Jul 23rd, 2012
Games: The Underdog of Artistic Media
No, I don’t talk about Limbo in the article, but I think there is a relevant metaphor here somewhere. (and if you don’t know what Limbo is, please do yourself a favor and find out)

Have you ever spent time in a Gamestop? I don’t mean stopping in to make a quick purchase or browse their selection, I mean really spend time in one. Do you take notice of the sorts of people walking in and out, listen to random conversations people have, or listen to the way the cashiers try to sell products to clueless consumers? It is an experience I haven’t had in quite a long time, until recently.

The corporate puppets tempted me with a tantalizing deal, and my indecisiveness led to me spending a rather excessive amount of time in the store to the point where I gave up on browsing. I just started people watching and taking in the stuffy, cramped atmosphere. I watched the cashier try to sell a repeat customer a copy of Red Dead Redemption with nothing more than saying it was “open world.” Then there were the teenagers who just wanted to find a game where they could run around and murder people. Then the best thing of all happened; the cashier turned his attention to me and opened with the assumption I knew nothing about the games I held in my hand. It was then when I realized something: when it comes to gamers, I am a minority.

I don’t mean to say that the majority of gamers are ill-informed, but this experience was negative enough to kick me off of my cloud and send me crashing back to reality. I have developed a circle of close friends who love games in the way I do: we see them as new forms of artistic expression with the ability to evoke meaningful emotion in ways that other entertainment media aren’t capable. Surrounding myself with these kinds of people for long enough made it easy to forget that plenty of people just don’t care about games in the way I do, even if they claim to be enthusiasts. And so I conclude this: games are the underdog of narrative media. Despite massive sales, constant marketing, and huge numbers of fans worldwide, games just don’t get enough respect, not even from gamers themselves. The question is why, and how we can change that.

Hint: this wasn’t the answer

Toys and Art

The question likely has to start with the aging issue of whether or not videogames are considered art. If we consider art to be, by its most basic definition, the expression of human creativity; then yes, games are definitely art. Now we can move onto the real issue, which is the mature appreciation of the medium and having game criticism considered a study equal to film criticism in its complexity and respectability.

My conjecture regarding the status of games in the eyes of the vast majority of the public is the notion that they are merely toys. Truthfully, if we consider a toy to be, by its most basic definition, something that is used for play; then video games are in fact toys. I think that is where all of the serious misconceptions about games begin. The idea that games are toys, and that toys are traditionally items that children use to waste time and have fun, would explain why parents believe that its acceptable for their children to play Call of Duty. Or why an 8 year old asked me if he should play Assassin’s Creed. It would also explain the negative stereotypes of older hardcore gamers and why playing games past a certain age is considered strange and lazy.

But we tend to forget that adult society has embraced toys in ways that should be incredibly obvious, in what we know as sports. Using the base definition of toy, items that are used in sports can easily be defined as toys. A ball in any form is a toy, and yet I recently watched two adult men knock a ball back and forth in the Wimbledon championship under the watchful eye of many rich and proper adults, including a member of the British Royal family. Tennis is indeed two men playing with a toy, but this is overlooked by many respectable adults. Admittedly, this comparison is largely irrelevant (with the exception of e-sports, but I will not argue for or against that here), though sets a precedent that games and toys can be recognized as worthwhile endeavors.

In my version of the game, Murray wins.

Bias Against Games

It’s also worth mentioning that bias exists against the term “game” itself. As noted by Jane McGonigal in Reality is Broken, the English language consists of several sayings and expressions that use the word “game” and its derivatives such as “gaming the system,” “don’t play games with me,” and “this isn’t a game.” All of these phrases reinforce the idea that games, not just videogames mind you, are bad and should remain divorced from real life issues. These phrases permeate the English language in such totality that it is virtually impossible to remove them from our collective conscience, meaning that preconditioned bias against games is likely to remain a problem.

A prevalent trend in game criticism that has largely proven to be destructive is the endless comparison of videogames to film. It makes sense, given that videogames are more similar to film than any other creative medium, and have grown even more similar as graphics, animation, and voice performances improve. But the constant comparison of videogames to film does our medium a disservice for a multitude of reasons, perhaps the most important of which being the devaluation of games’ identity as games. Take the Uncharted series, for example, which has been repeatedly been called a series of “playable action movies” (a comment mostly directed towards the latter two games in the series). Admittedly, this summation of the games’ appeal is somewhat apt, given the similarities between the Uncharted and Action/Adventure blockbuster films, especially the Indiana Jones series.

So when do I get to shoot something?

However, when analyzing the phrase “playable action movie” as a complement in and of itself, without any of the implications that may be present in the context of the articles it may have appeared in, it becomes something of a derogatory statement about games as a whole. Accusing a game of being a “playable action movie” suggests that the aspects of the game that are most reminiscent of film are what make the game as a whole worthwhile, rather than the elements of the game that are unique to its medium. It also suggests that aspects of the game such as quality of the graphics, motion capture, acting, and general characterization are being judged on the standard of film rather than the standard of games, which implies that films are reliably superior than games. This is becoming less and less true with each new generation of games.

Standards of their Own

The absolute worst implication of comparing games to film is that video games should work to evoke emotion in the same ways that film does, which is likely a result of the core similarity of video games and film: their ability to tell the audience a story via moving pictures. However, the ways that films and video games evoke emotions in their respective audiences are very different; specifically, the way games can use their interactivity to engage the audience in ways that film cannot, and the way film can consistently use certain camera angles and/or real human actors in ways that games cannot. And yet, games aspiring to be films are not only accepted, but occasionally celebrated. Such is the case with Metal Gear Solid 4 and Final Fantasy XIII offering a much more impressive (and in MGS4’s case, longer) cinematic experience than an interactive one. If games are to progress, then interactivity must not be squandered nor taken for granted.

Camera perspective… controlled. Player involvement… controlled

I feel the need to offer some brief clarification before my arguments about film and games are misconstrued. I am not, by any means, suggesting that games should be treated as though they exist in a vacuum, and should not be compared if such a comparison is truly relevant. I merely want to convey that games are different enough from film that they should be appreciated in different ways, and judged on their own standards, not those of another medium.

The Parallels of Evolution

In fact, if we are collectively going to hold film to such a high standard, it is necessary that we look to the past and understand the process it went through, and why it makes sense that games have not reached that level of acceptance yet. Motion pictures have been shown publicly to audiences for 116 years now, starting with an exhibition at Koster and Bial’s music hall in 1896. Early films were completely silent and lacked any sort of narrative structure, and were viewed as a new form of visual art (acting as the logical progression of photography). It was not until the 1900s when scenes began being stitched together into narratives in films such as The Birth of a Nation and A Trip to the Moon leading to the rise of fictional film and the Hollywood scene.

As films continued to progress with elements such as sound, color, and new filming and acting techniques, narrative film became worthy of criticism as an art form. Magazines like Sight and Sound (founded in 1934) and Sequence (1947) became early pioneers of film criticism, which was later revolutionized by French Magazine Cahiers du Cinéma in the 50s. It was not until the early 60s that magazines such as Definition and MovieGoer began to take films seriously and criticized them as a legitimate art form.

So let’s review: Film was around for roughly 60 years before film was considered a legitimate form of art, and criticized as such. That’s not to say there weren’t fantastic films worth being analyzed as art before the 60s, in fact, quite the opposite. There was an abundance of truly fantastic pieces of cinematic glory, to this day still celebrated as some of the best of all time, released before the acceptance of narrative film as an art form. And I think here is where we see parallels between the evolution of film and that of games.

As we contemplate the state of videogames when compared to other artistic media, we must keep in mind that they have been publicly accessible for only 41 years now, beginning with Computer Space back in 1971. Following the timeline of film, 41 years would place us in the year 1937. We have only just begun to scratch the surface of what we can do with games. Polygonal graphics are the video game equivalent to sound in films; they both only occurred about 20 years into the history of their respective medium. At this point, serious criticism of film was a new venture, just as it is now. Video games are still young. When film started to be seriously criticized, it was twenty years older than games are now.

Humble Beginnings

So why then are so many people concerned that the non-acceptance of games as an art form by the mainstream means that they will never be accepted? I have two theories. The first is that this is a result of modern instant gratification/groupthink culture, where we feel as though the change we desire has to happen immediately. Not only that, but it seems as though we have developed a new desire to make everyone think as we do, especially in how we view entertainment, as if our own views need to be legitimized by everyone who holds an opinion on the same topic.

My other theory is that games come from more embarrassing origins than film. Games started as what most people see them as now: toys. They may have been art by its most basic definition, but the intent was to elicit joy in children, nothing more. The addition of real narrative was a deviation from the initial purpose of games, just as it was of film. But what is more embarrassing to admit? “My favorite art form was once moving photography” or “My favorite art form was once a child’s plaything?” I would guess the latter.

The Answer

And that brings us back to the question I posed in the beginning: how is it that you and I go about changing the perception of games? My answer, I’m sorry to say, is an infuriating non-answer: care. But if you’ll indulge me for just a moment, I think you can take some solace in the realization I came to in that GameStop: I believe in games, no matter the adversity, because I have seen and experienced things truly great in this medium. And I am just one of many. So keep on caring. If you view games as an art form, continue to view them as such, regardless of majority opinion. Find writers who share your opinions and follow their work. Games still have plenty of growing up to do, and thanks to the talented men and women in the industry, its progress will continuously yield greater expectations.

As long as there are people like Jenova Chen, Kellee Santiago, David Cage, Goichi Suda, Ken Levine, and Tameem Antoniades out there leading the development of games, then we will continue to see more games that demand deeper analysis than the average writer is willing to give them. And as long as there are writers out there like Tom Bissell, Patrick Klepek, Ben Kuchera, James Portnow, and Daniel Floyd, then we will see critical analysis befitting of the titles the best developers can produce. A cycle will then develop where truly great games will lend themselves to deep analysis. This will generate an increasing intelligence and maturity in the audience absorbing these works which will in turn inspire an improved quality of deep and emotionally involved games. This is how games will cease to be the underdog of artistic media.