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Videogames and Art: Does it matter?

In Shadow of the Colossus, you control a lone figure riding a steed across a vast expanse of land; the few scattered trees that puncture through the earth serve only to be juxtaposed against the desolate, lifeless land they inhabit. In Braid, the gameplay becomes a living portrayal of the themes of the narrative as your ability to rewind time echoes the emotions of regret and remorse that pervade the game’s metaphors. In Ico, you must directly guide your companion through an empty ruin; their role as your only companion and your role as their guardian protector creates an experience of real anxiety and stress when they are separated from you.

It’s difficult to argue that games lack any form of artistic merit; the effects of visual metaphor and stylisation as well as emotional plots and characters seem only to be heightened when the audience can directly interact with them. However, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers and novelists”. Gaming has yet to find a work as worthy of appraisal as those of Picasso or Hemmingway. But does this mean that videogames are not art at all?

Within the debate on the nature of art, there are two prominent views. Some try to objectify art under a strict definition. Plato viewed art as the imitation of nature and Kant as that which “promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication”. The problem with this is that for any definition, there is almost always an exception. In light of this, there’s a temptation to take a subjective approach to art; the idea that everything can be art and that it’s purely down to the individual’s experience. The view of the subjectivists is an appealing one and it raises the question of whether defining the limits of art, and the place of video games within or beyond them, is a viable or indeed a worthwhile endeavour; simply put, does it matter?

Within the USA, there’s often been attempts to subjugate videogames to state censorship on the basis that they are ‘obscene’; containing content that would be considered offensive to the average member of the community. The defense against these accusations argues that videogames are protected under the first amendment of the constitution because of the artistic value the medium exhibits. The censorship of literature and film has become a thing of the past but for videogames it’s still a real threat; as an emerging medium of expression it is imperative to defend its artistic merit, both politically and culturally, else we may see the right to that expression stripped away.

However, there’s a more personal element to this debate. By recognising videogames as artistically significant, we also legitimise the creative process of the developers. The video game BAFTAS are a key example of this, where critically acclaimed games are formally recognised for their achievements. By granting great video games artistic validity in the eyes of the ‘intellectual elite’, we both support and inspire the creative process.

And that’s the real importance of this debate; if we want to see more emotionally charged interactions within videogames that carry a truly contemplative poignancy, we need to convince the industry that they are capable of it. Conversely, if you tell designers that they’re crafters of cheap thrills and children’s toys we are going to see adrenaline charged games (i.e. modern warfare) dominate and ultimately define the medium. If we want to see truly brilliant games that can compete with the great artists and poets, we must begin by convincing the industry that it’s possible. Therein lies the importance of the debate surrounding art and video games and why we must pursue the objective artistic justification thereof, not made pessimistic by, but in spite of the presumed unattainability of that goal.

Thomas Mackay 

Editor’s Note: The Gamer’s Guide is our brand spanking new Video Games blog. Whether you’re a massive game conventions keeno, or just someone who longs for those good, old days of button-mashing to Tekken, Tom’s blog is open to all and everyone. He’ll be looking for as much interaction with his readers as possible, so feel free to comment below! 

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One Comment
  • David
    20 February 2012 at 13:47
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    “However, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers and novelists”.”

    Ignoring that the valid comparison for him to have made would be comparing games to inidivdual poems/films/books, surely there’s a problem with that kind of idea in general as arguably the great strength, and key difference, that games have in this kind of regard is their interactivity?

    Take something like last year’s indie hit Bastion – the gameplay itself was fun enough, but not particularly spectacular, but it stood out because of a combination of the stylistic choices made with the graphics and the dynamic narration, the latter in particular (but both to some degree) reacting to what the player does, or doesn’t do. The game itself had something of an emotinal resonance as a result, to me at least, but that came from the feeling of actually being the protagonist and that they story was being told about YOU and what you did, not simply kicking back in when you got to a particular point in the form of a cut-scene.

    But equally, there does seem to be something of a double standard at work to some degree too when assessing the aesthetic merit in some contexts. For example, take a film like Saving Prvate Ryan and the much heralded horrific realism of the D Day landings – indeed, the “best battle scene of all time” (Empire Magazine) – and think of all of the issues that are brought forward whenever we take a step towards an ever more realistic depection in the world of computer games – the leap of the GTA series into 3D, the ‘realism’ of some of the shocking moments in the latter day Modern Warfare games – outside of the gaming media (and in the case of the MW2 airport stuff, not even within it) they aren’t taken all that well. It’s perhaps a bad example as the events of D Day bring an emotional impact of their very own, but it’s not a stretch to imagine the reaction may not have been/will not be as glowing if it was portrayed so graphically in a game.

    Although to an extent I think games should be taken more seriously, and in some cases judged for their artistic merit, it would perhaps be detramental to the industry as a whole if things were judged on that alone, and that’s what I fear that ‘mainstream’ critical acceptance might actually involve. While there’s no reason that the artistic merit of a game and the interactive experience of playing them have to be an either/or choice, I think it’s often already the case that graphics get more attention than gameplay both from developers themselves at times, and certainly in reviews, and going further down that road isn’t a good thing for the medium at large.

    Perhaps the games industry is just like the others that Ebert talks about. For every classic there’s a blockbuster title that may or may not be any good, an indie/cult hit that never gets enough recognition, works that aren’t appreciated until after their own time, and often those categories are not mutually exclusive. Alongside this there countless piles of utter trash, continuations of stories that shouldn’t have been made, and those that try to follow in the magic that others have created by trying to imitate it.

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