Opinion – Understanding Meaning

Yeah, but what does it all MEAN?

One of the major themes coming from The Beginner’s Guide is the idea of meaning.  The game starts with the narrator explaining that he’ll be talking about the meaning of the games he shows and ends with him facing the ramifications of his own misinterpretations.  Taking the idea of meaning out of the context of The Beginner’s Guide, there is a lot to explore.  What is meaning?  Who defines it?  How does my 11th grade English teacher play into all of this?

By representing one of the approaches to meaning, that’s how.  English teachers of my school system proudly asked their students to evaluate great works of literature based purely on reading the work itself.  This resulted in the students using (randomly) selected quotes from the text (that they probably didn’t read) to defend (asinine) opinions.  This approach stemmed from the belief that the meaning of a text is contained within the text itself, which makes a certain amount of sense.  Meaning derived from not-the-text can hardly be said to have come from the text.  If the book (or game, movie, bottle cap art, etc) is trying to say something, then it presumably is saying it within the confines of the work.  The problem with this approach is that it ignores the context of the statement.  Artists don’t create in a vacuum.  Instead, they are informed, consciously and subconsciously, by the world around them.  One artist may paint a battlefield to show their patriotism towards their country while another artist paints the same picture to show the horrors of war.  By just looking at the painting, the viewer might never know.

Of course, all of this matters only if you approach meaning through the eyes of authorial intent.  According to this school of thought, the author of a work defines its meaning and all analysis should focus on figuring out what they were trying to say.  Again, the logic behind this is simple.  The author of a work presumably crafted it the way they wanted it.  If the author wanted to impart a message, than their art would reflect that.  So, any message contained within a work is a reflection of the author’s views on a particular topic.  Once again, the approach has flaws.  Authorial intent quickly becomes authorial tyranny.  First, by mandating that critics spend their time trying to divine whatever they think the author might be saying.  Sometimes the author is kind enough to explain their ideas, but they often what the player to figure them out.  The second, and possibly most troubling issue, is that by making the artist the sole source of meaning, we ignore the consumer and what conclusions they come to.  The consumer does not just passively receive the information headed their way.  They process a work through their own experiences, world view, and mental state and that forms the basis of what they get from the work.  Their views can, and often do, have more impact than the authors.  Consider Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  Sinclair hoped to use The Jungle as a way to spotlight the oppression of workers in industrialized America.  His audience viewed the book differently and decided that the terrible food hygiene was the key message.  Instead of a Commission for Worker’s Rights, the US government created the precursor of the Food and Drug Administration to stop unsanitary food preparation.

If the author and the consumer don’t define meaning, then who does?  The answer, frustratingly, is no one.  Meaning with a capital M doesn’t exist as a static concept with stable, defined answers.  It is an intensely personal idea that each person creates for themselves.  With that in mind, meanings often do overlap and the most persuasive conceptions of meaning tend to be the ones that draw from the text and the artist’s thinking.  While any work can mean anything to anyone, the most common meanings are those which draw upon the elements of the work to create an argument that reflects those elements.  Incorporating both the consumer’s view of a work and the artist’s intentions tends to create the most agreed upon, though not the definitive, meaning of a work

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