More on Video Games & Art

Last week, guest poster Samael explored some interesting ground regarding the artistic merits of video games. Like Sam, I agree that it’s quite possible to argue that some games (though perhaps not all) have some value as art, even if they are mass entertainment. This week, I ran across a couple of links which I think add to the discussion nicely:

  • The Ten Greatest Years in Gaming: It’s an interesting list, in part, because I never considered any of these years particularly great. Why? Because I was never a bleeding edge gamer. For example, the first year they mention (1977) was before I was even born. 1986 started the NES trend, but I didn’t get mine until 3-4 years later. What this really means is that my favorite years are lagging behind the actual years… An interesting note, in 1993, when technology had progressed enough that games began to take on more artistic characteristics:

    CD-ROM drives were now available, and people bought them en masse, bolstered to a large extent by Nintendo PlayStation almost-ran Myst – a game which would become, and remain for some years, the highest-selling PC game of all time. Between Myst and The 7th Guest, the template was essentially down for mass-market PC games: actors, big budgets, ray-traced graphics, and arbitrary puzzles. It all seemed neat at first. They were almost like movies!

    When you look at some of the things that were done (and are still being done) in gaming, it’s difficult to categorize their artistic merits. Take Silent Hill 2 (from 2001):

    Every element in the game, from the inventory to the monsters, reflected an element of the main character’s personality. Every action the player took – even inaction – was tracked and analyzed in psychological terms. Depending on what the player’s actions said about the main character’s state of mind, the game ultimately read a different motive for the protagonist, therefore gave him a different conclusion to his journey.

    So this game is not only telling a story, it’s changing the story on the fly based on how you play the game. I’ve never actually played that game, but it sounds like art to me, and it sounds like it’s something that goes above and beyond traditional art (which I guess you’d expect from a more interactive medium). Other games that year played with people’s perceptions and otherwise began to show a more mature

    Those new fans were mostly made up of people who had been growing restless with the brainless, essentially unquestioning nature of videogames to date – those Nintendo fans who had grown older still and now were looking for some deeper meaning in their hobby – not so much legitimacy as an art form, as just some kind of actual inspiration – some emotional or intellectual meat to keep them interested. And this was the year that they started to get their wish; that, in place of real hardware or design innovations, videogames began to innovate in the realm of mature expression.

    People started to think differently of videogames: thus the (frankly kind of misguided) “games as art” and “new games journalism” movements. People began to write about them differently, analyze them differently. Take them more seriously – because games were starting to appear that were worth taking seriously. And there was much conflict.

    Have we really turned the corner, though? Gaming has certainly grown a lot over the years, to the point where I think a lot of games can tell a story that is worth telling, but is the medium where it really needs to be? This leads to the next article I ran across:

  • Why There Are No Great Video Game Critics (Yet): John Scalzi responds to the question of why video games, today’s dominant form of mass entertainment, have yet to develop a body of interesting criticism. Scalzi is extremely thorough in answering the question. For example, video games haven’t been around all that long:

    Video games are no longer anywhere near new — the first home consoles came out in the 1970s, and Space Invaders is on the verge of its 30th anniversary — but it’s only been in the last decade or so that consoles and computers have become powerful enough to allow the sort of meaningful interactive narrative that is the hallmark of video game storytelling. You can argue with me on the specifics, but I think the first truly notable interactive video game narrative presentation was Myst, which dates back only a dozen years. Other people might choose Civilization (1991) or SimCity (1989) instead, and I think those are valid choices, too. But however you chop it up, the video game as a criticism-worthy medium is, at best, about fifteen years old, and to my mind it’s only been since the emergence of Half-Life (1998) that there has been a substantial number of games worthy of genuine criticism. So we’re talking less than a decade’s worth of games worthy of criticism.

    Now, let’s go back to the examples of critics offered earlier: Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs. Pauline Kael began writing film criticism in the 1950s, but only really became Pauline Kael when she started writing for New Yorker in 1967. By the time Kael made her name, film, as an artistic medium, was six decades old and artistically significant films had been made for half a century. It was a mature (if still radically evolving) medium. Likewise, Lester Bangs started reviewing rock in 1969, fifteen years after rock and roll emerged as its own genre, and of course decades after pop music of any sort had become a fertile ground for criticism — and pop music in general (as opposed to rock itself) should arguably be the metric we use for the medium.

    Another reason we don’t have prominent critics:

    You actually have to be able to play the video games. Useful and valid criticism requires some academic knowledge of the field you want to criticize. But once you’ve got that, the input portion of criticism is generally pretty easy: With film, you (primarily) watch with your eyes. With music, you (primarily) listen with your ears. You’re done. Video games, however, require an additional skill, and that is to be able to play the game. Therein lies a problem: The hermeneutics of video games require a whole lot of button-mashing. How many critics are both able to get through a boss level and tell you what it means as a social construct? In the future, probably a lot. At the moment: Not so many.

    The post is excellent and highly recommended.

  • The End of the Affair: Tying in more with the Novelty discussion from a few weeks ago, Clive Anderson’s article in Wired begins with a perfect example:

    One day a few weeks ago, I picked up Burnout: Revenge — the superb new car-racing and -smashing game — and within an hour I was hooked. I abandoned all work, blew my writing deadlines and ignored my wife. The few moments when I could pry myself from the console, I’d fantasize about when I could return. It seemed like I’d never be able to stop, and indeed, like any addict, I didn’t want to.

    Until suddenly, after two weeks of monomaniacal play, everything ended. I finished a three-hour binge of racing, clicked off my Playstation 2, and … it was over. My compulsion had vanished. I still enjoyed the game, and had plenty more challenges to complete. But I didn’t need to play it any more.

    I think we’ve all had this experience with a few games. A little while ago, I wrote a series of posts on the excellent Galactic Civilizations II, which I had played almost non-stop for a few weeks… but then, I haven’t played the game since then. This happens all the time. In fact, I recently picked up God of War for the playstation 2. I’ve played for a significant portion of the weekend and enjoyed myself (for the most part), but I can already feel it slipping from my consciousness. If I haven’t finished the game in a week or so, I doubt I ever will…

That’s all for now…