Sunday, June 17, 2007

Are video games a form of art?

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
Those words are from Roger Ebert in 2005, when he caused a firestorm with his assertion that video games are inherently not a form of art. Whether you agree with him or not, the ensuing debate was interesting. Unfortunately, Ebert's credibility was suspect, since by his own admission he lacked familiarity with modern video games. And his statement sounds just like the sort of narrow-minded declaration that's almost asking to be discredited. A couple of generations ago, most people would have scoffed at the idea that comic books are art; nowadays, that idea has gained increasingly wide acceptance (though the respected comic books carry a new name, graphic novels).

Still, I understand where Ebert is coming from. And I say this as someone who knows even less about modern video games than he does. I largely stopped playing them when I was a teenager. I felt that I wasn't getting out of them anywhere near as much as I was putting into them. They were an enjoyable diversion, but left me feeling drained when I spent too much time with them.

I'm aware that video games have increased in sophistication since the days of Nintendo, by huge orders of magnitude. And apparently some gamers think these are works of the human imagination that deserve comparison with great works of literature--or at least that they have that potential, even if the genre is in its infancy right now.

If you think that video games will never be Shakespeare, I should remind you that most people in Shakespeare's time would have laughed at the idea that his plays would be studied centuries later. Most of his plays weren't even published during his lifetime. And it took a long time before critics viewed them as serious works of literature, much less ranked him as the greatest writer in the English language.

Nowadays, people study the heavily footnoted texts of Shakespeare's plays in a manner that the Bard himself would never have envisioned. Is it possible that a similar process will happen with computer games? Will students of the future be studying games in the classroom, in a format that would perplex the original designers?

I debated these issues with someone on a message board a few years ago. He took the position that some video games have achieved an artistic level comparable to great literature and film; I was skeptical, even while admitting my ignorance. It was a nice debate, and I think we both ended up learning something. I learned from him that some modern video games--notably adventure games--have fairly complex narratives, with even the rudiments of character development. But I managed to persuade him that the very nature of video games cuts against the kind of complexity found in literature and film.

Traditionally, games have nothing to do with art. Chess may be a high intellectual activity, but it isn't really a form of art. What all art forms have in common, whether they be paintings, sculptures, poems, novels, plays, films, or comic books, is that the viewer contributes nothing to them beyond his own imagination. Interactive fiction (like the Choose Your Own Adventure series for kids) has always remained a minor phenomenon.

Computers have the potential to blur that line, however, creating games with a high degree of artistic content in terms of both graphics and narrative. But there is a limit. The only way they could achieve full artistic status is if they stopped being games.

I'll give an example from an old game I used to play, Infocom's text adventure The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, based on the Douglas Adams novel. The novel contains a scene where Arthur is at a party trying pick up a girl, when another guy comes along and catches her attention by saying he's from another planet. Your goal in the game, as a player, is to make sure the scene happens exactly as it did in the book. You can have no effect on Arthur's chances of getting the girl. Arthur is a loser. That's part of the script. Even if in real life you're God's gift to women, as computer game addicts are known to be, you're not going to change what Arthur's like. The game has a lot of puzzles that require brain power, but your personality doesn't affect the outcome.

Would it be possible to create a game where your personality does make a difference? I can imagine it now. It will be called SimFlirt. Your objective is to go to a party and pick up a girl. (Or, if you are a girl, then you pick up a guy. Or, if you're gay...never mind.) Whether you succeed depends on what you do or say.

Of course, such a game would never compare to a novel or a film. The range of possible outcomes would still be relatively limited. If a character in a computer game can have any level of depth, then it must be written into the game's narrative, without the player having much influence. The problem is that the player's very presence dilutes this process. Games simply are not a good medium for exploring the nuances of human behavior, at least not to the degree found in literature.

The point here is that games are different, not inferior. They serve a different purpose. I'm reminded of something Orson Scott Card said in his 1990 book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy: "In a fantasy, if magic has no limitations, the characters are omnipotent gods; anything can happen, and so there's no story. There have to be strict limits on magic. Dungeons and Dragons uses a seniority system that may work well for games, but for stories it is truly stupid: The longer you manage to stay alive, the more spells you know and the more power you have" (p. 31).

Note Card's implication that what works well in a game isn't believable in fiction. I would go further and suggest that what works in fiction isn't suited to a game. Even games with narratives, like D&D and computer adventure games, do not require the same suspension of disbelief as fiction does. That's because the narrative is only a means to an end, whereas in fiction the narrative is central. Perhaps the computer adventure games of today put a greater focus on narrative than ever before. But there comes a point when the integrity of the narrative must bow to the integrity of the game. Everything in a game falls back on the player's choices, and by giving the player choices, the narrative inevitably suffers.

If video games are blurring the distinction by taking on many artistic qualities, the question is how far they can go while still remaining games. And while there will always be people who devote their precious hours to these games, their impact may remain marginal simply because they forge that impossible middle ground between the artistic and the recreational.

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