On Interpretation

One of the hurdles typically unaddressed when discussing meaning in games is how to interpret them. Or interpret anything at all really. This isn’t to depreciate a lot of writing or musing out there, actually just the opposite. Many people are taught a particular way to interpret art that typically consists of trying to conform everything to a singular viewpoint, The Way Things Are Read. This is often a trap for people who are looking to interpret play situations, especially if the idea of play being interpretive is still a strange concept. A reason, I think, so many play experiences are read as fiction narratives or as machines.

What I think goes on is a mixing of interpretation vs argument, which I imagine comes from dreaded literature classes, where in order to express your point of view, you needed to have a strong, specific argument. While there is merit to this, it mostly serves as training to enter academic and similar discourses, and often ends up as grandstanding when you do it in public. I am totally guilty of this: one of the first pieces of games criticism I ever wrote was detailing transphobia in Atlus games in this style. I feel like a lot of conversation and writing, though probably more eloquent than my early work, functions in this way, proving to be the right perspective, or correct argument. Reactions to my piece were often quibbles with evidence and how I read things as opposed to really changing a lot of people’s minds. Later on, I wrote another piece on Naoto and my personal perspective that had less of a truth to uphold and more of an awareness of perspective. This time, people personally connected with my writing and added my viewpoint along with theirs, instead of replacing anything.

This is because interpretation is best used with an understanding of many different perspectives, and being able to see from those perspectives and hold a space for all of them, even though they seem contradictory. I’m not talking about a ‘everyone has their own opinion’ type middling, rather that interpretation doesn’t work unless you are able to see something from multiple sides, and you’re aware of the act of interpretation. You might have a favorite set of perspectives, and if you’re a critic or theorist you tend to outline specifically what your new perspective is and have some sort of mega branded perspective that others can predict. To say I have a feminist perspective is not wholly true or wrong, as my ‘resting’ perspective borrows from feminist theory, but to enact a completely and distinctly feminist critique would follow a certain process that I don’t fully subscribe to. I think we more teased out this difference, there would more understanding of work like Anita’s Tropes vs Women series, which is the most accessible straight-up feminist critique I’ve seen. But don’t mistake feminist critique for Anita’s perspective; I think if you disagree with things in the series, you mostly have a quarrel with an aspect feminist critique, which is not hard to do with any sort of lens. There is use in practicing critique while knowing it doesn’t cover everything. It’s an extremely useful exercise to be able to understand how a perspective sees media, because then you can evolve it for your own interpretive process. Or, better yet, understand where a person is coming from when they are using language borrowed from it. I find the series useful for helping that sort of literacy come along.

Perspectives aren’t inherently right, and I don’t mean this in a ‘everything’s relative’ sort of way. They are like purposefully putting on colored glasses so things look a certain way and carry different meaning. Having perspective is the act of noticing. If you want to practice interpretation, it’s quite easy: find a movie or short game that you wouldn’t mind going through twice, and pick two themes or qualities that you will look for and record. They can be as inherently meaningful or seemingly meaningless as you’d like. Let’s say for now that on one playthrough, you’re going to write down all the things that are red, and on your second one, all things that are green. Then, as a creative exercise, come up with what all the red (or whatever you chose) objects have in common with each other and how that relates to the media you just experienced, and do that that with the green as well. Start to think about all of the associations, culturally and personally, we have with red and green (red often means stop and green means go, for instance), and how they speak to the game or movie through the objects. Now, you might not really come up with anything that interesting with red or green, but you can replicate this process with any sort of quality in the media, such as whenever a game provides you the option to lie or when women do or do not show up.

This doesn’t have to be just about the story of the piece. If you understand even a little bit of design, or just what you find unique about games, you can hone in on when these things happen and find meaning in that perspective. For instance, you can find in a certain selection of games that there’s a significant amount of restriction or design that removes choice and mobility. Deploying perspective would be looking at where those moments are, and how everything relates to those moments. Then you combine that perspective with a biographical perspective, or that the design is ultimately a factor of the life situation and history of the creator. You would find where they talk about restriction in their lives or how artists similar to them talk about restriction, and maybe find something meaningful in that observation. You wouldn’t be wrong unless you tried to state a fact. Interpretation is often touted around as something that fully uncovers and explains a piece of media when it is really is an additive practice. We create meaning instead of finding it, and there isn’t anything lesser about that.

So why bring all this up? Because I want more people actively engaging with media. Interpreting, not judging it. I say this because this year has taught me how much people wanted me to judge, maybe review, games as a whole, especially in a good vs bad, right vs wrong paradigm. This panders to people who, for one reason or another, feel like an authority should be making these declarations instead of taking that into their own hands. Which means the perspective of authority becomes theirs, and what the authority overlooks, so does the follower.

How do we do this with games without falling back on story? Shrink it down to what you experience, or what you feel. Catalogue the impression something gives you, whether it be some sort of visual or movement of your body. Is there a motion of your body you find particularly atypical when playing this game? Or maybe there is an action you must do repeatedly. Write down both what that quality is, and what sort of feeling it gives you. Then, like in the above exercise, find out where that also happens in life.

I recently was on an adventure a friend made for me, a sort of person-scavenger hunt. I want to write about my experience next time because I’d like to pull more attention to some real-world game design qualities, but what particularly struck me was how throughout the experience, because I was given only so much information, I thought almost everyone who passed by spots I was waiting at to be in on the game, to have some sort of function and that their appearance or way of acting had meaning I should pay attention to. It struck me how every day I’m so tuned out of the world around me, because typically, it’s mundane. People pass me by while I walk all the time, I’ve chit-chatted with strangers before, I’ve ridden a bus somewhere. But when I was encouraged to look at these factors on their own as meaningful, I could see how often there is chance for connection in the world, and how much even a stranger can prove interesting, and how it feels for a familiar face to show up from within the chaos of the uncertain. I don’t need a degree to begin interpreting what the game encouraged me to feel.

I find this all to be super relevant because I and many critics and designers and others who talk about how games influence us find the values of games reflected in those who most commonly play games. It’s as if play experiences hold up a funhouse mirrors in front of us and we begin to feel and even become a little more like that the more we look at them. We reflect the values we consume, and like diets tend to do, they make us feel and act different ways. If we can find ways to get more people actively deploying interpretation, I think we can move past wanting as many blockbuster movies in games packages and to a broader landscape of play experiences that challenge us.

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