A few months ago I was honored to be invited by Reid McCarter (@reidmccarter) and Patrick Lindsey (@HanFreakinSolo) to contribute the foreward to an anthology they were editing called Shooter. It's a collection of essays about first-person shooters and their place and relevance within the larger context of media and culture. The fifteen chapters are contributed by a talented and diverse collection of some of the smartest critics currently writing about games as culture. I was fortunately enough to get to read a version of the book before it was released, and I found it really engaging and thoughtful.
Cameron Kunzelman had this to say in his review of the book for Paste:
Shooter stands out from the crowd of books about games in its quality, its general accessibility, and its steadfast commitment to critique. It is a serious book that takes serious looks at some genres we don’t always take seriously, and it does a fine job at helping reconfigure some gamer memory that we take as fact. Anyone interested in seeing what critique of games should look like has a great model in the essays in Shooter.
Anyway, the book is currently featured in the StoryBundle, (until the end of this month) which means you can get it along with three other amazing books by even more amazing game critics, and four bonus books from even more amazing writers - all for a very good price. If you want to get up to speed on the state of the art in game critical writing, you should check it out.
To tease you, I agreed with Reid and Patrick to republish my foreward here. Hopefully this will pique your interest and inspire you to grab the bundle. Here it is:
Of all the major professional team sports; football, soccer, basketball, baseball and hockey, I believe pretty strongly that hockey is the best of them. While this is a question of personal taste and preference, hockey, with its speed, its constant back and forth, its ever-changing match-ups, and its balance of positional team play and individual reflex skill, is the most dynamic of the professional sports. The way all the elements come together - particularly at the elite level of play - makes for an exceptionally beautiful game.
While I could discuss at length why I think hockey is better than any of the other major professional sports, that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about shooters - videogames wherein the main player activity involves shooting other (virtual or simulated) players. A well-executed competitive shooter, such as Counter-Strike, is also an exceptionally beautiful game, and here is the thing: while I believe that hockey is objectively better than football or basketball, I don’t think I can say that hockey is better than Counter-Strike. With its speed, its constant back and forth, its ever-changing match-ups, and its balance of positional team play and individual reflex skill, Counter-Strike is as dynamic as the most popular competitive games in the world. Counter-Strike is an exceptionally beautiful game. Like all great competitive games, it is engaging to watch, enriching to play, and highly demanding of the serious player who can endlessly plumb its depths and range over its enormous strategic terrain in a quest for self-betterment that will never, ever end.
Like hockey, Counter-Strike, and competitive shooters in general, challenge a number of player skills; reflexes, strategic decision-making, match-up evaluation, positional knowledge and awareness, and local, tactical decision-making. Because of the dynamic nature of these games, the skills effectively have no ceiling, so the challenge is not to meet some arbitrary, fixed skill bar, but rather to out-perform the opponent. Both Counter-Strike and hockey deliver what I call synthetic meaning: meaning that arises through a ludic dialectic taking place between players constantly proposing and counter-proposing theories of optimal play. Counter-Strike and hockey are ongoing arguments. They are arguments about what it means to be human in the context of the relevant skills.
But if competitive shooters see their meaning synthesized at runtime through a dialectic between players, what does that say about the single-player shooter? Single-player shooters largely challenge the same core player skills as multiplayer shooters; reflexes, strategic decision-making, match-up evaluation, positional knowledge and awareness, and local, tactical decision-making, but because there is no opponent, the challenges are at least broadly (and in some cases quite strictly) authored. The game designers have decided where to fix the skill bar for any given corridor or arena - if the player meets the bar, she continues, if not, she tries again. In this sense the single-player shooter moves away from being a dialogue, and toward being a lecture. More important than that; because the opponent is not another human, but is instead the game itself, the single-player game is not a lecture about what it means to be human, but is instead a lecture about the nature of the game. A single-player game is, in some sense, a prescribed curriculum of drills, gated with tests.
There are a few interesting repercussions that arise from using this framework for thinking about meaning, (and this is only one possible framework for thinking about games in general or shooters specifically - you will encounter others in this book). First, this framework seems to imply that all competitive shooters are necessarily about the same thing; they are about a specific perspective on human existence. It implies that Counter-Strike and Quake are ultimately the same game; they are arguments about the same topic, perhaps being conducted in different languages, but essentially the same conversation. That may sound like a crippling critique of the competitive shooter, but the second repercussion of using this framework implies something equally critical of the single-player shooter: that the authoring of an arbitrary skill bar by a designer makes the skill component of the game only as important to its meaning as any other authored element. In other words, in single-player shooters, the gameplay is only of the same magnitude of importance as the story - the single-player shooter’s ability to express the specific undermines to some extent its capacity to address the universal.
Simply stated, this framework suggests that all competitive shooters are about one universally important and fundamental thing, while each single-player shooter is about something different. If we want to validate that, we can extrapolate the framework to other games and across different media to see whether it is predictive of things we generally hold to be true. For example, we can look at professional boxing and professional MMA fighting - two different but similar competitive combat sports - and determine that, yes, they are broadly ‘about’ the same thing (perhaps ‘the comparative importance of the cerebral cortex and the amygdala’). At the same time, we can look at two different films about boxing - such as Million Dollar Baby and Raging Bull, and see that they express wildly different ideas. The fighting in these films becomes a motive force for the development of the characters and the plot. As in a typical single-player shooter, the range of ‘player skill’ (in this case the boxing capability of the characters) has been authored in service of the story.
Curiously, the documentary When We Were Kings is an authored film that directly examines ‘what boxing is about’ by presenting the idea that the Rumble in the Jungle was essentially an argument between Muhammad Ali’s theory that the cerebral cortex was more important and George Foreman’s theory that it was still the amygdala. Million Dollar Baby and Raging Bull are both excellent films that talk in their own specific ways about human strength and human frailty. When We Were Kings interprets the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire as being a fundamental statement about the triumph of seven million years of human evolution that literally gave rise to everything we know (thankfully Ali won). Million Dollar Baby and Raging Bull are beautiful because I empathize with the things they are about. Boxing is beautiful because I am what it is about.
Back to shooters.
I am not here to throw the single-player shooter under the bus. The best game I ever worked on was a single-player shooter, and while I happily concede that it was not as beautiful a game as Counter-Strike, that does not mean that some theoretical single-player shooter could not be. On the contrary - I think the single-player game is uniquely positioned to leverage the competitive game’s power to address the universal within the context framed by its more authored and specific meanings. The first step toward achieving this, of course, lies in having something to say.
One of the biggest challenges developers of single-player shooters must confront if they hope to achieve this is to escape the potential well of the inherent universal meanings of the competitive shooter. The conventions of the competitive shooter are strong and well-defined, and deviation from them is risky. It’s safer for developers to simply adopt the trappings of the competitive shooter form, accepting along with them the sense of universality that they confer. But it is only a sense of universality; it is only a façade. Without the ludic dialectic of player-versus-player, the argument risks becoming self-indulgent, and the game only pretends to the universality of the themes. For the most part, it seems that the single-player shooters that claim to speak to universal human truths are more often affecting importance than they are actually being important.
This is because, when viewed through this particular interpretive lens, meaning in the single-player shooter does not come from the same places as meaning in the competitive shooter. In both sorts of games, we could say that the meaning comes from the ‘gunplay’ - but in the case of the competitive shooter it comes from the ‘play’, and in the case of the single-player shooter, it comes from the ‘gun’. Whether we want it to or not, meaning inherits significantly from the fiction of the gun itself. In a competitive shooter, meaning comes from the ludic dialectic and the fiction of the gun is much less significant. In a single-player shooter the fictional wrapping of the gun is of central importance. For there to be any hope of saying something important, developers must acknowledge this - anything else is whitewashing.
Fortunately, guns are inherently important. It is not hard - at least conceptually - to say important things with respect to guns. In fact, guns by their very nature amplify the importance of the things they are implicated in. This is probably why they are so commonly and prominently featured in stories and in games. To some, the gun is a heroic symbol of rugged individualism. To others it represents a detached, banal, industrialized form of domination and control. For some the gun is an equalizer; representing the promise of liberty, for others it is a symbol of fear, oppression and violence.
But while guns offer the developers of single-player shooters easy access to an accessible set of universal themes, those themes are also highly politicized. Nearly anything that anyone can meaningfully say about the role of guns and gun violence in human society is heavily entangled in ideological and highly divisive political discourse. You can’t talk about guns or shooting in any meaningful way without pissing someone off.
For the ‘Capital I’ Game Industry of the early 21st Century, this presents a real problem. Shooters demand extreme levels of visual fidelity, high agency simulations, richly interactive environments, and sophisticated AI, all running at high frame rates. They are the most expensive sort of game you can invest in, and presenting a shooter with a divisive theme is a really good way to lose all your money. The problem that needs to be solved in order to elevate the single-player shooter is a problem that gets twice as hard to solve every eighteen months.
At the same time, however, the climate and culture of games is also evolving rapidly. We live in a time when game development is easier than ever. It’s true that the quality bar for a AAA Industry produced shooter is excessively high and demands a development team numbering in the hundreds and a budget in the range of tens of millions of dollars. But this is not the only way games can be made. A small team using free tools and developing for open platforms can set themselves apart more easily than ever before, simply by having something to say.
In parallel to the evolution of the technology, the last decade has seen an explosion of increasingly sophisticated and informed dialogue and criticism relating to shooters specifically and to video games in general. This book is part of a still young, but increasingly strong tradition of discourse that both keeps developers honest, and at the same time encourages and empowers those who have something to say. As you read the essays in this book, I encourage you to consider not only the subject matter of the writing itself, but also how it fits into and supports a tradition that improves not only one genre of videogame, but games and human culture as a whole. As someone who has benefitted, both materially and emotionally from the rising tide of game criticism over the past decade, I can assure you that the words on these pages are as important to future of the medium as are the games themselves.