With Friends Like These: Thoughts On “Virtual Ascendance” By Devin C. Griffiths

In every age of culture there have been those few stragglers who refuse to adapt and enjoy the microchip-infused fruits of the most recent generation’s labor.  From radio to television–from silent films to talkies–we put on our 20/20 nightvision goggles of retrospection and laugh at those people, pausing between heaving breaths to opine that the Xbox One is going to suck, not knowing that Microsoft’s next-gen console will be eventually outfitted with nuclear-powered Godzilla mods designed by a power-mad Bill Gates, and that those mods will transform our Halo engines into skyscraper tall beasts that will annihilate any home with a Playstation or a Wii in it–and who’ll be laughing then, you bastards??  It’ll be us!  The people who bought local!!!

Ahem.

So every age needs a little prodding along.  Written by a former gamer of the Golden Age (he wistfully recounts playing games like Zork, Joust, and Ultima), Virtual Ascendance seems to be the book for just such a need.  And while it covers no new ground for a seasoned game historian, it’s fairly intriguing to see Griffiths peer at the gaming world from without.  His eagerness almost seems as if he’s finding out some of this information at the same time the reader is–you can imagine him practically shouting “People get paid to play video games??  Holy shit!

Right off the bat, it becomes clear that this book was written for a fairly specific audience–one that I don’t belong to (one of the chapters is subtitled “Casual Games (or, Gaming for the Rest of Us)).  Indeed, Virtual Ascendance could be a terrific primer for involved parents concerned with little Skyler as he bends himself into a C shape to play Pokémon on his Nintendo DS.  The anecdotal introduction lags, and the writing feels first draft at times: Griffith actually spends time explaining the metaphor of an iceberg to his reader, something you’d think he or his editor would recognize as one of the most well-worn chestnuts of the creative writing world.

Griffith’s focus shifts across a great number of video game specifics.  His brief history of gaming time periods is well-researched, and never once do you question his enthusiasm.  What you do question, however, are his intentions.  Initially, I found moments that heartened me to what Griffith was doing with his book.  At times, it felt that he truly believed video games to be the next great art form.  But time and time again, he came back to the money involved–professional gaming, movie adaptations, and the big budget AAA games that explode onto the scene out of cocoons woven out of their billion dollar budgets.  The desire here, I suppose, is to shake people by the collars and force them to understand that video games are legit because look at all this money!  When he isn’t paying too much attention to the explosions and flash of dollar signs, he brings up negative aspects that are in no way related to games on the whole.  Too much of Virtual Ascendance focuses on fringe elements of gaming culture for me to take it all that seriously in the long run.

Not to suggest that he doesn’t try to cover his bases.  When he focuses on marriages being destroyed through virtual infidelity, or a case in which a Chinese man was murdered over a virtual theft, he makes sure to point out that these events are in the minority, and that they are exceptions to the rule.  He then points out examples of people finding love and creating trust-filled relationships with others, using video games like Second Life as a buffer.  And then he goes right back to horror stories of virtual rape and PTSD.

Now, to be perfectly fair, Mr. Griffith’s intention here was to illustrate how very attached a player can become to their avatar, and that there is scientific evidence to back a very real emotional connection between the two.  But by focusing on the negative events as he does, his interest in how far games have come turns into a quiet sort of fear that puts me back in the mindset of parents blaming Doom and Marilyn Manson for the Columbine massacre.  This is made doubly damning when you remember that Griffith has made a point to say that he’s never played MMO-style games like WoW or Eve, “for fear of becoming irretrievably lost in their virtual realms”.  He takes several opportunities to say that his cited examples of violence and rape are extreme examples of what could happen in a virtual world, but when you dedicate as much space on the page to the negative 1 percent as the positive 99 percent, it feels like the damage is done.

Shortly afterward, Griffith extols the virtues of using game technology for military training–a fascinating idea that deserves an entire book to itself.  And therein lies the problem: what sort of book is he writing here?  The subtitle, “Video Games and the Remaking of Reality” tells us nothing beyond the generally vague notion that this is a book about games.  It’s too editorial to be a history book, and it touches on several subjects without cracking them open and getting to the deeper nougaty center within.  So what we’re left with is another vague book about video games that implies a great deal and only says a little.

But what it does say is important.  If I had to pinpoint Virtual Ascendance’s main virtue, it would have to be an overarching theme of “We’re All Gamers”.  This message is one that I think we could use a little more time to ponder.  The fact that a love of games doesn’t set you apart from society, but does the exact opposite, pulling you deeper into the fold of humanity.

Despite all the vagueness of Griffith’s ideas, he clearly has an affection and wistfulness for his subject, and a desire to see their wonders go even further mainstream than they already are.  At best, Virtual Ascendance is an enthusiastic piece, perfect for the gamers and open-minded parents of gamers who don’t understand the background behind their favorite flashing lights and sounds.  At its worst, it’s a book that feels vague and undercooked–something that could take the paranoid mumblings of uninformed politicians and parents and make them into shouts.  This is exemplified when Griffith says that video games are neither good nor bad, that “video games simply are”.

Personally, I’d like to see him pick a side.

Virtual Ascendance was written by Devin C. Griffiths, and is available on Amazon for hardcover and Kindle.

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