In perhaps his first true talking role, Charlie Chaplin spoke words that even today leave me shaken just to hear them. The English language can be a misshapen, amorphous thing that often seems built purely for utilitarian purposes; its words constantly shifting to meet the demands of their users. Itís with this clumsy tool and the work of 1940′s cinema that Chaplin has spoken to millions with a scathing warning about the darkness of the few and a message of hope for humanity. He took language and image, turning things we only receive and making them into something internal. When he says that final speech in The Great Dictator, I feel something shift inside my heart and mind. The words and images come from without, but theyíre of such power that they can bring about a change within. This is the power of true art; to take symbols and words to inspire a change within the person witnessing it.
This is not a power that many attribute to video games. Decades of small, pixelated men firing shots into other pixelated men hasnít inspired many a gamer to become a better person. Iíd daresay that gaming hasnít changed much in the years since those days spent shooting through Contra. The images have grown sharper and more realistic, but what of the message? How often do we still †shoot and kill the other people we run across in our games just because weíre supposed to? How often do we question the terrible things some games ask us to do to complete them?
Is this our legacy? Millions of dead across millions of online shooter matches? Worlds ripped to shreds, enemies torn to pieces across bloodstained landscapes? With every new world spread before us, will our first thoughts always be about what hostile creatures wait for us there? With every depiction of a place in the real world, will our response be one of hostility? Donít we seem cynical and hard when we laugh at someoneís heart being ripped out or cheer after stomping an enemyís head into pulp? Is this all that victory means to a game? Death and destruction? Is this what resonates with us after the game is off and we close our eyes to sleep for the night?
Itís easy to come to that conclusion as an outsider looking in at the game industry. I can even see other game players seeing things in the same way. Our hobby seems like itís defined by its violence, but Iíd argue that many of its most important moments for many people donít have anything to do with the violence at all. Sure, everyone can remember that one amazing kill they got in some game, but is that all thatís stuck with us over years of playing games? I doubt it. For myself at least, the most defining moments in the games Iíve played havenít had anything to do with fighting or killing at all.
The Unloved and the Unnatural
My earliest memory of being moved emotionally by a game came from something that happened in Final Fantasy II (IV). In it, you play as the Black Knight Cecil, and he does some ghastly things in order to get the magic crystals his king wants. His powers were drawn from darkness and evil, and in the beginning they made him the strongest character you could get. His damage output was on-par with the most powerful †spells you had at that point. Who cares where his strength came from? You were destroying the game!
Then you lose. You canít even damage the gameís villain, Golbez, and you get tossed aside and left for dead. When you wake up, youíre told that youíll have to discard your dark power if you ever intend to beat Golbez. To do so, you have to climb a mountain and renounce your powers, something the game doesnít make easy. As powerful as Cecil has been throughout the game, heís practically useless on Mt. Ordeals as his attacks barely hurt the undead there. If you manage to make your way to the top, you get to enter a fight against yourself; although fight might not be the right word.
This was the first time a game asked me to think about my actions; the first time Iíd been asked to do anything besides try to hurt another creature. It was an odd experience, but even at that age I felt a chill run down my spine as I stood there, watching my hit points drop while my hand quivered over the attack button. It was a struggle not to hit back; a constant battle with myself to keep from giving in and hitting the button. My hit points were dropping fast and if I didnít attack him back then I was going to die. If I did hit that button, though, I was giving in to the life of violence and darkness that I was swearing to give up. I had to take the peaceful way out this one time, even if it would never be the case again for the rest of the game.
I didnít entirely understand that moment when I played it, but I could feel something important was happening. The events seemed to mimic the events in the real world, where bullying had turned my life into a dark place that I used video games to escape. It was easy to want to be in the world of video games, as that was the place where I was powerful again. Through violence, I could effect change in the game worlds. No one would ever pick on me or bother me in the game world, as I could overpower and beat them there. I never became violent in real life, but I wonít try to tell you that there was never an appeal in it.
This was something different, though. It was a message that the dark path might seem to make you stronger, but all it was doing was making you more and more like your enemies. The hatred and anger that I was fostering were not making me strong enough to beat the people who were hurting me, but could only make me more like them. In the end, that road will have you become the very thing you hated most. Given the studies that have shown that the abused become abusers when they grow up, or even simple things such as the vitriolic hatred over Xbox Live, itís not hard to see this in effect. It seems like youíre becoming stronger when you learn to hate the world back, but all youíve done is made yourself into the same things that hurt you.
I didnít know I was learning that lesson, but I could feel it. Profound moments in your life can be like that ó instilling you with a message it may take the rest of your life to understand. It took years before I figured out why that moment had always meant so much to me; why Iíd been so moved by it when I saw it. It was also why I come back to the game every few years to play it again, and why that moment never loses its power no matter how many times I see it. It was nothing more than a couple of pixelated characters on a screen being manipulated by what I chose to do or not do with a handful of buttons in my hand, but my life was different afterward. It was nothing the most clumsy filmmaker, writer, or artist probably couldnít have technically outdone, but it still shook me like nothing else had before.
We have Developed Speed, but we Have Shut Ourselves In
I have played a lot of games since that one. For years I used to keep track of them, only giving up a few years ago once I was passing seven or eight hundred games beaten. Iíve probably saved the world a thousand times by now, and killed tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of creatures. Saying those things out loud make me sound like I crave the violence of it all and live for the simulated bloodshed, but those arenít the moments I remember most. What I can recall from a lifetime of video games are the small moments.† The times when the characters were at their most vulnerable and human. It was the short conversation between Solid Snake and Gray Fox at the end of Metal Gear Solid that made me love the game. It was the final moments with Emily that made Deadly Premonition an instant classic. It was the heart-wrenching VHS tape from Silent Hill 2 that made it into one of the most important games Iíve ever played.
Video games are a very easy medium to dismiss because of all that violence. It buries the good parts that many of us take from them and makes them impossible for others to see. Itís hard to explain how video games can be art when the most popular depictions of them are endlessly violent and bloody. Itís easy to be dismissive of the power video games hold to change lives when the big push is for the next great depiction of gunplay and war. On top of all that, we still have to beg the question as to why most of gamingís treasured moments are couched firmly in between moments of violence. If games are an art form, why does it seem like it canít express itself in any other way than violence? Why does there have to be fighting around every aspect of gamingís messages?
I think a part of that is the world we live in. Especially with the events in Boston a few weeks ago, we never have to look far to see the brutality of our fellow man, and the world can really seem like an awful place when looking out at it. Almost all of our lives weíve been told that our neighbors are strange, potentially dangerous people who could mean us harm. Weíre warned about the people that walk the streets at night, about certain ethnic groups in some areas around town. Weíre told to lock our doors, bolt our windows, and hunker down, praying day breaks without someone trying to break into your home and kill you. Weíre told daily that weíre not attractive enough, strong enough, or smart enough. Our whole lives seem to be set against invisible enemies and against ourselves, putting us in a constant war. In the world of video games, at least our enemies are tangible and beatable.
We havenít seen much of anything besides these dark depictions, though. Thereís been almost nothing in the game world that didnít use violence to move its message along, and so its art has always been buried under piles of pixelated bodies. As development costs ballooned in this generation, weíve seen the industry almost entirely focused on the next shooter; bleeding almost all art and creativity from the medium. The quirky games of the PS2 era have dried up as Triple A development has become consumed with making the next best version of playing tag with guns. A game like Spec Ops: The Line will pop up randomly every once in a while, but for the most part the industry is creatively and artistically stagnant.
Itís funny because, to me, games like Spec Ops: The Line show the gaming industry at its most powerful and most relevant. Here is a game that makes you question the violent acts youíre complicit in while playing games; one that challenges you to think about what all of this killing means. It makes you think about your own actions, even if theyíre within a digital space, and question your own feelings about them. It encourages retrospection, something thatís a real hallmark of true art. Can we have that same power without the violence, though? Is this industry so wrapped up in violence that the only way it can be artistic is through depictions of violence?
The Power to Create Machines; The Power to Create Happiness
There are some people who beg to differ, and itís through their work that I finally put together the answer as to why I felt games could be art. The first was Jonas Kyratzes, whose work on The Sea Will Claim Everythingmade me look at the world in a different way when I was done playing. The people in this game world, as cartoonish as they may look, all have very real-world problems. Many of them are small issues about lacking certain types of food, or just being unable to travel due to lack of funds. The characters are optimistic and dismissive about their issues, but as in any point-and-click adventure, everyoneís problems become yours. When you can see everyoneís problems all put together and what a bleak picture they paint of this world, you can feel your heart breaking for them.
It wasnít just that these characters were starting to mean something to me as much as it was making me look at my own life and friends. Watching the joblessness and hearing the excuses of these characters reminded me of the real world. When the crooked governments and bankers of the game world came into the picture and further ruined the lives of these people, I began to feel anger toward the ones in the outside world. I started to feel myself examining actions and politics that Iíd previously brushed off, ones that I watched get brushed off by the characters in the game. I saw myself in many of those places, but also a story that told where my inactivity was going to get me. It made me question myself and my willingness to be passive in these instances. It changed me. I didnít just feel bad for some video game characters; I was made different by the game.
Zoe Quinnís Depression Questhad a similar effect. Itís an interactive experience you play through a text adventure, one where you have a number of different paths you can take to try to get yourself out of your depression. The interesting part about it was that there were a number of paths that were crossed out each time I had to make a decision. These were often things like getting out of bed and attacking the day, or just being honest with your girlfriend about how you felt. These unavailable options were meant to simulate the fact that people with depression arenít just in some sort of funk, and they canít just up and make these kinds of decisions. If they could, they wouldnít be depressed, would they?
Iíve had friends and loved ones with depression, and if I was honest with myself Iíd have to say that I havenít been compassionate about their condition at times. Looking at the condition from outside, itís hard to wrap your head around how it works. Iíve been downright insensitive about it, just telling people that you just need to shake yourself up and get moving to feel better. I didnít mean to be that way, but Iíd never had the condition articulated to me in a way that let me internalize how it felt. I knew, but I didnít understand.
Depression Quest helped me reach that point. It set me in the shoes of someone going through depression and let me feel their frustration at not being able to make the decisions that everyone else seems capable of. It let me feel a little bit of the self-doubt and stigma that you go through when youíre first told you will need to be medicated for the condition. Through what actions were made available to me, I got to see how brutally hard it can be to make the decisions you have to in order to get out of your depression. It helped me see how self-sustaining depression can be. How it keeps the people who have it in a circle of fear thatís impossible to escape without help.
I didnít come to that conclusion by watching a character go through it, though. Not directly. I got to be that person; to go through his condition in the way that only a game can do. Books, music, painting, and movies ask us to visit their worlds, to be a silent observer to events and take them all in. Games are the only medium that asks us to become the person in that work. You donít watch the character change throughout the game, you become that person and you live through their change. These events happen to you, and itís through that symbiosis with the gameís character that we have the greatest opportunity to create change in human beings since we first started to communicate.
This is why Iíve had trouble believing it when people say that video games canít be art. The idea that games donít have anything worthwhile to teach us, or that the medium is incapable of inspiring emotional change inside of a gamer just isnít true. The fact that weíre only just starting to see the real power of this medium tells me that other people realize this, and that weíre moving into some extremely exciting times for video games. We are at a point where weíre capable of delivering ideas in such a way that the player is experiencing them directly, taking those experiences into themselves as if they were happening to them in the real world.
Art, to me, is taking something meaningless and making it life-altering. Flickering images on a screen, letters on a page, paint on a canvas Ė all of these things have been called art over the years for the profound emotions theyíve stirred up in their observers. Watching the violence in games has made people think they would never be capable of reaching this stage; that they would never have a worthwhile emotion or idea to communicate under all of the bloodshed. As weíve begun to see, video games are capable of so much more than anything weíve ever seen before. Games have helped me see the world through different eyes, to cast off my darkest thoughts and to reunite with some people Iíd truly hurt through lack of understanding. Theyíve made me into a better person; made me want to be a better person.
If this isnít art, then I donít know what is. If this isnít art, then art is worthless to me.