Following my previous defence of Sci-Fi and Fantasy fiction, I thought I might discuss another element of Geek culture: video games.
Video games get a lot of hate from the mainstream media and (let us be honest here) a lot of the older generation. Games are addictive; Games cause violence; games lead to declining social skills; games are to blame for mass shootings. These claims are almost entirely factually unsubstantiated and based in ignorance; much of what is ‘discovered’ or debated by the proliferation of hyped-up scientific studies on these issues could have been gleaned from talking to the average gamer for about five minutes.
Much has been said about the supposed societal impact of video games, or their ability to influence children. It is an old, and (to be honest) not very interesting debate. What intrigues me more is the low esteem in which video games are held when viewed as a creative form.
If you asked the average person on the street whether they thought video games ranked as an equally valuable form of creative media as, say, film or literature, I doubt you would get an affirmative answer. Indeed, many might find the notion that video games being a viable expressive media or (dare I say it) an art form to be laughable.
Why is this? One reason might be the very name of the creative form itself, “video games”. When one thinks of a game, they think of play, frivolity, children. You do not generally associate art or deep emotional experiences with play or games (though it can be, and indeed has been, argued that art and fiction are essentially a higher form of play). The term “video games” then is unfortunate in this regard; people instantly associate it with childhood or frivolity. This is of course not helped by the fact that younger people are a major consumer of games, and this was especially so back in the 1970s and 1980s when games exploded onto the market.
This leads onto the next problem – the fact that a lot of older people seem to still think of games being essentially in the same line as Pong (1972) or Space Invaders (1978). Yes, it is true, the early video games were not known particularly for their emotional depth or ability to comment on the human condition. They were games in the more common-usage sense of the word (and damn good ones at that). If games were still operating at the level of Pong, it would indeed be quite hard to argue for them to be a creative form on the same level of film or fine art.
Finally, the major problem we face in getting video games accepted in the mainstream is their sheer novelty. To a millennial like myself (even a history nerd as I am), the 1970s seem to be situated somewhere in the mythic past, along with the Fall of Rome and Mongol Conquests; I have never experienced a world without video games. I have to remind myself that the medium as a whole is younger than a large proportion of today’s population. We tend to stick with things we know that we learned in childhood. The reason I see video games as a medium equal to film, television, sculpture, etc. is partly because I have grown up with them. Remember that it was only recently that film was accepted as a viable art form in the mainstream (though even that debate has yet to be settled completely). I’m sure that in the future, some new medium or form will blossom into existence, and that I will dismiss it even as future generations adopt it. Such is the nature of humankind.
With these problems identified, let me now argue for video games as a creative form to be ranked along with all the others. I am not saying that all video games are creatively on par with films and literature; certainly, many games are just that – games. This does not make them lesser creations, but they exist more for entertainment than artistic purposes. However, so many games are just as creatively complex and emotionally engaging as the best film, novel or painting – often more so.
These games most probably rank as “art”; indeed they are now classified as such legally. I am now about to shoot myself in the foot by having to engage in the unanswerable question: how do you define art? I will attempt to advert the bullet’s path by refusing to do so entirely. However, I will offer a few separate definitions which can be applied to video games.
Here is one (out of the many) from the OED. Art might be classified as:
“Any of various pursuits or occupations in which creative or imaginative skill is applied according to aesthetic principles”.
Well, obviously games fit this definition. It takes creativity and skill to craft a game, both technically and aesthetically; game designers create entire universes out of the raw material of code at their disposal. I don’t think many can argue against video games as art following this definition.
What about this one (also from the OED)?
“The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”.
Now this is an interesting one – I invite you to focus in particular on the last part, which I have italicised above. Are games ever made to be appreciated “primarily for their beauty or emotional power”? To be honest, very rarely. Games are called as such for a reason – they involve gameplay, and that is why most gamers engage with them. I doubt many Call of Duty or FIFA fans play their respective games primarily to admire their “beauty” (though some may – humans are an odd bunch). On the flip side however, I’m not sure how many people read novels primarily for their aesthetic value (obviously some do). Rather, they do so to be entertained. Does this mean that novels cannot be art? I doubt many people would come to that conclusion. Certainly, at least some (if perhaps not all) novels can be art, and therefore it follows that games are likewise capable of being art.
We should then focus on the second part of that extract: “emotional power”. Without a doubt, games elicit emotional responses. For some games, it might be the same as those of sport – the joy of winning, the frustration of losing, and so on. However, more and more games now probe deeper elements of the human condition, just as the best literature or film does.
A few examples might be necessary. Keeping in mind the fact that I am a literature student and an absolute bookworm, one of the deepest emotional responses I ever have felt from any art form is from a game, The Last of Us (2013). As I followed the two protagonists through their post-apocalyptic journey, I often came close to tears. It was a deeply cathartic experience, and undoubtedly moving. This game was not one I played primarily for gameplay; to be honest, the gameplay was fairly average, and indeed was heavily criticised by some. What kept me playing The Last Of Us was the story, and the emotional engagement it provided.
Another game which is infamous in the gaming community for its aesthetic qualities,
rather than gameplay, is The Stanley Parable (2011/2013). This influential work was effective not just because it satirised gamer behaviour, but because it so accurately reflected how gamers think and how games work. No matter where you went, what you did, the omniscient narrator had already predicted that you would do so. Your experiences ranged the gamut from terror to hilarity, often at the same time. It is a masterpiece, and surely deserves the title of “art”.
For these sorts of games, a better description might be “interactive fiction” – for that is what they are. No other medium truly allows you to be immersed in a story that you can influence the outcome of. As beautiful as films and literature can be, you are almost always no more than an observer of that beauty; you cannot influence the narrative. While it is true that in games you can only change events to the extent that the parameters of the game allow you to do so (as The Stanley Parable proved), it is still far more so than in any other form.
This leads to an intense sense of emotional attachment. If any of you have ever played through the entire series of Mass Effect (2007-2012), you will know what I mean. Over the course of the three games, you develop intense relationships with the characters. You agonise over choices that you know might lead to their deaths; you feel like an embarrassed idiot if you say something that upsets them. The intensity and emotional power of the final Suicide Mission of Mass Effect 2 is something to behold. The fate of the galaxy truly feels like it is in your hands, and every moment is agonisingly intense. The game is a triumph of writing and design, melding gameplay, aesthetic and emotional engagement into one incredible ride. I’m not sure any other medium can provide the same sort of experience.
Will I argue, as some say, that video games are therefore superior to the more established forms of art? No, certainly not. Each form of art provides something that the others cannot. They should not be seen as competitors in any way or form; instead, they should be seen as complements. Video games are still in their adolescence, just as film and radio were before. Eventually it will break into the mainstream completely and be accepted as a viable and esteemed form of art.
Now excuse me. I have to go forth and conquer the galaxy in Stellaris.