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Video games as art

I think you will spend 261 seconds reading this post

One of the issues I have a fairly big stake in is the intellectual argument about video games as art. I seriously doubt that in this short blog post, I’ll even scratch the surface of my thoughts on this subject, but I feel like I should get something down.

I follow Roger Ebert’s twitter feed, and I really appreciate his commentary on film and his opinions, but one place we absolutely differ is when it comes to video games as art. Mr. Ebert recently tweeted a writer from his site, Michael Mirasol, and the discussion that his defense of video games had generated (read it here). Given that I’m usually surrounded dally by like-minded opinions at work all day, it hadn’t really occurred to me how the “mainstream” feels about the video game/art debate. Mirasol reminded me that Ebert’s himself has said that video games will never be considered art. I don’t think I can, in the space of this particular post (and while I’m on my iPad), explain why he’s wrong, but what I can do is probably provide a bit of framework for the debate.

I graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in film and media studies. The reason I chose to pursue a film major is not because I love film or because I wanted an easy major (prior to majoring in film, I’d finished 3/4ths of a pure mathematics degree), but because the educational establishment has not yet recognized video games as a legitimate field of study. Yet film and video games are essentially one and the same beast.

Even a cursory analysis of the history of film shows that it grew from idle children’s distractions (like the zoopraxiscope, a “flip book” on a wheel) to inventions that combined the best technological advancements (and minds- Thomas Edison had a large hand in the birth and popularization of the medium) of a generation to provide… What content? 5 second salacious clips of two relatively old people kissing? A 30 second staged film of a train arriving? No sound or color…? Hammy overacting…? People rail against violent video games, but film can claim such minor shames as reigniting the Ku Klux Klan within 20 years of its inception. Video games are approximately 40 years old and have yet to reinspire an entire generation to hate again.

Any scholar looking at this upstart medium in the early 20th century: the lurer of children, the domain of Jews (when being a non-Christian was anathema – and yes, I’m familiar with research that showed there was not any real disproportionate ownership of Jewish cinemas than other groups, but we’re talking about perception here), the purveyor of moral turpitude, the vehicle of pornography and cheap thrills, would be hard pressed to say that by the end of that century, that it would be cemented in the minds of the upper echelons of the educational establishment that film is, of course, an art.

Of course, it would be unfair to judge cinema by what it was at it’s start to what it became. But the visionaries of the day certainly saw it’s potential. And scholars saw the way human subjectivity was expressed through the medium- how a story told by this director or acted out by that actress was different than the story expressed by another director or actress, and how meaning was made by that transaction. Scholars saw how the audience surrendered themselves to the screen, and imagined themselves as the camera, their eyes becoming the objective lens that swept through scenes. Scholars, as they are wont to do, saw penises where there were only spires, great communist struggles where there were only bored office workers and patriarchical oppression in Rudolph Valentino in a bathing suit (newsflash: Rudy was a dude)… The point is, they saw themselves in it. They saw the mirror that is art.

To make a one-to-one comparison between film and video games would be illogical, though. Each is a medium that has different potentials, different means of achieving that. Film purists (who I will define as people who believe film to be an art to the exclusion of video games) will mention that video games embody a competitive aspect that forces it away from a representation of reality, for instance. Yet they do not point to the fact that the narrative structure of (nearly all) film is in no way reflective of reality, which is not always parceled out into neat heaps of acts. Film purists also tend to be largely ignorant of the massive body of theory in game design, which sets up a relationship between the audience and the game designer, who is communicating the vision not just of his or her self, but the vision of hundreds of creative professionals who work incredibly hard to craft an experience. Whether that experience is the thrill of completing a goal or the melancholy of loss (both of which are typical abstract goals in both film and video games), it is a focused experience intended to invoke a real reaction in its consumer. If there was another point to art, someone’d better inform me.

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