The beauty of destruction: My latest Wired News gaming column

Last week, Wired News published my latest video-game column, and this one is about a subject near and dear to my heart: The sumptuous aesthetic pleasures of watching stuff get totally destroyed inside a game.

The column is online free at the Wired web site, and a copy is archived below!

Is Virtual Destruction an Art Form?

by Clive Thompson

I plowed into the intersection at about 140 miles an hour and boom — slammed headfirst into an oncoming four-door sedan. Ouch.

And: Wow. The scene immediately shifted into John Woo-style slow motion. The cars reared upward, groaning, like two fighting antelopes; my hood crumpled into an origami flower, the metal bending like tin foil. The windshield became a fistful of glittering ice, hurled into the air. A tire pirouetted away like an escaping planet.

Let me tell you: It was beautiful.

Heart-stoppingly beautiful.

As you might suspect, I was playing Burnout Paradise, the latest installation in the best-selling car-racing series. I’ve always loved the games, because they perform a neat form of ludological jujitsu. It takes crashing — something that is in racing games normally regarded as bad — and makes it fun. Indeed, sometimes it’s the whole point of the play, as with Paradise’s ShowTime mode, where you compete to chain as many collisions as you can into a Niagaran cascade of carnage.

The designers at Criterion — the company that makes Burnout — understand a part of gamer psychology that is rarely discussed, but incredibly important: We are thrilled by wanton destruction. We need it like a form of food. We know that spectacles of mayhem inside games are electrically fun, artistically rich and possibly even good for the soul.

I call it “physics porn.” These days, people talk about the ability of games to let us play with various real-life what-ifs: the ability to try on a new identity, to retool Sim societies, to live through an epic narrative or to tackle “serious” issues like climate change. All true.

But for my money, what makes games unique among all other forms of entertainment is that they allow us to experiment with insanely dangerous physics. Games are only arena of modern life in which otherwise responsible adults are permitted to smash expensive things all to hell, purely for the sheer joy of it.

And there are deep, rare aesthetic delights here. Criterion’s attention to detail is positively sculptural. It lavishes an artistic level of attention on the behavior of stressed-out metal and rubber. Front-end a highway divider and you can see the shockwave of force crawling across your car like ivy growing along a wall. T-bone a car and you’ll barrel roll through the air like a three-ton ballet dancer, tossing off bits of metal that crinkle and bounce.

And the sounds! The shrieking of the tires, the hissing of metal ripped like paper, the dull explosive whumps of SUVs driving straight into a wall: These are wonderful things to play with. As with most Burnout games, I found myself looking forward to the moments when I’d screw up — just so I could marvel anew at the carnival of pain.

You could argue that this is all pretty adolescent stuff. But the truth is that art has always lingered over scenes of devastation (most particularly war). W.H. Auden once warned that poets make lousy politicians, because they’re way too entranced by apocalyptic spectacle. I think he was right, but the truth is this poetic hunger exists in almost everyone. After a 40-hour week of sitting in a cubicle, shuffling Word documents and being robotically polite, any reasonable human needs some catharsis — some full-body shock of the illicit. Full-bore destruction in video games serves the need admirably.

(Still, it’s true that Burnout Paradise would be pretty unsettling if the collisions produced mangled, screaming human bodies. Criterion solved this dilemma by getting rid of the people. Not only are the streets completely empty of any human presence, but the cars themselves are unpiloted — there’s no one inside them. It’s actually much creepier than any of the collisions, really.)

My main quibble with the Burnout games is their soundtracks. It’s always energetic post-grunge and rock, which Criterion picks presumably because it thinks the music creates a suitably rebellious mood.

But if we take seriously the artistic side of destruction, I think a far better soundtrack would be classical music or opera — like Beethoven or Rachmaninoff or Bizet. Artists like that have long been known for exciting crazed, over-the-top passions. (At the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the audience rioted.)

So I turn off the in-game music and put Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on my speakers. I get up to full speed, lock the brakes and drift sideways into a busy intersection. It’s perfect.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson