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Can Video Games Be Art?

Wed, 02/17/2010 - 17:43 — J-Cat

Like everyone on this site, I love gaming. It's a fun diversion. I'm also a chick, which means I follow Oscars*. This year, as always were some pretty heavy stuff. Precious, Avatar, Hurt Locker... not lite faire. Which gets me thinking...

Where is the true art in gaming? Yes, games can tell a story... but the stories they tell are not the stuff of epic dramas. What we have so far is pretty much a straight summer blockbuster. Nothing wrong with a summer action flick... but it sure doesn't transcend the human condition. And I agree, there are some great stories: I have been told that Heavy Rain is such a game. But if we are honest (and literate) we can admit that the games we play, while fun, are not necessarily high culture.

For a game to really be called art, it would transcend the media: non-gamers would hear about it and think "Damn... I would love to experience that." Books, TV, plays, movies are all forms of entertainment that can, and have become more. Gaming isn't there yet.Why not? What is getting in gaming's way?

Gaming isn't an evolution of something we already have. We have had plays since the cave-man days. We became literate, and then we took our oral storytelling and wrote it down into books and scripts for plays. We don't know how the oral tradition changed once it became written. Or maybe we do... but that is stuff for eggheads smarter than I. Screw that, I only do so much research.

Movies were the first time technology drastically changed an art form. It started off as an entertaining, but technical feature. You could pay a dime and watch such riveting vignettes as "Man walks Down Street." Then we got silent movies that had a simple story, eventually telling great stories. These silent movies were still basically plays, but with a camera in front of it. Talkies came around and the genre had to adapt. Today movies are much more complex than these simpler times, however much is the same. You have actors acting out dialogue. There is a script written by a writer (playwright). A director takes charge. Yes, of course there are so much more to movies than this, but the evolution is still there... plays transformed into movies.

What about gaming? Gaming didn't come out of plays, but out of playing. Games didn't have a "high" tradition, but rather were the outcome of some geeks who wanted to have fun. And so, games aren't like anything we have seen. Okay, we have some movie elements: actors, scripts. Read the credits for a game and it really does seem like credits for a movie. However there are two main differences that we may not have our heads around yet.

The player controls the action. Let's think about this. I would love to sit Kathyrn Bigelow down ask her to make Mass Effect as a movie. "Okay We got a trilogy. Each segment is going to around 60 hours long, and the audience can stop and start the game at any time. It will take about a month for most people to finish your movie. The audience will control the camera angle. The audience will control the pacing. The audience will control which characters live and die. The audience controls what parts of the story happen and what time. Oh did I mention that some of the audience will have access to other story-lines. There will be a bunch of different endings depending on the choices you make and these choices follow you from part one through part three of the trilogy. Okay... go."

This sounds like an impossible task, even for directors that are great. Too many choices, too many variables. When you think of it that way, I am not sure that game developers have their heads around this mechanic. How do you give so much control to the audience, yet still maintain artistic integrity?

Tied in with player control is the reason for player control. That is gameplay: games kinda need that .. you know. To be a game and all. What does that mean? It has to be fun. What is "fun." Tragedy is universal. Fun is different to different people. Let's think of one genre, the first person shooter. Halo players do not find Call of Duty fun and vice versa**. What is fun for a Halo player is not fun for a Call of Duty player. You even get thin slices within a game. Some people play Halo, some play MLG Halo. Some people are serious Call of Duty players, some like to fuck around and shoot friends in the head. Each person has fun, but in a very different way.

Lastly, gaming is a very technical pursuit. A dude with a camcorder and some buddies can make a movie, and throw it up on youtube. But to make a game there needs a wide variety of talents. A writer (who can write this user controlled script). Animators to make a character move properly, and a voice actor to breathe life into that character. Some guy who can code all this shit. It seems to be such a diverse group of talents, some artistic and some incredibly technical. And importantly, someone to bankroll this venture. Someone who is willing to take a chance, to make a game that is artistically relevant, but may not make the money back in sales.

Perhaps the problem is that gaming came into being at a time when making money is key, and artistry is not.

But on the plus side... think about gaming in the 80's. The games usually didn't really have an ending, there was no real story at all. Gameplay regulated to platformer. Twenty years later and the medium has grown by leaps and bounds. No other media has grown so far, so fast. So maybe it will happen, and happen soon.

* Okay I only follow enough to be able to beat my man in our annual Oscar pool. I lost this year. James Cameron, you fucker. Try harder next time. And RDJ was HAWT and can pull off sneakers and a tux.

** Be quiet. I know that some people like both. But let's face it, even within a genre there are games we like and games we don't. Others disagree with our choices. So settle fanboy.

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