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Book folks on games: Alison Croggon

Posted on August 28, 2014

Our next guest for this series is author, poet, dramatist and critic Alison Croggon. If you enjoy fantasy fiction, but haven't read her Books of Pellinor series or the Gothic-romantic saga Black Spring, I urge you to get hold of one or both! As is often the case, their genre trappings see them more readily recognised by Children's and YA awards, but there are rewards aplenty in the story and in the writing itself for the adult reader. And if you enjoy poetry, you should also seek her out: she brings that same gift for wordcraft to her work there too. You can find her at http://alisoncroggon.com.

Alison Croggon’s work includes poetry, criticism, novels and theatre. From 2004-2012 she ran the theatre review blog Theatre Notes, and was formerly Melbourne theatre critic for The Australian and The Bulletin. She is currently performance critic at large for ABC Art Online and poetry critic and columnist for Overland Journal. In 2009 she was awarded the Geraldine Pascall Prize for Critic of the Year. She wrote the best-selling fantasy quartet The Books of Pellinor, which was shortlisted for two Aurealis Awards and named one of the Notable Books of 2003 by the Children’s Book Council of Australia. Her novel Black Spring is a 2013 Children's Book Council Notable Book and was shortlisted for the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Writing in the 2014 NSW Premier's Literary Awards and the Spellbinding Award in the UK. She has published several collections of poetry, which won the Anne Elder and Dame Mary Gilmore Prizes and were shortlisted for the Victorian and NSW Premier's Literary Awards. This year sees the premiere of two operas for which she wrote the libretti: The Riders with Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne; and Mayakovsky, with the Sydney Chamber Opera.

Alison, thanks for joining us! Let's start by asking: what's your history with games and play?

Like all kids, I liked games. In my day it was mainly board games. And as a family - my kids are now grown up - we still like playing board games like Articulate and even the odd nostalgic round of Happy Families or Harry Potter Uno. It's fun, and it's a fun way of getting together.

I play a lot of video games as downtime from writing. I think it just gives me time out from myself, and they occupy my mind in a way I find relaxing. I mainly play RPGs - though most recently I finished Tomb Raider. Other favourite series are the Metroid trilogy, Assassin's Creed, Zelda, Pikmin... I played Skyrim for literally years. It all began when we bought my oldest son Josh a Nintendo and Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, and I found myself fascinated. I am quite famously bad at video games, but my virtue is persistence - I will play a game continuously until I am good at it.

What is your sense of where games and play are now in the wider cultural picture?

There's a bigger and bigger emphasis now on games as a mode of story telling and meaning, which is where they get interesting: now we have things like Depression Quest and so on, which deal front on with questions and issues in much the same ways that other video arts do. Journey is probably the most famously beautiful example of that, and it really was very moving to play - it surprised and enchanted me. It's a medium that can be taken anywhere.

Where do you see that going, and where could it go?

I guess that depends on the one hand on the imagination of people who make them, which means the possibilities are pretty well infinite. But it's such a huge industry now that there are the kinds of inhibitions that come with any corporate enterprise. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the gaming world at present is how to deal with questions about diversity and representation, and, as the vicious backlash against some pretty straightforward gender criticism from Anita Sarkeesian demonstrates, there are parts of the culture that don't deal with that very well at all.

Talking points: Games, seriousness, poetry, and fun

Posted on September 10, 2013

Welcome to the fourth, and penultimate, entry in that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here's the summary from the original post:

Games can be serious, poetic and expressive - or trivial, silly and fun - and be so brilliantly or leadenly, just the way other forms of culture can. (Does anyone seriously dispute that, fluff though P.G. Wodehouse's work is, it's completely brilliant fluff?)

We've seen that games are culture that creates connections between people, and forces us to exercise our capacity for mindfulness. All of these points were made to show that the assumption that games are mere bits of fun not worth being taken seriously by libraries is an ill-considered kneejerk reaction, and hopefully that point has been made.

So now I want to take a step back and reflect on that notion of "mere fun" - the idea that something fun inherently has less value or meaning, and should be treated dismissively - especially in reference to games.

Contrary to that common assumption, the fact that games are fun is not, in fact, a mark of triviality. On the contrary, it is a sign that they speak to something deeply embedded in what it is to be human. When music evokes strong emotional reactions, that is understood to be a mark of its quality; visual arts likewise. Prose or poetry that move us are recognised as being important for that reason. That games typically evoke different emotions, emotions more suited to active engagement rather than reflection, does not mean that we are less obliged to attempt to understand why and how they do so, or that we will be less rewarded by the attempt.

Part of the problem seems to come from the assumption that fun and seriousness are somehow opposites. Nothing could be further from the truth. "Fun", the spirit of play, is a distinguishing characteristic of humanity at its most fully engaged, as pioneering psychological thinker Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi explores in his seminal work Flow. The flow-state he describes in this book is attained by finding a sweet spot where the mind is focused and highly but not overwhelmingly challenged, much like the best physical exercise. Flow, unsurprisingly, is highly conducive to happiness and mental health. Notably for libraries, Csiksentmihalyi's work on flow is also deeply concerned with its relationship to learning.

It is no coincidence that one of the communities where his work is most widely known is in the game design community, with pioneering indie game development company thatgamecompany actually naming one of their earlier games (or possibly two) after it. Fun and seriousness can be inextricably intertwined - if you've ever fallen in (requited) love, or played with a child to whom you have a close bond, odds are that you've experienced this firsthand.

Even in less intensely intimate interactions, people engrossed in play may be laughing their heads off, but still be taking the experience very seriously; conversely, players maybe concentrating intently, and even to outward appearances grimly, and inwardly having an exhilarating, even transcendentally joyous experience.

Outside the context of formal play, encountering truly poetic works in any medium ("poetic" here used in the broader sense of "beautifully made for its moment", as in "poetic justice") also inspires this same mixture of an upwelling of joy and elation with a state of profound awareness and reflection. That games more often approach this intersection from the side of fun rather than seriousness does not mean they cannot reach it. And given that they can, surely we should be cultivating the medium - as we do others - to assist them to do so as often as possible.

Even if "fun" and "serious" were opposites, there is nothing saying that they are synonymous with "insignificant" and "important" respectively. We all know people who are both deadly serious and deathly dull, and conversely people who are alight not only with fun but with intelligence, wisdom and wit as well. In fact, I would say that being serious without a sense of fun is more likely to be a dangerous quality than having a sense of fun untempered by seriousness, and that combining both fun and seriousness is significantly preferable to either alone.

This has been recognised by thinkers throughout history. James P. Carse wrote a book called Finite and Infinite Games which is well worth reading (and not only in this connection). And it's no coincidence that the quote chosen to start off the world's first Global Gossip Game was from no less a figure than Playto: "Life must be lived as play." (Technically this is a translated paraphrase, but it's widely quoted in this form. I mention this point because it's important to be accurate, lest distortions creep into our communication and we end up with "He bites snails.")

Now, none of this is to say that anything that gives someone a giggle or whiles away an hour is noble and enduring and should be in our collections. LOLCats.com isn't A Comedy of Errors. (Ah, the power of italicization.) But we stock Mills & Boon novels, and I'm pretty sure not all of those are classics to be preserved for the ages, and I'm also pretty sure that the people reading them are already about as literate as they're going to get from reading Mills & Boon. None of this is to say that we should stop stocking those books; I'm just pointing out that this does suggest that we recognise the value of sharing culture purely for the sake of the pleasure it affords. So even if we decide that games by their nature cannot be serious or improving, that still would not be a sufficient basis on which to ignore them. And we cannot in good faith decide any such thing when examples and evidence to the contrary abound.

Given that, as we've previously discussed, games can be powerful cultural experiences, that they exercise the brain, that they improve our capacity to analyse systems and to put ourselves in other people's shoes, that they are well-suited to the library, and that the library is well-suited to them - and that on top of all that, they're fun - surely it's time we started engaging with them more rigorously, bringing the best of the intelligent, widely cultured library perspective to games, and bringing the best of games to the library experience.

 

(Click here for our last Talking Points post - "Games, systems, and systems literacy".)

   
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