Game boy

Trigger Happy: the aesthetics of videogames

Steven Poole <em>Fourth Estate, 256pp, £12</em>


Today, if anyone asks what games one likes, they almost certainly mean video games. If you were to ask me, I would choose the Tony Hawks skateboarding game (I'm way cool) or Crash Bandicoot (I have a sense of humour and a feminine side) or Asteroids (I am retro-chic). It would never cross my mind to say Scrabble or snooker or - God help us all - the ludicrous darts. Trigger Happy is an attempt to deal with this world, with our gaming present. It begins with a brief history, a whizz-through account of the rapid improvement in games technology. It recounts the way that games fell into genres, such as beat-'em-ups, sports sims and RPGs (role-playing games).

Although Trigger Happy is billed, in part, as a piece of reportage, encompassing interviews and eyewitness accounts of the industry, Steven Poole has interviewed only a handful of people and visited a few trade shows. His interest is academic, in the broader sense. He has mused upon the principles underpinning the various games and has provided a clear account of his conclusions. Not only a clear account, in fact, but a warm and highly readable story of his journey into the soul of video games.

Trigger Happy considers such classical motifs as mimesis, narrative, character and draughtsmanship. In each instance, Poole regards the video game as part of an aesthetic continuum. The game takes its place in a direct line from the most ancient art forms to the present, with cinema and television. Poole never overstates the case here. He is an acute critic and has real insights. Lara Croft, the heroine of the Tomb Raider games, has captured the world's imagination and should be considered a genuine dramatic character. At the same time, she is little more than a collection of attributes - "breasts, hot pants, shades, thigh- holster" - all brought together into a synthetic whole. Poole does not try to make her more than she is. Yet he argues forcefully that "a beautiful abstraction" such as Lara or Mario or Pac-Man carries a game. Against an industry insider who believes the game is more important than the character, Poole shows how the most celebrated video-game characters have brought a sense of drama into what would otherwise be nothing but a series of kinetic tasks.

The importance of aesthetic considerations, such as dramatic intent or draughtsmanship, means that video games are not just games. And if they are not just games, the people who play them are not just players. They are doing something more intelligent than old-style game players. They are not like those morons who played darts.

Arguments, like video games, also benefit from drama. What separates criticism from real philosophy is that philosophy requires that the stakes should be high, and the risks great. An apparent problem with Poole's book is that the point is a conservative one: that games are interesting because they share many of the attributes of classical art forms. It may have been better to sever the links with classicism entirely and to try to understand how video games have broken with older traditions - and with game-playing traditions as much as artistic ones. The drama would emerge from the sense of a decisive break.

Anyone who plays video games feels intuitively that they are not doing something stupid. Not super-intelligent perhaps, but definitely not a knuckle-dragger. Poole has tackled this argument head-on. On the surface, this seems rather embarrassing. Who wants to argue that they are not entirely dim? There are moments when Poole demonstrates his intelligence a little too forcefully. When he provides the etymology to words such as "technology", he could patronise for England (assuming that Alain de Botton had opted to represent Switzerland).

However, it is possible that there is a high-stakes intellectual drama going on here. One of Poole's source books is Martin Amis's Invasion of the Space Invaders, published in 1982. Despite demand, this book has never been reissued. Games play an important role in Amis's fiction, so an extended essay on a single game would be of great interest. Perhaps Poole's argument that his interest in games is not entirely stupid really does encapsulate a dramatic intellectual struggle; a struggle that Amis attempted when he was Poole's age, which he later abandoned. Another of Poole's main sources is the author Terry Pratchett - and a world where the thoughts of Amis and Pratchett are of equal interest certainly marks a decisive break with existing aesthetic traditions.

Nicholas Blincoe's novel The Dope Priest comes out in paperback from Sceptre in June