May 30, 2010

Games As Art?

It's a huge gray area right now- video games being a medium of high art, that is. I'm a bit of a gamer myself so I guess it was high time that I gave a bit of my thoughts on the matter. Much attention has been given towards Roger Ebert's thoughts on the matter, and while I usually agree with most of Ebert's opinions, I just can't shake the fact that, yes I'm saying it, Ebert knows almost squat about video games. Simply put, he probably already doesn't know what he's saying about the matter.

Really, it's all a matter of defining what these words are and understanding these words in the correct perspective. Modern video games exude a lot of adjectives that range from "overly sexualized" to "gorgeously interactive". Like any form of media, the video game has its ups as well as its downs, and in that sense, if you call the motion picture and the TV show forms of artistic expression, bastardizations and all, then video games are definitely a part of "art" in that respect.

A painting is considered art, but that painting could either look really good, or be extremely bad. Perhaps, some paintings can only be appreciated by having an acquired taste, just like how there are movies that engage viewers of another demographic. They inspire debate, they inspire conversation, and they just simply inspire. Video games, in all counts, do the same, if not in an even more escalated form.

Perfect example of an escalated point of conversation comes in the form of most any Rockstar game, really. Grand Theft Auto, for all its pointless violence and hot beverages, is a video game that allows its makers to express their satirical views on society's deranged perception of personalities like homosexuals and immigrants. This series of video games make an effort to get a message out and be relevant, but in a way that they almost become cloaked in a blanket of overexposed media coverage about its violence and sexual themes. Art, by definition, portrays the culture that surrounded its creator/s- our progenitors; and Grand Theft Auto is very much a good example of that. More recently, another Rockstar video game, Red Dead Redemption, also covers some solid ground despite its Spaghetti Western themes.

In the aesthetic viewpoint of art, a huge load of video games already achieve a certain level of artistry that can rival the "modern art" that comes with strange sculptures and modern photography. In fact, some games achieve the effect of being a throwback to the art of old times passed. Okami, which is about Japan's sun god Amaterasu, is practically a traditional Japanese painting from start to finish. This game uses cel-shading techniques that would just look tacky in other media formats like movies, and achieves an engrossing effect that can't be found anywhere else. Arguably, its painting effect outdoes Sin City's, even though their art styles are radically different in contrast.

Hell, how about Assassin's Creed 2? The creators had to go around Europe and research on its landmarks, as well as estimate the state they were in during the Renaissance. As a result, some of the landmarks in the game are in a state that's still in construction, and the realism with the execution of the world is astounding. You won't be able to look at any singular detail in a movie unless you have the time to sit down and rewind through footage. While attention to detail is much appreciated in that medium, it's so much more appreciated in video games, because the player can actually approach something and admire the hard work that went into, say, the area around Florence, Italy.

That said, there's another side to the coin; the other edge of the sword, if you'll allow, to this debate. Some professor of philosophy named Barton Odom said that video games are simply not art, because they do not endure; they date easily, and you'll dump them when the next generation of consoles come out. A lot is true about that statement; it's true that many people don't bother playing their Nintendo 64's anymore, when they have a PS3. But how is it that up until now, the more than 20 year old Super Mario Bros. is still making such an impression on pop culture? Practically everyone knows the layout of its iconic first world, affectionately called World 1-1, and about every other single outlet of medium that is considered art- movies, TV, even paintings and sketches- have at least one example of an allusion to this very video game, even if you do eliminate the horrific disaster that was The Mario Bros. Movie.

More and more people are even appreciative of their old Nintendo Entertainment Systems or their Sega Genesis because they've actually collected a bit of value; and I'm not just talking monetary, but nostalgic as well. Let's put this in movie talk, then. The first time you were able to watch Star Wars, it was revelatory. You watch it a few years later and it seems a bit dated, perhaps a bit cheesy, but the nostalgia value is just oh-so awesome. The same thing applies to games like Zelda or Wolfenstein. The latter even got a re-release, and it was done for a reason. Any creation, when done with love and likewise received with the same affection, can endure the test of time. In a decade or two, people will still know what World 1-1 is, people will still know what Metroid is, and people will most definitely know what the hell a NES is.

And yet, shooters are simply a hard example to back up in this argument (barring Bioshock and Half-Life), because they simply don't have the same level of emotional involvement that comes with other media. Racing games, simulation games and action games, with some exceptions, apply as well. Then again, there's absolutely zero emotional involvement (in a man's part, at the very least) when you go see Sex and the City 2 either. That movie is also as shallow and as masturbatory (in the sense of wish-fulfillment) as the next Leisure Suit Larry game.

Ultimately, someone may dismiss video games as something far from an art form because it's just pretty images and a person sitting down on a couch pushing buttons (or waggling like hell). If that's the case, wouldn't movies ultimately be a person (or a number of people) sitting down on a couch and staring at images? Case here is that people's perceptions about video games may be a tad bit too dumbed down. Movies, people will argue, offer an emotionally invested medium of entertainment and thought-provoking storytelling, and so do games, but in that case, the player is in control of the story, and it makes him even more emotionally invested; even more challenged- physically even.

There's a strong case to be made with the gray area of video games becoming a form of art, and yet, there's something about them that just doesn't feel like art. Not yet.

But why should we even care about video games becoming art? Why can't video games be video games? As in, video games should not be the tertiary group of a primary classification, why can't they just be a new form all its own that operates alongside art and technology? It shouldn't have to be a derivation of a singular form, it can always be its own form; its own identity.

"It's not 'art', it's a 'video game'."

Yeah, I like that sound of that.

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