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July 21, 2014

Quantum interpretation and art as a Rorschach test

Back in April, Dutch indie studio Vlambeer was embroiled in a controversy over the use of Nazi-style imagery in its 2D dogfighting game Luftrausers. Rami Ismail (the business half of Vlambeer, and a fellow developer whose company and conversation I quite enjoy) took to the Vlambeer blog to defuse the situation. He offered an apology and an explanation of what they’d intended when creating the game. Near the beginning of his post, Ismail wrote the following:

The fact is that no interpretation of a game is ‘wrong’. When you create something, you leave certain implications of what you’re making.

But even more so in an interactive medium, we do have to accept that no way of reading those implications is ‘false’ – that if someone reads between the lines where we weren’t writing, those voids can be filled by the player, or someone else. If we accept there’s no wrong interpretation of a work, we also have to accept that some of those interpretations could not be along the lines of what we’re trying to create.

Luckily, we do not need to accept there is “no wrong interpretation of a work.” I am not at all interested in weighing in on the Luftrausers controversy itself, but I do wish to address the general notion that Ismail raised, this idea that “no interpretation of a game is ‘wrong’.” While I have nothing but love for Rami, I believe this theory is ill-considered and potentially quite destructive–I write now to assist developers and games journalists in seeing that fact as clearly as I do.

We live in a unique time for art criticism. The ability to publicly weigh in on theRockwell interpretation of creative works was once subject to gatekeepers, the conversation primarily confined to university lecture halls, printed magazines, and peer-reviewed journals. But no longer. As with seemingly every aspect of the creative world, the widespread availability of free technology–social media and blogging platforms in particular–has democratized the act of publicly interpreting art. Everyone with an opinion can now publish that opinion for the world to see within mere seconds of formulating it; or, indeed, even before that opinion has been fully formed.

I do not wish to revert to a time where we had gatekeepers; I much prefer the open exchange of ideas, myself. But with the floodgates open, the ability to sift through the innumerable opinions of the internet and determine which among them are actually based upon a sound foundation is crucial.

Indeed, we should not take the notion of the democratization of criticism too literally here. The interpretation of artistic works is not a democratic process–it is not majoritarian, and just as importantly, it does not proceed on the principle of “one person, one vote.” Interpretations vary in their value because they are descriptive in nature. Where a prescriptive process (like voting) attempts to create the object of one’s desire, a descriptive process only attempts to explain what is already there. As a descriptive process, interpretation seeks to piece together a coherent narrative about what the work is actually saying based upon its component parts. Those interpretations which both (1) account for all of the relevant component parts and (2) result in a coherent narrative are valid; those which fail in either task are not. An opinion is not automatically correct merely because someone has expended the 0.25 calories worth of energy it takes to type out 140 characters and click “Tweet.”

An interpretation of a work must arise from study of the work itself, and not merely from personal predilections. Games are not like electrons; they do not exist in quantum superposition, inhabiting every possible state until a player observes them and thereby reduces them to a single configuration. Games are finite. They have contours: defined aesthetics, narrative, characters, words, boundaries to the play space. Any interpretation which fails to accurately account for these elements of the game will necessarily fail to divine the meaning or meanings that arise from the interaction of those elements.

If the creator of an artistic work leaves gaps in the work for the player to fill in, then yes, the creator will have to expect that players will fill in those gaps themselves–but this does not change our conclusion. The player’s interpretation must still be consistent with those elements for which the game does not leave gaps. Otherwise, the interpretation will be built upon false premises–which is to say, it will be wrong.

TrollsWhen Leigh Alexander promotes the “no wrong interpretation” theory as an “important idea,” I wonder: would she be so approving of a parallel attitude to video games articles? Would she be okay with the principle, “No interpretation of a written piece about video games is ‘wrong'”? I do not doubt that there are any number of internet comments in which misogynistic trolls have grotesquely misconstrued Ms. Alexander’s articles–surely we would not hesitate to declare those ill-conceived interpretations “wrong.” Why, then, it should be any different for video games?

In fairness, Alexander cites the “no wrong interpretation” theory in the service of a good cause: namely, giving voice to players from oppressed groups. But while that is an admirable aim, I can’t help but think it a bit patronizing to people who belong to those groups. Surely women, trans folks, racial minorities, and others are every bit as capable of coming up with sensible, well-supported interpretations of games as anybody else; only if that were not the case would we need to implement a blanket “no interpretation of a game is ‘wrong’” policy in order to accommodate their interpretations.

Further, the “no wrong interpretation” theory does not just promote interpretations from marginalized voices; it provides cover for unsupported interpretations from every perspective, including racist, homophobic, and misogynist perspectives. For instance: some have interpreted the inclusion of a gay character in Dragon Age Inquisition as a cynical bid on Bioware’s part to push “the gay agenda”  (see: the comments here). If it is not possible to provide a wrong interpretation, then that loathsome interpretation must also be “not wrong.” The fact that players are providing this interpretation before Dragon Age Inquisition has even been released is only icing on the proverbial cake.

Finally, the “no wrong interpretation” theory undermines the very notion of attempting to carefully craft a game with a worthy, non-trivial message. Consider this. There is an optional conversation that can occur in Telepath RPG: Servants of God where Rahel coaches the player through the process of interpreting a poem, “Little Figurines” by the fictional poet Rawiah:

Little figurines are born wet.
We mold them with our fingers,
we mold them with our words.

But each day they harden, yield less and less.
The sun burns scars in them, and they surrender
their moisture for relief. But

the rains come, and they cannot taste their wetness.
The ground moves, and they rattle asunder.
Brittle men now, they must all crumble to dust.

_Portrait_Rahel“Tell me,” she asks the player, “what do you think this poem is about?” The player has numerous responses to choose from. The player can select from a variety of interpretations, most of them flawed in one respect or another, and based upon the player’s selection, Rahel explains where the chosen interpretation conflicts with the text.

One response is, simply, “It’s a poem. It means whatever you think it means.” Choose that, and Rahel will respond: “[She adopts a look of distaste.] No. That is what intellectually lazy people say to avoid having to think about what meanings make sense within the context of the poem. Why would anybody take the time to write a poem that could mean literally anything at all? What a stupid waste of time that would be.”

The same holds true, at least in part, for games. What reason is there for game developers to create meaningful works if any ill-conceived misinterpretation of the game must be deemed “not wrong”? I went to a great deal of trouble to fashion Telepath RPG: Servants of God as a commentary on various issues, and I’m taking similar pains with Telepath Tactics. But there is nothing to stop a player from arbitrarily deciding that–oh, say–Telepath Tactics is actually a game about how terrible men are compared to women. That is not part of the game’s message, of course, but in a world where no interpretation of a game is wrong, I do not get to make that argument. I only get to grovel before the angry hordes of the internet and apologize to them for their own failure of comprehension. Because they cannot be wrong. And all of that effort expended on making one or two interpretations of the game more sensible than any other evaporates into a cloud of intellectual cowardice.

If no interpretation of a game is wrong, then the effort to make some interpretations more plausible than others is futile, for we’ll have already severed the causal link between The Game I Made and Someone’s Opinion of the Game. Each player projects their own feelings and opinions onto the game, and the game is held responsible no matter where or how those feelings and opinions originated. The game ceases to be understood as a work of authorship, and instead becomes a Rorschach test. “I feel upset” automatically becomes “this game is offensive”; “I don’t understand it” automatically becomes “this game is incomprehensible.” In that scenario, developers might as well just give up on trying to craft something sophisticated and adopt the standard AAA approach of making games without giving a single, solitary thought to what messages the games actually promote.

The idea that “no interpretation is wrong” is indeed important–but only in the sense that all bad ideas are important. It provides us with a teachable moment, an opportunity to reject it and do better.

Craig Stern is an indie developer currently working on the turn-based tactics game Telepath Tactics. He is the founder of IndieRPGs.com, and can often be found rambling in short, 140-character bursts on Twitter.