A change this time. I’ll be back having “Random thoughts of the week” very soon, but for now, here is a guest post by a good friend of mine. I asked Michael to write me a post for this on any topic, he chose “Games are Art.” Here it is! I enjoyed the read, hope you guys did too.
Games are Art? By Michael Arnold
Video games are a rather young medium, and are just now entering a precarious puberty and maturity. Much like films during their earliest days, video games are yet to fully secure a respectable place in the opinions of some people. Some people still see them as an idle, rather lame medium of art and entertainment. This is now despite the fact that it is now comfortably a multi-billion dollar industry, and the logical potential of them as art. We need only see the potential for sophistication and ‘art’ in the big and lavish, so called ‘triple A’, video games that are making use of the huge advances in available technology and computing power, and the huge audiences games have as a medium to generate large amounts of money – money needed to fully exploit the improving technology to create ever more ambitious projects, and ever more detailed and realistic worlds for players to virtually inhabit.
The fact that some video games are being made now that are expensive than the biggest Hollywood blockbuster productions is nothing but a sign of how seriously they are being taken as an industry and form of entertainment. However, this seriousness is not the same thing as artistic credibility. Final proof of artistic credibility is still something that eludes video games as a medium, although it certainly has a few good examples of games that it can be argued are good examples of art worthy of serious respect and attention.
First, before we delve into specific examples, it would be verse wise to define ‘art’ as it is being used in this context. In a few words, ‘art’ as we are using it here refers to a piece of entertainment that consciously and carefully attempts to communicate a sophisticated philosophically-based critique of, or comment on something of serious interest to the real world. What matters for our purposes is the intention of the game and why it was made: just to entertain, or to make the gamer think about an issue or concept in a new way. This is far from a perfect definition of ‘art’, and is not intended to be one however, but for our purposes and in the context of video games it is the best way to think about games that deal with more complicated concepts.
So now we have our subject, games with a sophisticated message to convey, we should perhaps give some examples to show the kinds of games we are thinking about here in the concept of artistry in video games. A game series like Fallout often plays on philosophical concepts under the radar. The cheering, happy iconography in the game advertising material is in stark contrast to the unrelentingly bleak post-apocalyptic world Fallout portrays. This contrast is so great even is a part in the dark humour of the series: you will see giant posters promoting the good life, a brighter tomorrow and the American Dream while the corpse of some junkie raider is hanging upside down and on fire beside it, while all around is the post-nuclear holocaust ruined remains of a futuristic American landscape that failed in atomic fire because of the very virtues the posters celebrate. What, in short, are we hiding from ourselves? Fallout New Vegas even has philosophical arguments for democracy as a form of government with the NCR, or the alternatives: such as fascism expressed with Caesar’s legion, or the William Gibson-esque technocracy Mr. House wanted for the city of New Vegas. To fully appreciate that game, these philosophical considerations must be taken into consideration by the player – a crash course in political philosophy also could not hurt.
Another game that really pushes the boundaries of games as an art form is Silent Hill 2, a game that asks very troubling questions about the morality of Euthanasia, and also is a vivid illustration of the different ways people can suffer. Throughout the game we find four other characters who are going through a similar experience to James Sunderland. Laura: who had a tragic history of rape and domestic abuse, Eddie: who was bullied into shooting a dog, and Laura: an innocent young girl. Laura stands as essentially the control group of the game experience, she had no personal demons and so did not suffer in any way during the game, not seeing any of the town’s monsters at all. The town, as a possibly conscious will, is however making Eddie, James and Laura see monsters, and what they see plays on their own emotional baggage, which takes a possible influence from the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder. Laura sees manifestations of her own dark past, and even sees James Sunderland and thinks he is her mother before she tragically accepts her fate as the victim of fate, and climbs a set of burning stairs to her presumable death with complete willingness. Eddie, on the other hand, gives in in another way, by giving into his violent impulses and attempts to gun down everything he meets. If he cannot be accepted by society, he will take revenge on society in a mindset eerily echoing the motivation behind so many mass shootings. James, however, fights back against his personal demons. If he wins against them, and how, is up to the actions of the player, but the important thing is he fights for his own soul. The point of the game, then, is about a ‘spiritual’ (I use that word not necessarily in reference to religion) struggle to find peace with yourself after committing some a wrong of some kind. Add this on thee the layer of meaning about Euthanasia, James’s deed was committed because of his wife’s suffering and his own various frustrations because of her suffering, Silent Hill 2 is a game that like Fallout is multi-layered, and using the same things to convey different but obviously related ideas.
There are also games that tackle philosophical subjects directly. BioShock 1 discusses and critiques Ayn Rand and Objectivism. BioShock Infinite discusses American Exceptionalism, albeit very very badly, and without any apparent thought on the subject outside of it being the Imperialism of the United States. Spec Ops: The Line discusses Existentialism the darkness of the human condition in relation to warfare, and how morality can be twisted given high pressure situations, all in a story that is eerily reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s excellent novella Heart of Darkness – a novella about the darkness of the human condition and our capacity for evil, which in a sense is also what Spec Ops: The Line is about, but it is not as strong a theme in the game as it is in the Conrad novella. There are also games in the independent market that also deal with complex themes in an artistically sophisticated way as the games we have been discussing here, and the reader is encouraged to think about the games and stories they play with much more detail and interpretation like this.
With all of this said, it seems like video games as a medium are already respected as an artistic medium, all they need are more intelligent developers in the way films had intelligent directors like Hitchcock and Bergman, who made films that caught critical and serious attention from art critics. However, video games are unfortunately still seen as an idle diversion from real art like (and especially) reading literature. However, video games have what books do not, they can force players, and people, into morally ambiguous situations and then have the players see and deal with the results of their actions. Games also have the ability to hold more people’s attentions for long periods of time, much longer than books or literature can for most people. So video games have a great potential to be a really serious artistic medium, and should be respected as such. It just needs more examples of good art, and (I want to argue) less examples of simple games that only aim to amuse, because if we are to have culture and art at all, it must be populist – or it no longer becomes culture. And if there is no culture, what would we have to think about some very important topics in a way that is both challenging and fun as well.