Preface: Hey everyone, welcome to my blog. I hope all of you will judge this post lightly considering it is my first blog post, I may not have my technique down yet. On that note, I welcome constructive criticism.
Two short white lines. One dotted white line separating them. A tiny traveling point to pull it all together. No man, woman, child, or corporate entity could imagine that this apparent fad would rapidly evolve into a massive global phenomenon worth over 60 billion US dollars just four decades later. With its multitude of sub-cultures, the international gaming industry now permeates almost every facet of civilized human life. Its economic and social impact is undeniable yet this entertainment juggernaut is still a fledgling organism within itself. As technology and consumer demand hastily advanced and grew, the VGI[i] had little time to establish its own identity or purpose. This unfortunate fact has left a vacuum of meaning at the epicenter of every game’s core design which begs the question: What are video games?
The popular opinion, especially prevalent amongst vapid charlatans, soccer moms and the mainstream media, is that it is merely an immature mode of entertainment that leads to destructive addiction, obesity, crime, mental illness, and everything else that is wrong with society. What little academia and intellectual literature there is has followed suit, merely attempting to prove or disprove the negative hypothesis formulated around the aggregate effect of the VGI. However, I’m not writing this post to validate the blatant lies fabricated by ignorant old white people with criticism, I’ll leave that to common sense and cultural literacy. Indeed, I am writing this blog to advocate the evolution of video games into an art form. Now, before you call bullshit and close this tab, I’d implore you to at least hear me out once.
Wikipedia defines art as “the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect.” Now, I am neither stupid nor shallow enough to think that a single sentence out of a user-generated encyclopedia article is adequate in addressing such a grandiose idea. However, it is difficult to argue with the applicability and universality of this definition to the accepted notion of what is art. Art is truly a medium that can generate thought provoking understanding or evocation of emotions, substantive ideas, and, above all, the human experience. The human experience, in a very crude nutshell, is the holistic compendium of all of humanity’s emotions, ideals, struggles, hopes, and dreams (more popularly known as the human condition). Art is a vessel by which we reach a deeper connection with this human experience or condition, consequently, achieving a greater understanding of ourselves as individual agents as a whole.
If this brief definition is in any way correct in its analysis, then there is no reason the VGI cannot produce games that could be considered valuable works of art. Kyle, my friend and co-author on this blog, believes that video games have already reached this level of being; however, I believe they are still a developing medium on the brink of maturity. We did agree on a farm house analogy for the industry though, in its current state, the VGI has no doubt emerged strong and prosperous from its egg and is now a rapidly growing chick still in the process of gaining its bearings and defining itself before it can become a…well…um chicken...
Moving on, my reasoning behind this assertion is quite simple: from a technical and practical standpoint, video games possess nearly every advantage visually/physically that other accepted artistic mediums do. In fact, video games add an entirely new level of emoting ability via the advent of interaction. Instead of merely observing or taking in a work of art, we are actually invited to literally become a part of it in a meaningful way: Games can teach us complex emotional lessons via interpersonal relations with NPCs[ii], they can give us insight into life and death with gripping and original narratives, they can change our understanding of what it means to be a patriot with ideological critique and poignant social commentary.
Now, I am not a fool. Video games have not always been used to their potential. It can be argued that they hardly are, but, this does not denigrate the entire art form into irrelevance. There is a horrific surplus of terrible music, literature, and artwork but this does not doom every one of those mediums to a lower purpose.
We do not judge cinema by the work of Michael Bay, we judge it by the merits and contributions of artists like Martin Scorsese, Federico Fellini and Stanley Kubrick. We don’t assess the value of literature by the mindless drivel scribbled by Dean Koontz,we revel in the beauty of Hawthorne and Shakespeare. Painting is not considered pretentious garbage because several dozen ass clowns in Brooklyn decide postmodern impressionism of the vulva is considered artwork, we acknowledge the contribution of Picasso in spite of this. Subsequently, we must not allow ourselves to become unjustly prejudiced towards this emerging art form by judging it based on Saint’s Row, Halo and Call of Duty, but must observe those on the cutting edge of the evolution: Mass Effect, Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, Red Dead Redemption, GTA4 (Yes, you heard me correctly) and hundreds of other meaningful IPs.[iii]
This is not to say that games such as Halo and Gears of War have no place in our culture. They do, but in the same place as movies such as Death Race and books such as Harry Potter, amidst our vast array of shallow privileges that are for pure entertainment and visceral ecstasy. The reason there are more games in this category than in that of the artistic realm is simple: profit-motive. The VGI is of course beholden to the common consumer and must turn a substantial profit to appease its shareholders and reap economic benefits for its executives, like any conglomeration of corporate bodies. At the risk of sounding like an idiot hippie, corporations destroy art with greed. However, this is not because they are evil philistine entities.
It is because they know what the people (we) want. The common person would much rather play a cash-crop game such as an FPS[iv] where shooting someone with a fully-automatic SAW[v] for two seconds results in them exploding than an expansive narrative centered piece with well a integrated morality system that focuses on the ethical ramifications of balancing war and family outside of its black-and-white dimensions. We demand these products because we, as a people, have a desire for shallow senseless action and base plot structure. This is reflected in other artistic markets as well, a recent example being Little Fockers grossing millions upon millions more than True Grit, Black Swan, The Fighter and The King’s Speech upon release. However, this decline of taste in the huddled masses is an entirely separate problem within itself.
In order to further video games’ evolution into a true art form, writers, programmers, voice actors, and all others involved in game design must begin to behave more like artists than glorified toy-makers. This is a process that is already underway and has born many fruitful successes, alas the industry as a whole must undergo radical self-examination and individual development teams must mature and work creatively within their financial and corporate limitations in order to truly become art. The focus of games should be on the reflection of the human condition that the designers want portrayed within a certain context in an interactive and engaging manner. If they provide innovative narratives and gameplay systems to consumers at a consistent rate for a change, consumers, in turn, shall mature their taste for a more meaningful and less shallow gaming experience.
Game designers must embrace controversy instead of surrendering to it, they must explore new characters and develop them originally instead of using stock characters – hoping we won’t notice, they must utilize this medium to its full potential or not use it at all. These objectives are different in every type of game but the general mission must remain the same: immersively integrate the player into the experience and teach them something about their own reality through the virtual world. This, of course, is a convoluted and troublesome mission filled with trial and error but there must be a new standard across the gaming spectrum for intelligent writing and plot design, innovative gameplay, realistic choice systems, and emotional resonance (and don’t be afraid to get political or religious either!) if we are to enact lasting change in the VGI.
Finally, I want to talk about haters. Most people, young and old, are haters when it comes to the VGI. Their dismissive, superficial, and ignorantly critical view on video games has stigmatized the industry and made social pariahs out of those who seek to further the conversation in an intellectual manner. “They” are unfortunately the majority right now and “they” are also one of the biggest roadblocks preventing video games from being accepted as a legitimate art form. People continue to label games as childish, immature and useless instead of actually investigating them with any amount of objectivity. This attitude is severely detrimental to the process in that it diminishes the perceived value of the work of artistic game designers and reduces the entire industry into a grossly inaccurate caricature.
One such hater is Roger Ebert the acclaimed movie critic. He is an infamous hater of video games, especially of their classification as an art form. Ebert views the medium as largely weak and unable to substantively convey emotions or human experience in the same way other art forms can. He, like all critics of video games in this sense, doesn’t actually make a real argument for why he is right, but rather constantly insults games as an unworthy use of time when one could be perusing other activities that are more cultured and civilized. Once again, he is someone who has never actually played any real video games. I guarantee you that if played to the end of Final Fantasy X or Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, he would have been choking back tears like many other gamers(myself included)[vi] who were meaningfully touched by the conclusions of those games – games that no doubt blurred the line between sophisticated entertainment and artwork. The only non-counterable evidence he uses to back up his claim that video games can NEVER be art is this quote: “To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.” Yes, this is absolutely true. There is no Citizen Kane or Iliad of the VGI and this is absolutely something that needs to happen for the VGI to reach its potential but it in no way disqualifies games from the genre of art. We consider painting art when it’s mud drawings in cavern corridors and music as well when its atonal Gregorian chant. Can the same exception not be made for video games? In the end, 50 Cent puts it best when says, “and if they hate then let them hate”.
All in all, video games are a truly unique emerging art form in that they enable the average person to visually, psychosocially and somewhat psychically step into a role, idea, or event that facilitates them to experience art from an angle otherwise impossible. Although it may be an underutilized medium, its potential potency is far greater than anyone can currently estimate. We must shatter our ill-conceived intolerance of this art form and demand a higher level of integrity and intelligence from those who consider themselves craftsmen of this trade. If society can demonstrate a need for more meaningful and elaborate content in games, designers will no doubt deliver. Who knows? Perhaps the gaming equivalent to The Persistence of Memory is just around the corner.
[i] Video Gaming Industry
[ii] Non-player Characters
[iii] Intellectual Properties
[iv] First Person Shooter
[v] Squad Automatic Weapon
[vi] And I, unlike House Majority Leader and first Oompa-Loompa to serve in Congress John Boehner, do not cry about every little thing that happens to me.