There’s a section in to the Saints Row IV where the player-character, the boss—in my case a pink-haired woman with a french accent, floral body tattoos and an outstanding fashion sense—rides a purple jet-bike through cyberspace, shooting aliens with a gold-plated uzi while the villain quotes Macbeth over high tempo EDM. That was the point where I was so on board with to the Saints Row that I had to pause and replay the mission over two more times, tilting in my chair while my steampunk urban cowgirl drove off a ramp, all sound and fury, into a swirling portal.
The weekend before starting to the Saints Row IV, some friends and I gathered to play some old NES games, among them was Bad Dudes. In Bad Dudes, one or two players take the role as either Blade or Striker, sidescrolling through New York City, punching the ninjas responsible for abducting Ronald Reagan. In my mind there’s a logical line connecting 1988’s Bad Dudes to the Saints Row series, particular its later entries. By that I mean that they are both first and foremost interested in pure fun.
I think that’s a more nuanced compliment than it might seem. Neither of these games “make fun” of something by deriding it or diminishing it—that was my problem with the Deponia series, which could tell jokes but usually painted targets on politically vulnerable groups of people—nor are they “just fun” in aiming for the lowest common denominator. in particular is actually pretty clever and open minded, even as it features side missions based on how long you can go streaking or sending tanks soaring through the stratosphere with a four foot dildo.
I think the important distinction is that to the Saints Row invites fun. Sure, having played Metal Gear Solid or Streets of Rage will make certain jokes stick their landing better but the distinction, for me, between something like Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto, Deponia, or Judd Apatow or Seth MacFarlane’s work is that it isn’t mean-spirited. The fun doesn’t come at anyone’s expense and it doesn’t pick at obvious taboos in the way that Cards Against Humanity absolves its players for regressive and abusive thinking.1 It’s just silly and honest.
Applauding fun, however, complicates fiction though, in a way that might be worth talking about. Perhaps curiously, fun is a bit of an odd topic in pop culture studies. Very frequently it comes up as something to be concerned about when considered the purpose for producing or engaging with a piece of media. In short, is it possible to enjoy something “just for fun”? Is there really such a thing as a popcorn movie? This is unlikely a surprise, but my position is that there is not. Whether a producer or audience is willing to own it or not, there are cultural values laced in the subtext of everything, including fun. If watching cars ‘splode in Fast & Furious is fun, why? What about seeing cars ‘splode speaks to that universal pursuit of joy that watching, say, trees or skateboards or encyclopedias ‘splode just doesn’t appeal to? Why cars? and why these cars?
In Jurassic World, why does the military suddenly have a presence that it didn’t in the original? The original film followed a venture capitalist’s excursion into questionable science, cloning dinosaurs for fun. The fear was in making scientific progress marketable. Progress for profit was reckless and that Nature would find a way to bite back against reckless experimentation. Why does Jurassic World frame Chris Pratt as a navy officer? Why is he right about everything? Why is the villain a military contractor trying to weaponize the dinosaurs and why do the dinosaurs only follow the lead of our leading man who has demonstrated his care and talent with the creatures? I think exploring these questions can be meaningful and playing with these ideas is just what criticism does.
In Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” the author argues that ideology is a representation of what we think reality is, not of reality itself. In fact, we can’t access reality, only an approximation of what reality is based on the ideology espoused by the military/policing institutions that enforce social codes overtly and religious/cultural institutions that enforce social codes implicitly. Everybody, even the ultra-rich and privileged who benefit from the dominant ideology, are subject to the whims of ideology. According to Althusser, we are all imprisoned by ideology, even those with the nicest cells. So, cultural artifacts that push against dominant ideology, one presumes, are the “good” kind that allow us a limited capacity to rebel against it.
I don’t entirely buy that, though. I understand the desire to either accept “fun” culture as meaningless kitsch that can be devoured without guilt just as much as I understand the desire to reject it wholesale as poisonous drivel weakening the majority’s capacity to resist the status quo. But I don’t think it’s quite so convenient. SSaints Row IV never criticises it’s kitschy source material. In fact, it revels in its own sense of fun because that cheap, dull “bad” art brings people together and reflects an ideology of whimsy that offers relief, socialization and community.2 I think we can believe in the idea of pure fun even while accepting that it doesn’t exist. In fact, I think that’s what Saints Row IV does.
In a jokey reimagining of Mass Effect 2, the boss can “romance” every member of their crew with a button press, prompting an exchange as varied as a meek, flirtatious offer or a direct “hey Kinzie, wanna fuck?” There isn’t such a thing as meaningless sex, and the game doesn’t frame this sex as meaningless, it frames it as open, enjoyable, consensual and above all fun. That’s what I see when the game references They Live, Jane Austin and professional wrestling in a single scene: the game openly plays with ideological and cultural reference points: you can own and love your nostalgia in Saints Row IV and it will never make fun of you but you can’t love it nakedly without making connections to other reference points.
It’s possible and important to applaud the simple and colourful joys that can be found in videogames without propping up an ideology of gamer purity.3 Often in studying cultural objects, especially commercially motivated art (I acknowledge that art in modernity ultimately is or becomes commercial but in the interest of simplicity let’s just move on) one encounters either a drive to keep things fun and simple,4 or a drive to transcend fun like it’s some kind of hurdle.5 The reasonable compromise is to demand more of both. But I question whether we have much use for that binary at all. How does the expectation/existence of fun dictate our discourse? What kinds of conversations are we allowed to have about games or movies because of our fun or our expectation of fun?6
What I see in Bad Dudes and Saints Row is not fun eliminating meaning or masking meaning, but dictating it. We shouldn’t ask that games be just fun without meaning because that isn’t possible so long as language implicitly carries ideology, nor should we demand that games impose meaning without fun because there isn’t a cultural force powerful enough to orchestrate that kind of paradigm shift. Saints Row IV sprawls and plays with references and even if the player doesn’t get them, it still promotes joy through its own loving absurdity. For a game that very readily suggests that humanity is brittle and human interactions are primarily virtual and simulated, it’s affectionately joyful and empowering. It invites the player into it.
In June I attended a conference for the Canadian Games Studies Association where I rambled on a panel with three excellent scholars (Gaines Hubbel, Stephanie Jennings and Jason Coley) and I tried to argue that criticism necessitates an imposition of subjectivity on a text and that human cognition constructs a story out of raw data and personal ideology and so it’s best to own that and play with ideas rather than ignore meaning either in the subject or in the object examine where the text carries you and where its interests lie. Death of the author and such. Meaning is constructed in part from the audience* so an audience with some awareness of that holds more of their individuality in the face of the text’s influence than one who doesn’t. The danger is that this is a potentially colonising relationship, where the audience can abduct the text’s politics.7 Fun may be a threat to discourse because it lets an audience imprison meaning to suit the dominant ideology but after Saints Row IV I’m convinced that it doesn’t have to. I don’t think there will ever be a videogame promised land where every game released is a sophisticated object of high art (not that I believe in that binary either) and ultimately my opinion is that it’s good that critics expect more from games than fun. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to wait for a new age of “mature” games to exist when instead we can reexamine the ideologies and relationships we have to games that already exist, even the ones that supposedly exist purely for fun.
*One of my favourite games writers is Aevee Bee because she very skillfully illustrates the relationship between her own subjectivity and a particular videogame.
1 Dean, Paul, Matt Lees and Quintin Smith. “Review: Cards Against Humanity.” Shut Up and Sit Down. May 7 2015.
2 Franklin, Chris. “Saints Row and Kitsch.” Short Wave Transmission. Errant Signal. May 26 2014.
3 Pressgrove, Jed. “In Honor of Satoru Iwata, Not Consumerist Fantasy.” Game Bias. July 16 2015.
4 Crecente, Brian. “Nintendo reminds us that games don’t have to be anything but fun, sometimes.” Polygon. July 21 2015.
5 Alexander, Leigh. “Playing Outside.” The New Inquiry. June 17 2013.
6 Pane, Salvador. “Limitations of Little Sisters: The Tyranny of Fun.” Haywire Magazine. Jun 23 2015.
7 Soyinka, Wole. “The critic and society: Barthes, leftocracy and other mythologies.” Black Literature and Literary Theory. New York: Routledge, 1990. 27-55. Print.
Further reading: Franklin, Chris. “An Aimless Diatribe on Fun.” Errant Signal. Jul 26 2012.
Street, Zoya. “Should games be interesting or fun?” Medium. Jul 10 2014.
Mir, Rebecca. “Colonialism, Privilege, and Meaningful Play in Dog Eat Dog.” Play the Past. Apr 24 2013.
Krehbiel, Matt. “Wreck-It Ralph Made Me Cry.” Single Hand Clap. Nov 7 2012.
Allen, Samantha. “TransMovement: Freedom and Constraint in Queer and Open World Games.” The Border House. Feb 4 2013.
Ligman, Kris. ““Namjon yeobi”: Analogue: A Hate Story.” The Border House. Feb 7 2012.
Juster, Scott and Jorge Albor. “The Seriously Absurd Case of Vanquish.” Experience Points. Jun 2 2011. Podcast.