Are Video Games Meaningful?

Andrew Ervin’s Bit by Bit explores what video games mean for popular culture

“We can move up or down, left or right, or we can stand still until the ghosts come and kill us. That is free will. We cannot, however escape the maze entirely. Even the best players in the world will eventually find themselves chased down. That’s fate.”

In Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World, author Andrew Ervin takes a journey both personal and pedagogical. He is as transfixed and mesmerized by what video games mean and what video games are as his nephews are obsessed with Minecraft or the legions of World of Warcraft players are possessed with the world of Azeroth. Between his personal reflection and his exhaustive interviews, he posits the question: are video games meaningful? Is the act of playing them more than just digitized conditioning? These are not rhetorical questions.

Ervin has his own answers but he wants the reader to draw their own conclusions, following the path games have taken to get to this point. Starting at the beginning. Where do video games “start?” It isn’t a question normally asked. To some, video games start whenever they first picked up a controller. To others, there’s a “Press Start to Begin.” I’m not sure the answer matters so much as the question.

Early in Bit by Bit, Ervin describes the genesis of video games: the analog computer game Tennis for Two. While this seems relatively cut and dry, he introduces unexpected uncertainty. Is Tennis for Two a video game? To start, it’s not a video, and the venue (an analog computer) is a different beast entirely from other gaming platforms. According to one of the (many) experts that Ervin interviews throughout Bit by Bit, Tennis for Two is “a quasi-computer game. It’s not something that you can plug into your TV or computer screen and run.”

These epistemological knots run throughout Bit by Bit. If it were a strict history of video games — Tennis for Two begat Pong begat Donkey Kong begat … Minecraft — this would be a far less interesting book. Alternatively, were it a biography-by-video game that focused more on Ervin’s own experiences as he plays Berserk, and Journey, it might lose some of that research-based credibility. By melding the two and asking tough ontological questions, Ervin transcends.

Many of his tougher questions bear thoughtful fruit. For example, while paraphrasing and translating a Belgian surrealist, Ervin investigates the nature of being through video games. “… Magritte painted the words, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ This is not a pipe. Of course it’s not a pipe, not any more than a green sewer pipe in Super Mario Bros is a pipe: it’s a representation of a pipe made with oil paint or pixels.” Why is this comparison of Margritte to the Bros important? Well, how often do we play video games and take the actions on screen at face value? We press buttons and actions happen, but are we running or jumping or building or shooting? No, we’re directing data to interact with data and data-driven conclusions occur. There is no pipe, there is no spoon, there’s only us.

While these nature-of-being questions are intriguing, over time they can grow weary, as do the classical references: “They ran and jumped through a series of sewers like Jean Valjean, though harassed by turtles rather than by Javert.” It’s as if Ervin, knowing he’s writing about a form of entertainment that critics such as Roger Ebert misliked — “I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art” — wants the readers to know that while he plays video games, he’s a smart dude (besides Les Miserables, there are copious references to Shakespeare, Moby Dick, and other “highbrow” entertainment). It’s clear throughout Bit by Bit that Andrew Ervin is a devoted and capable researcher, and a thoughtful, accomplished writer, these references can feel forced.

Needless references aside, I’m glad he’s so careful and thoughtful. Importantly, Ervin makes it a point to introduce as many view points from underrepresented populations as possible. There are many female critics, game developers and players interviewed and quoted in Bit by Bit. For a population that (by some measures) encompasses half of the gaming world, women are not mentioned or addressed enough. That Ervin made it a point is a step in the right direction.

It’s hard as a reader to know the entirety of an author’s journey with their book’s construction. Perhaps there are other reasons for the numerous philosophical, artistic and literary references and parallels. To a point, they’re highly enjoyable brain-engagers. As are Ervin’s own deeper suspicions about video games, such as Colossal Cave Adventure, “Options are limited; free will does not truly exist on the game’s world. I cannot drink stream or break dance” and Berserk, “Like existence itself, in Berserk there are no levels to attain, no loot, no real point other than inevitable death.”

Thankfully, Ervin doesn’t solely dwell on classic titles and gaming antiquity. Through his truncated, subjective (by design) tour of video games, he lingers on what he terms the Video Game Renaissance (the Super Nintendo, the PlayStation and the N64). While he himself left gaming at this period, “Even as the PS1 and N64 Renaissance brought video games into a new and glorious era, it disenfranchised a large number of casual gamers like me,” he also recognizes that this is the period that popularized and modernized the industry. He bemoans the fact that he gave up before achieving fluency.

It’s at this point that I most personally empathized with the author. While my disenfranchisement was not as total, I also ‘didn’t get’ the 3D revolution and sometimes feel wistful for a simpler time.

Near the conclusion of Bit by Bit, after Ervin’s re-entry into video games due to the wave of auteur games in the recent iteration of systems and technology, Ervin addresses the title. Have video games changed the world? To Ervin, the answer is evident. As he states, “Being subject to academic methodology is one sign that games have truly arrived.” That is one objective metric that gaming has entered the mainstream, that they’ve become, more than culturally important, part of culture itself. Interesting, but not necessarily convincing. It’s another section, where Ervin depicts the US Armed Forces’ comingling with video gaming (and a theme park devoted to shooting games and recruitment), that’s more pointed.

I wonder at the central tenet of Bit by Bit. Have video games changed the world? Or have they become assimilated into the cultural gestalt and thereby just another hobby? I’m not sure. While much of Bit by Bit is a fascinating and engrossing history, I’m not convinced that history alone amounts for much. But he makes so many thought-provoking points, asks so many excellent and difficult questions, that maybe he’ll convince you. Regardless of our conclusions, Bit by Bit is an engrossing and necessary read.

Let’s pause here so you can read for yourself. We can do that now:

“It’s easy to forget that save functionality did not always exist. Someone had to come along and invent it.”