I dreamed of the day when computer games would be a viable medium of artistic expression — an art form. I dreamed of computer games expressing the full breadth of human experience and emotion. I dreamed of computer games that were tragedies, games about duty and honor, self-sacrifice and patriotism. I dreamed of satirical games and political games; games about the passionate love between a boy and girl, and the serene and mature love of a husband and wife of decades; games about a boy becoming a man, and a man realizing that he is no longer young. I dreamed of games about a man facing truth on a dusty main street at high noon, and a boy and his dog, and a prostitute with a heart of gold (Chris Crawford, On Game Design).
I am a tall person. Tall enough that I probably see the world from a slightly different vantage point than you do: I interact with the tops of refrigerators, high corner cabinets, and too-low ceilings. My heritage is Scandinavian, so I suppose that’s where I get my height, along with my pale skin, blue eyes, and red beard. I fit in well in Minnesota where I attended college, but I always feel that I shouldn’t, because my insides are filled with North African chili peppers: my father is an anthropologist, so I grew up in the rolling sand dunes of Tunisia and Egypt. My body is addicted to spicy hot food, which makes me happy, and high.
In college I studied writing and philosophy, math and computer science, drawing and art history, film and Celtic spirituality. I love the Celts: their marriage to the earth, their acceptance of mystery. In the end—through fate or some deep magic—I received a degree in physics, though I rarely spent any time in the lab. I do enjoy problem solving though, and understanding how the world works, so I live happily enough with my degree; occasionally we go out to dinner and scribble equations on napkins and giggle like middle school girls.
Computer Games and Me
Why are we playing computer games, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the interactive artist isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the programmer-creator renew our hope for the interactive medium? Why are we playing computer games if not in hope that the creator will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? (Adapted from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.)
I’ve always enjoyed creating things, and that creative impulse is what really drew me to computer games: I played them, then I wanted to make my own—the same reaction I had to Legos and board games. So I drew sketches, came up with ideas, and eventually started hacking away with programs like Multimedia Fusion
. In high school I even finished a couple of games.
As I grew older computer games started to lose some of their luster: they just couldn’t hold me like they used to; they seemed trivial and derivative. Like Jonathan Blow, I started to feel like I had grown up, but games hadn’t. But I didn’t lose my interest in the medium, or in the creative process of game creation. For a college Aesthetics class I decided to tackle the question that has in twenty years come to seem age old: can video games be art
Writing that paper helped me define my interest in video games, and understand the potential of the medium. I concluded that the interactive medium has perhaps more potential to change people than any medium we’ve yet encountered, but that most game designers aren’t approaching it the right way. The commercial industry is after money, not meaning, which inevitably leads to stale derivation and little attempt to express emotion or explore deep themes with their games. Fortunately there is a growing community of independent game creators, and while they are not all trying to make meaningful games, some are. Most of what’s been done so far leaves a lot to be desired, but this is a process, and it’s exciting, because video games are very new.
So I am more interested than ever in computer games. I’m interested in the “games as art” discussion, but more than that I am interested in the potential for games to make us, in Roger Ebert’s words, “more complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical, and so on” (in other words, I am interested mainly in a particular definition of art, and how games relate to that definition). Which isn’t to say that I don’t also happily play games for fun… just that that isn’t my main reason for playing; most good games end up being “merely” fun (so I better enjoy them for that), but I play them in the hopes of discovering something more.
The Purpose of this Website
The purpose of this website, first and foremost, is a selfish one: I write about games to help me understand them, and to understand myself. I write about games because I want to catalog the games I’ve interacted with, and what I’ve thought of them. I write about games because the interactive medium fascinates and excites me.
Beyond that, though, I have a desire to discuss the interactive medium with others. Playing games is never a truly solitary experience any more than watching a movie or reading a book is: you are always interacting with the mind of another person, the one who created the work. However, it is only in discussing this interaction with others that we fully tap into the potential of the artwork to change us. It is only then that we complete the essential human process of creation, observation, introspection, and dialogue. And so I hope that this website might spawn some of that dialogue: I hope that people will play the games I play, think about them, and then talk with me about them, so that we may better understand ourselves, others, and the world.
Now there are plenty of places to discuss video games, but few of them are dedicated to discussing the impact they have on us as human beings. I hope that this can be one such place.
It was necessary, and the necessary was always possible (Ransom, Out of the Silent Planet).
By “necessary” I mean two interrelated things. First, I am referring to the creation of the games: I mean that these games are inevitable, in the sense that they had to be made to express some part of our human experience; many artists speak of being compelled to create the things they do, and that is what I am referring to. Necessary games are games that have to be made, by obligation, by compulsion, by necessity.
Secondly, I am referring to the playing of the games: because of the first meaning, these games are so important that they must be played if one is to understand the full extent of the human experience.
Obviously both these definitions are somewhat fuzzy and pretentious: what the heck does it mean for something to be necessary to understanding the human experience? But I am speaking in terms of asymptotes and ideals: whether a game fits the above definitions of necessary is of course a matter of discussion, and can never be determined scientifically.
Lastly, it is important to note that by calling this site “necessary games” I do not intend to imply that the games discussed here are the most significant games around, or that they form any kind of canon: the games I review are simply the games I have played of late. I named this site “necessary games” because I am in search of games that we need like we need The Republic, or The Brothers Karamazov, Guernica, or Beethoven’s Fifth—not because I have found those games.
You can contact me at . Note that I do not review games on request, so please do not contact me asking me to review your game. I do happily take suggestions of games you did not make that you would like to see written up.
Yan Zhang enjoys all games, from mathematics and Street Fighter to social dynamics and foosball. He believes the most important liquids in the world are water, rooibos, protein shakes, green tea, and Guiness, in that order. He is a born-again Bostonian. His other blogs are Concrete Nonsense and Blue Slate. You can contact Yan at .
Chris Tompkins doesn’t like modern videogames, players, or designers. He is often found on his digital lawn yelling at kids to get off his interwebs or telling long, rambling stories about his pixilated past. You can find Chris online at constantwanderer.com, and you can contact him at .
If you are interested in contributing to Necessary Games, please send me an email.
Some Kind Words
Hi! Just want to thanks for a very interesting blog about gaming. The style with writting from a creation perspective is a new and fresh take on the scene (The content team at pokerlistings.com, which is a news guide for card gaming).