddenly retrospectives of the series are popping up all over the internet, and we either remember what it is we loved (or hated) about this series or are given the tools to make some informed decisions and at least not feel lost in the ensuing conversation.

Perhaps even more telling is whom these games reach. In case we forget, people made these games. These people have their own influences from our culture, which includes books, films, television, and even videogames they have both experienced themselves and are only aware of in a cultural lexicon that we all build to understand the references that whiz by our ears and eyes every day. Fallout had subtle influences on Bioshock which in turn may well have been an influence on the latest Fallout. What we’re seeing here is a form of intertextuality where our sources are feeding into and off each other in an intriguing element so that we could even go back to the original Fallout series and not just compare it to its latest installment, but look at it through the lens of Bioshock and compare/contrast at our leisure.

Needless to say, this means that despite Ebert’s protestations against it, this is a medium that has art, literature, and theory smacked all over it like cheap lipsticked kisses with a bright, lush candy apple red color.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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4 Responses to Miasma of Excellence

  1. I heartily recommend ‘Mad Men’, it takes a cue from ‘The Wire’ and blends fact with fiction to get across a lot of cultural information while telling an interesting story. The main character’s plight of being a brilliant advertiser but with such a distorted personal life is a harrowing story.I suppose ideally any sequel (to the Fallout point) should be able to stand on its own. Its not like the Fallout Universe is overly complex to explain. Nukes fell, the people still fight, radiation does weird things to critter.

  2. Denis Farr says:

    Unfortunately, after not watching television for close to eight years, I have a sizable portion of recommended television series. This one has certainly joined the queue, however.I do love how the Fallout universe isn’t horribly intricate with tons of backstory and subterfuge. Describing the plot of the first one in particular is so easy because you only had to accomplish three tasks. Everything else? If you want it, it’s there.

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