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Video Games as Art?

Can gaming be art?

First let’s get this point out of the way – video game makers are corporate entities.  Corporations have created the video game as a product to be consumed and sold to a mass audience.  The ultimate intent is to sell more copies.  That’s a big strike but even that’s not the biggie here; by that standard alone Schindler’s List would fail to qualify as art.  The real biggie is the fact that Schindler’s List was the brainchild of Steven Spielberg, a human being who molded his vision into art more as a labor of love and less as a commercial endeavor.  Of course the studios wanted to make money from it, but Spielberg wanted to tell a great story.   Video games, on the other hand, are seldom created with the aim of telling a great story – and no video game ever made can match the emotional power of Schindler’s List.  There may be a guy who earnestly tries to write great stories for video games, but after the script leaves his hands it falls to the technical department to craft it, and they don’t usually have the writer’s artistic ambitions in mind.    I think it’s useless to bother with creating great stories for video games; you really only want to play the damn thing.  Any story you write is in service to the gameplay, instead of the other way around.  I think that qualifies as a strike against it being art.  A big one.  Art is a human endeavor, not a corporate good to be consumed; the intent matters.

Let’s examine the idea of non-linear storytelling.  According to film critic Roger Ebert, non-linear storytelling can never be art because every alternate experience diminishes the emotional impact of the other; it no longer matters that Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the story because you can simply go back to a save point and make a different choice; perhaps they live, or maybe Juliet cheats on Romeo with Mercutio. You could develop multiple routes and endings, but each ending would be utterly meaningless; just another throwaway ending, another “unlockable”.  There is no coming back from death in Romeo and Juliet; that’s why their deaths matter. In linear storytelling, the ending is more valuable because you only get ONE.

The irony is that in each game there exists an official canon, rendering the point of non-linear storytelling moot.  Ryu is the hero in Street Fighter, and so only his “ending” counts.  Guile can’t get vengeance on Bison if Ryu gets to him first.  If we choose Bison to beat the game he rules the world – but by the next sequel he’s right back to being a would-be dictator.  Ultimately the choice of where the story goes resides with the video game maker; we don’t really have a choice. It defeats the purpose of non-linear storytelling. If Capcom wants an “official canon” for Street Fighter, you can’t choose between many characters; you can only choose Ryu – and you can only win. That’s right – if Capcom is writing a story where Ryu wins in the end, the interactivity only goes as far as you getting to control how Ryu wins.  You lose, he still wins, because by the time the next incarnation of Street Fighter rolls around he’s still the champion.  The offician canon is as close to a “story” as you’re going to get with video games; too bad canon isn’t the same thing as the video game itself.   Of course, you can try turning the canon into a book, or a film.  That’s very possible.   Yet the reason that films based on video games suck so poorly is that their stories are adapted from a medium that uses story as filler; story is not the point.  Try doing something more sophisticated with Super Mario Bros. than a Saturday morning cartoon.  A really bad cartoon.

The only way video games could be art would be in pushing the most literally artistic aspects of it; the visuals.   It’s such a subjective thing to talk about the aesthetic qualities of a video game vs. those of the Mona Lisa.  The video game, I would argue, is at a disadvantage because even the PS3’s graphics can’t look as rich and detailed as the Mona Lisa.  But that’s just one way of talking about artistry; what video game carries the symbolic weight of a Frida Kahlo?  The abstract exploration of a Willem De Kooning?   Honestly, how many of them even care about going beyond representational art?  When gamers talk about the art in a video game, they’re talking about how “real” the graphics look – and that’s about it.

Skill, not storytelling, is the critical component of a game; the most skilled player wins.  Ebert is also right, then, in saying that video games have more in common with sports than they do with art.  Skill is the heart of all video games, from Pong to Street Fighter.  Gaming by definition is not art.  It’s sport.  A mental sport, obviously.  A game, if you will.  In the end we’re talking about games.  We don’t consider playing chess an art; why Mortal Kombat?  Why Myst?  Or Shadow of the Colossus?  I came across IGN’s review of Shadow of the Colossus on Youtube recently, and the guy was all but blowing his load over this game.  The game is fun to play and look at, I’ll give him that.  But he was so THRILLED by the game!  He labeled it a work of art with the kind of glowing enthusiasm reserved for a Palme D’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival.   Art is so subjective, but let’s not get carried away.  Has this guys ever seen Pan’s Labyrinth?

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