Editorial: Why Games are Repressed as an Art Form
Why don’t games hold the same credibility as books and movies? Why, when placed in a room with scholars of art, music, and literature does the scholar of video games look like a fool? Do they tell less important stories? Are their artists by some coincidence less skillful or creative? Are the orchestras that perform their scores less dynamic, less moving? Are their engineers and designers less intelligent?
As our world’s culture moves ahead, every generation is endowed with new tools, new ways to express their thoughts and ideas. Because of this they are granted a unique power to create completely new art in vastly new ways. I can’t think of any other medium in our generation that has grown more significantly than interactive media and videos games. But no matter how large this form of expression gets, it seems to be looked down upon by the cultural masses, as if it cheapens the person who is enamored by a video game’s charm. There are many debates floating around as to whether games, despite its content, can ever be considered art at all. I think it’s been proven time and time again that yes they can. So why is the debate still present? While there are many factors for this, I find no other more important to being with than lineage.
Before we had language, before books could be written, there were stories to tell. Our literary world is the culmination of centuries of extraordinary works from Aristotle, Aristophanes, Shakespeare…an immeasurable number of writers all leading up to today. The same goes for art, music, theatre, winery, culinary arts, engineering, architecture, just to name a few. These crafts are all bigger than any individual who has, or ever will live. They are larger than we can imagine, yet every generation instinctively attempts to outdo the last.
Digital technology and digital art is relatively infantile when compared to the centuries of artists past, over the countless kingdoms and religions for which the art was created. We do not have the ability to draw on the last generation’s inspiration in the same way. We are creating things anew with every step, working off each other to move forward. Because of this it’s difficult to pin point its proper place in the artistic spectrum.
Roger Ebert has gone on record numerous times stating that “Video Games Can Never Be Art.” He frequently poses the argument that “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets. To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on.” [Update] In a recent article, Ebert even recognizes that his lack of contact with video games makes his judgement of them unfair, yet stands behind his opinion of the medium anyway. “I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place. I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn’t seen. Yet I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so.” Why would a person so well versed in the concepts and requirements needed to accurately critique something remain grounded in an opinion he cannot substantiate?
I believe one of the reasons, among others explored below, for this brand of assured ignorance stems from this lack of lineage in interactive media, the fact that many of the pioneers of the industry are still alive, still making games and still improving upon their methods. It’s almost unfair to make this comparison because interactive media is so new, without the creative minds of centuries past to build upon. Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany, during a speech at USC, touched on the fact that all art forms need to evolve over time, including games, and I agree with this completely.
Ingorant or not, Ebert’s claim is also difficult to back up because great poetry or great filmmaking is so subjective. He describes the prose of “Braid”, a game themed around mistakes, the power one gains from hindsight and the realization that sometimes self is the real enemy, as “prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.” I personally found myself quite moved and intrigued by the prose in conjunction with the game’s content. He described the game Flower in a way that clearly indicates he’s never spent time with the game; “Nothing [KelleeSantiago] shows from this game seemed of more than decorative interest on the level of a greeting card.” Though I have not completed Flower myself, there is a segment I recently played that stands out in my mind: The flower dreams it is tending to an urban garden, nurturing it and weeding it of excess rebar and girders until it is beautiful and able to co-exist with the nature around it. I find this juxtaposition between the roles of urbanization and nature very poetic. Then again, it’s all subjective.
“Citizen Kane” isn’t everyone’s favorite film despite how critically praised it is. I’ve also heard many discussions trying to identify what the “Citizen Kane” of games is since it’s socially identified as the most important film in a medium with a considerably longer line of triumphs and flops. IGN seems to think this “Citizen Kane” of gaming is Metroid Prime. Personally I believe it’s closer to Final Fantasy 7.
Let’s level the scope of this comparison a bit and only compare media and art created since 1972, since Pong. Let’s ask a new question: Do any of the more recent creations of film, poetry, art, novels and so on live up to the quality of the centuries that have passed? I’d be willing to say no. “Harry Potter” is the biggest novel series in our recent history, but does it compare to “Animal Farm”, ‘The Great Gatsby”, “Hamlet” or “1984”? Is it supposed to?
How about only comparing the work in the last few decades to each other? I’d venture to say the story through line of the “Metal Gear Solid” series is more symbolic, moving and intricate than most fictionalized war movies released in the last few decades. I was more shocked and afraid playing “Modern Warfare 2” than watching most any war film of late. I believe “Saving Private Ryan” did a better job at telling its root story, though again, filmmaking is a more refined art, more trial and error has occurred over time to make it the medium it is today. I believethat games are constantly going through that same process of trial and error, figuring out the appropriate balance between active storytelling and player interaction, or gameplay; a restraint in design which movies and novels, passive storytelling, do not have to worry about.
Gameplay is another major aspect that would naturally elude firmly planted non-gamers like Mr. Ebert; the art of interaction, movement and flow. I notice that he does not include dance in his list of great art. The player’s interaction with the game has many similarities to dance, being a delicate balance between movement, precision and timing. In balancing these elements, the movement of its lines and objects become harmonious, become beautiful and graceful; no longer figuratively, but quite literally a dance. When the player does everything correctly it provides a unique feeling of unity and connection. Below are a few examples of games where this movement and parry between player and game are clearly evident:
Aside from the grace of movement in Geometry Wars and Everyday Shooter, these types of games have almost a cellular aesthetic, like observing micro-organisms under a microscope. I find that “art imitating life” aspect of these games quite beautiful. They are some of my favorite games to date.
Even something like Mirror’s Edge has a dance quality to it. The stage, your partner, leads you from mark to mark. The choreography is determined by the geometric shapes and set pieces throughout the stage, their placement acting as cues to what steps you should perform in your attempt to complete the routine.
And come on, if these don’t represent a wonderful blend of interactive art and movement, I don’t know what else to show you. Line Rider:
(Note: the background music for these videos isn’t a part of the game, but rather music added by the video editors)
For those unfamiliar with the idea of Line Rider, the player is given a blank canvas. The player draws a series of lines that affect the character’s trajectory and thus create an interesting art/movement piece. Digital art like this doesn’t seem to have found its place in the broad artistic outlets, or its place in the conscious collective, but rather just in the online circles such as Deviant Art.
Does digital art belong in galleries or museums? What is its ideal avenue? If there is no ink or canvas is it suddenly less than art? “I am 8-bit” has hosted several galleries which combine digital art concepts with classic gallery presentation, but these types of galleries are few and far between. It will find its avenue eventually, but due to its ease of reproduction, I don’t believe digital art could ever be as mysterious or elusive as a rare Picasso or Monet.
Most of those who are able to find a nostalgic fondness in video game culture, for the type of artistic pieces at an “I am 8-Bit” gallery, were teens and children when games started to saturate the main stream. We grew up playing and learned how to play naturally well. Older generations however aren’t as naturally comfortable with playing video games. That is until the Wii came along and attempted to simplify the modern game. Either way, this leads us to another reason for the repression of games as art; accessibility.
Anyone can listen to Beethoven, to Jack Benny, anyone can go see “Citizen Kane”, or read a Dickens Novel, but not everyone can play a video game. Anyone can have access to one, but it requires a certain amount of coordination and understanding to be able to use it, to participate. The same goes for many things though, right? It is far more difficult to become a musician than a gamer. The difference is that we all have a good understanding of what the results of learning to play an instrument is. There is no concrete benefit to learning to play a game; the raw purpose is simply to entertain. This goes for anything from Chess to Civilization. Because of this learning curve, it’s natural for anyone outside the bubble to completely disregard it as childish, pointless and not worth the time. Over time, everyone develops a sense of what they find relaxing and they revert to those things when they need that escapism entertainment. For many in the older generations, games simply aren’t one of them.
Then again, to truly appreciate great works of art, of literature, it takes a level of understanding and desire that not everyone has been bestowed. Art is, by nature, supposed to inspire the individual in different ways, even to those who don’t fully understand it initially (there is great benefit in even a partial understand of art). It is then up to the person to take the initiative and learn more about the piece if they choose. If non-gamers chose to take that same initiative, they could learn to play and break the barrier of entry. Only then will they see where the benefit of the game lies. Chess is a mental test of strategy and planning, Civilization a test of strategy, organization, and balance. Let’s be fair though, there’s a lot of crap out there with no recognizable merit in every form of media, but even the most mind bending puzzlers, the most moving interactive stories get no real cultural and social appreciation; at least, not in the same open way.
I have rarely heard heralds and praise for the achievements in the interactive arts in any non-technology related forum. There is no games column in the New York Times, no best seller list, no game reviews on Fox News. Occasionally there are studies about how games can help increase coordination, peripheral vision, general IQ and so on, but more often than not the focus seems to be about the presence of sex and violence in games, how they are marketed to our youth, and how they are desensitizing us to violence in the world around us. Because games as a medium are young, they are treated as childish and in turn as children’s toys. The older generations saw the majority of us as children playing these things and assume nothing has changed. Thus we have another reason for the repression of games as art: Mass Media.
Now, I don’t blame media completely for this child to video game connection. Even to this day most any game can be bought at Toys R Us despite the fact some are rated M (for 18+ year old players). No one seems to remember that at the onset Pong was placed in bars for adults to play. Atari had pornographic games because there was no standardization to decide what was appropriate. In 1982 “Custer’s Revenge” was released on the Atari, an erotica game where you raped a Native American woman while dodging arrows. Nothing like this is even remotely tolerated on modern home consoles.
Those who listen to these mass media news sources fill a very wide variety of ages. Those who are informed understand what is true and what is exaggerated or sensationalized, their view of gaming culture remains unchanged due to their first hand knowledge. Those who are uninformed however are left no choice but to assume the information they receive is true.
To be fair, let’s respond to their claims. Are some games violent? Hell yes. Do some games deal with sexual content? Yes, some do. This doesn’t mean things are as bad as they say. A perfect illustration of this is the Fox News debate between “psychology specialist” Cooper Lawrence and game journalist Geoff Keighley. Cooper was brought onto Fox News to debate the appropriateness of the sex scene in the Xbox 360 title “Mass Effect”. The problem was that when briefed about the in game content, Fox News told her that the sex scene was “like pornography” rather than showing her a clip of the scene in question. She was never given the chance to draw her own conclusions, though research should have been her responsibility either way…
Fox News didn’t tell her this because they wanted to defame the credibility of the content by calling it pornographic. They did it because, if true, it would create the type of controversy that people tune in to watch. The viewer becomes audience to a slander that will never be proven false to them, slander against something that is, as far as they are concerned, inaccessible to them. They are left to assume that any sex scene in any game would be just as pornographic as it was claimed to be in this case.
After some time had passed and numerous angry fans of “Mass Effect” trashed one of Cooper’s books, the book she went on Fox to cross promote, through consumer reviews and ratings on Amazon.com, accusing her of being unfair and uninformed, she finally decided to look at the content in question. Her opinion of the game took a 180 degree turn.
“I really regret saying that, and now that I’ve seen the game and seen the sex scenes it’s kind of a joke…it’s not like pornography. I’ve seen episodes of ‘Lost’ that are more sexually explicit.”
Video Game consoles are not yet seen in main stream media for what they are; media players. There are some discs that are appropriate for children, some that are not. Games are intended to be age appropriate, not appropriate for every age. Too many people are willing to discount all games because some are inappropriate. Some go so far as to say games are the spawn of Satan. This shows a great and harmful ignorance for the media, and due to this ignorance, fear and distrust. Comparatively, when a bookstore agrees to sell smut, it is unfair and untrue to assume that every book in stock is smut.
I want to re-establish the point that games aren’t just for kids. Children should be discouraged from freely playing violent video games unsupervised, they shouldn’t. Children should be taught to respect life, to be kind, to not objectify others, to no abuse others. I also believe that these lessons could be conceivably taught within the context of the very games being condemned, teaching children the difference between acceptable behaviors in a virtual role-playing world versus the real world. In a virtual world, the player assumes the identity of a character in a story’s context. They are by nature not making the same decisions as they would in a real world scenario because the relationships and backgrounds of the in-game characters are not that of their own, you are playing a role, similar to an actor. The fact is, sometimes it’s fun to play the bad guy so long as you realize it isn’t real.
What I can’t agree with is the thought that the violent games are, specifically, causing a child’s decline, causing dangerous behavior in people like Devin Moore, Daniel Petric, and Cody Posey. The proponents who constantly claim that games “cause violence” are out of touch with the subject matter. Like Cooper Lawrence, the experts frequently interviewed are not gamers, frequently they are politicians pandering to non-gamer parents hoping for re-election, yet they pose as experts, experts who ultimately cause more damage to children than the violent games they protest because they are teaching children deniabilityrather than accountability. We are all accountable for our actions, so are Devin, Daniel and Cody. Even children understand this. Parents would much rather hear that games caused their child to become destructive rather than their failures in parenting. Blindly blaming the parents, however, is just as short sighted as blaming the video games. Sometimes, unless the parent is a world class psychiatrist, or owns a psych ward, there’s nothing even they can do to help these mentally deranged individuals.
Some people have violent tendencies. Some are capable of truly horrific remorseless violence while others are not. There are many links on this page, but I urge you to read the next two most especially. First we have a CNN news article, one we’ve seen time and time again, about kids who’ve murdered and blamed it on “video games”. The second link is Gabe’s post at Penny-Arcade.com, scroll down to the italicized section. It is a letter from the “step mother” of one of the kids involved in the murder. She describes what it was like living with the teen, attempting to discipline him. Sometimes there’s little anyone can do for them. Those who are capable of true malevolent violence do not need any source material; they will eventually find violence on their own. No one should blame the match because the bomb went off. What we need to do is figure out how the bomb was ever built to begin with.
Excerpt from Penny-Arcade:
We tried absolutely everything we could think of to get him to behave like a normal human being… we tried groundings, negative reinforcement / punishment, positive reinforcement, counseling, and anything and everything the counselors suggested. We tried to get him interested and involved in extracurricular activities, like hockey, drama, music, art, anything, but he got himself kicked out of every group he was in with his “make me” attitude. When we would ground him, we took away everything. No TV, no computer, no phone, no leaving the house, no snacks or junk food…. Everything. When he was grounded, he was only allowed to sit in his room and read or draw. He was actually a pretty good artist, and we tried to encourage him to spend his time working with his talent. He would just sit there and take it… the groundings had absolutely no affect on him at all. Most of the time, he didn’t even remember why he was being grounded. At the end of it, we would ask him if it was worth it to have everything taken away in exchange for what he did… he usually just shrugged. He could be grounded for weeks, or a month at a time, and then the very next day would do something to get back in trouble again. Most kids get grounded or punished a couple of times, and then they want to avoid having to go through it again… not this kid, nothing seemed to phase him.
And we’re not talking the usual teenager stuff, like coming home late, or refusing to do the dishes. We’re talking stealing cars, setting fires, drinking, getting picked up for drugs, beating up handicapped kids at school (yes, really) stealing things out of our house… all with this “I’ll do whatever the fuck I want” attitude.
A video game deathmatchto a healthy mind is equivalent to a competitive paintball match. The goal is to get the highest score without being eliminated yourself. The unhealthy player is actually wishing they could cause harm to the other players. This sort of mental derailment, this mental illness, has nothing to do with software and needs to be treated by professionals rather than be pardoned by these “experts”.
Some children enjoy playing video games, but some also like TV and movies. I can’t believe the amount of flak that video games get when only 6% of games released in 2009 were rated M. 60% of games were rated appropriate for ages 10 and under by the ESRB, 76% were rated appropriate for ages 10 and over. Yet approximately 44% of movies released in 2009 were rated R according to Rottentomatos.com. It seems like there’s a very unbalanced shift in our focus.
Games are not something we need to fear. Games can even be used for good, for educating children in ways that other methods cannot. I say this because children will always learn best when studying under their own discipline, voluntarily. There is a school called Quest to Lean where children learn through games as part of their core curriculum. Interactive media, art and technology is certainly the future of our culture and should be embraced as such.
Games have a very unique ability to transport the player through music, story, and art to places both fascinating and scary. A great example of this to me is “Modern Warfare 2”, another great title that got slandered in the news for having scenes where the player performs acts of terrorism. Understand this, the claim is true. The player is placed in a scenario where they have infiltrated the ranks of a terrorist cell, a scene that fits into the storyline and its themes of sacrifice for the greater good. It is a turning point in the story for the events that follow.
The player is purposely placed in unnerving, horrific positions which are by no means taken lightly within the context and canon of the story. This is why the game is so emotionally effective in ways that many critics of interactive media don’t believe are possible in video games. I remember playing a sequence where a full scale attack occurred on American soil, in a town that looked quite close to my own. I can’t remember a gaming experience where I felt more genuinely afraid, horrified at the thought of a war inside my country, inside my home town.
Why do we voluntarily go to see movies with horrific content such as war? Why is a movie like “Saving Private Ryan” entertaining and so effective? I’d go so far as to say it isn’t entertaining, but rather a reminder of what terrors those who fight in war must face, reminding us we should never wish to see those horrors, reminding us to appreciate that which we have taken for granted. I’ve heard stories of veterans fainting during the opening battle sequence in “Saving Private Ryan”, yet the film received praise for accomplishing such realism whereas “Modern Warfare 2” is looked down on and chastised for being realistic. Games get the full brunt of the judgmental masses when it comes to this kind of content, but when terrorists attack on American soil in a film, or in a Tom Clancy novel, there’s barely a ripple in the pond.
This brings me to another reason why games aren’t treated with the same respect as books or movies with similar content. “Games”, by definition are for amusement, yet video games don’t necessarily have to be fun. Video Games can be educational, reflective and yes, in some cases horrific. Once the term video “game” begins to lose its connection with empty, shallow amusement, it will finally start to be treated with the respect it deserves.
The general public view of video games is, simply put, wrong. Video games can be thoughtful, they can be artful and they can inspire and excite as well as any other medium in existence. I will gladly put the soundtrack to Lair against Lord of the Rings or the soundtrack of Uncharted 2 up against Indiana Jones, despite people like Roger Ebert claiming that its inclusion in a game suddenly destroys its credibility as a musical score. You may have your preference, but the quality is incredibly similar.
I would call the presentation of Braid, or Today I Die sheer poetry in motion. I would also put Final Fantasy 7 as one of the best, thought provoking storylines I’ve ever witnessed. The recent Urgent Evoke is attempting to use gameplay, albeit simplistic gameplay, as a means to create awareness and reaction to global tragedy.
Games are undeniably artistic. I couldn’t be more proud to be pursuing and writing about an art form which combines more artistic elements than any single medium since film. Film brought together storytelling, music, cinematography, and acting. On top of all those things, games have included the dance of interaction. Games have the ability to surpass an audience’s relatability to a character and, instead, make the player the character, to make the story, interactions, and context all directly personal.
Once our generation has paved the way for games as art, we can watch the next generation build upon it and create interactive media that we today cannot even begin to imagine. Then there will be recognized artistry in sleek, elegant coding and open pride returned to where it belongs. I don’t believe there’s much that any individual can do for the cause right now. What I do believe is that over time the gamer’s passion, fan created artistic visions and original concepts will become so strong, so apparent in our society that there will be no possible way to deny it. They will find their natural place in the social and cultural arts and therefore be properly appreciated for the skill and creativity it takes to conjure them. But for now the game’s artistic social worth is in another castle, and we are on our way.