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November 09, 2010

How a genre means

Astute readers of this blog¹ will note that over the past few months I've been reading the old Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald. They've shown up in the sidebar and in the "books I've read this year" file.

As I was working on my art-game earlier this year, I was wondering about the question of how games mean, which was posed directly in that form by Chris Hecker in the last few years and by others as well. I read a few things on the topic, including Rod Humble's Escapist article. (I also read Steve Gaynor's excellent post "Noir" again, which doesn't address the question of meaning, but which is worthwhile reading nonetheless.) These questions started me asking how other media mean; Hecker sort of took it as read that we know how other media mean, but I'm not sure I've ever really thought about it in directly that way. Taking a little riff on Gaynor's article, I decided to think a little bit about how genre novels mean.

I didn't choose them because there was some direct parallel between how genre novels mean and how games might mean. I simply sought out machinery of meaning in another medium to understand it and wonder at whether those lessons might be applied to our own work.

But I did pick genre fiction specifically because I think it occupies a similar place in it's cultural firmament as video games do in the culture at large. Just as games are often wrongly derided as things for children or the immature, genre fiction is often derided in similar ways by those who consider themselves literary - it's "beach reading" or draws comments along the lines of "at least they're reading."²

It's worth noting that while the McGee novels are terrific genre novels, they could not be confused with the deeper works of the classics, nor with each year's best books as judged by the New York Times. They are essentially revenge fantasies, violent, lurid, and somewhat sexualized³, much like Fleming's Bond stories or any number of other entries in the genre - essentially, these are its hallmarks. They don't plumb too deeply into the reality of the human condition, at least, in the essentials of the plot. The interior lives of the supporting characters are not explored, the villains are often shallow, and the only character we know in any detail is McGee himself, though after several books we have been introduced to a few recurring characters who we see through McGee's eyes.

Where, then, is the meaning in these books? As it turns out, the meaning here can entirely be found in the character of McGee, in what he stands for, but even more so in what he opposes. McGee decries the choices of Americans who slide into mediocrity, filling cubicles every day until they fall over dead, the constant chasing of a Dream which is cookie-cutter and bland, the constant falling into spouse, house, dog, kids, golf on Sundays and retirement dissolving straight into the grave, without ever having a thought along the way. He chooses instead to pick his way through life, enjoying his retirement in installments while he's young enough to enjoy it, sun-bleached and when the time comes, working hard and at great risk to earn his pay.

But even as McGee stands against the blandness of the middle class, in occasional asides as he meets such characters, he also doesn't believe in man's worst impulses, to connive to steal property from its rightful owner, and he fights against that in the work he chooses, as a "salvage consultant." McGee goes after those who have used legal means for theft, acting as a corrective to naïveté on the part of that same middle class for which he has no real other use. While he doesn't agree with the mindless mediocrity, still he works to protect that class of people - though admittedly, he takes half of what he recovers, on the theory that half is a lot better than nothing for his clients.

In his conquests, too, McGee has his own sort of meaning. For him, he can only truly explore a woman sexually when he truly has a love for her. His love will never be bent to joining that middle class, and so these relationships inevitably end, with both parties having learned something more by the experience. He cherishes these women, even as he knows that they will likely last only briefly in his life.4 Here, too, he stands in opposition to a sort of casual sex culture that was prevalent in what might have been called the counter-culture at the time the books were written, the bulk of them in the late sixties and early seventies. He can't simply use sex as a release, and isn't simply looking for notches in the bedpost. He seeks meaning in his encounters.

I think this holds for much of this area of the genre spectrum. In private detective stories, the protagonist stands apart from the society his clients come from, but he works to uphold right and wrong from his place on the shadowy side of the street. In police procedurals, the police stand against the chaos of crime, using a rigid set of steps to pursue criminals. In the drawing room mystery, the sleuth is an intellect standing against the disorder and apparent impossibility of the crimes. In the Bond series, Bond stands for Queen and country by doing those things we don't want society to do, and acts as a bulwark against those without such qualms.

What does this mean for games? I don't know for certain, but this sort of meaning through opposition to the status quo is very interesting to me. Often our game heroes stand in opposition to the big threats, enormous evils which threaten worlds, or seek revenge against a dastardly foe. Better and more lasting stories might come from setting our game characters against smaller targets, perhaps even ourselves, and in doing so, ensuring that we allow something of those characters to come through.

In the end, I'm going to spend more time with Travis McGee; that's how I think about it. I'm not going to delve into more revenge-driven plots. I'm going to spend more time with Travis McGee. We need more characters like him and his friends in genre fiction, so our forgettable plots don't matter so much.

¹Allow me to assume that you are not only a plurality, but are in fact non-zero.
²I'm not making such statement myself, though I was at one point in the frame of mind where I would have (and likely did). I'd still call some of the stuff I read "beach reading", which is probably snobbish but I mean little by it.
³Inevitably, Travis will take some beautiful woman into his arms for a time, sometimes his client and sometimes a woman he has met along the way.
4I recall one exception to this later in the series, but I think it's better to read them in order and thus have that relationship carry more meaning in contrast to all that has gone before. It's towards the end of the series.

Posted by Brett Douville at November 9, 2010 06:32 AM


I saw your profile on the IGDA DC Twitter feed and checked out your homepage. Funny tidbit, I was named after that Travis McGee character. My mom had a thing for spies I believe. Anyways, just thought I'd pop in and say "hello". See ya around the IGDA chapter.

-Travis Swaim

Posted by: Travis Swaim at November 17, 2010 12:31 PM

Hi Travis, welcome and I'm sure I'll see you in person at some point.

Travis McGee is one of a few genre characters I've continued to enjoy over the years. When I was a kid I liked the revenge aspects of the stories, but as I've gotten older it's all the stuff I'm kind of talking about above that appeals to me more. Your mom had good taste :)

Posted by: Brett Douville at November 18, 2010 12:25 PM