My English class assigned me to write an argument on any reasonably controversial subject. I chose the question of video games as art. The organization is horrid, the attention grabber is hokey, and I’ve written about similar subjects before, but I figured some Dtoid readers still might be interested. Read it after the jump.
A monster stands in a barren field, over fifty feet tall and covered in stone armor. A young boy stands before him, armed with nothing but a sword and a hope that killing this beast will save the woman he loves. This is a moment from Shadow of the Colossus, a 2006 video game that attempts to marry enjoyable gameplay with deep, universal themes.
As an avid gamer myself, I am aware of the attempts of games such as Shadow of the Colossus to elevate the medium of gaming. Still, it is still the opinion of much of mainstream America that video games are nothing more than superficial, uncultured, escapist entertainment. While it is true that many video games do fall into these categories, it is absolutely essential for society to understand that many games are filled with significant artistic meaning, and that the medium itself has great potential for artistic expression.
Before examining video gaming as an art form, it is necessary to specify the definition of “art”. For the purpose of this argument, art will be defined as any creative work with a thematic meaning or purposeful message. This definition is actually one of the most constricting, in that it excludes particular works from every art form: a shallowly entertaining film, for example, is not “art” by this definition.
Because the media constantly targets specific, inartistic games such as Grand Theft Auto, it becomes necessary to examine especially artistic games as well as identify the aspects of the medium that can be conducive to artistic creation. That being said, it is commonly (and incorrectly) argued that all video games, by their very nature, cannot be art. Film critic Roger Ebert has stated that games are not art because, “video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.” This may appear to be a sound argument until one considers any works of art with deliberately ambiguous messages. If one were to, say, look at an abstract painting and attempt to derive meaning from it, then the audience is actively participating in the enjoyment of that piece of art. The audience is consciously deciding what to take from the painting, and, thereforem the artist has handed over authorial control.
The same would be true of any film with a “cliffhanger” ending: the audience is forced to choose their own conclusion. The absence of authorial control does not harm the artistic value of a piece, but rather enhances it: instead of being spoon-fed ideas and messages, the audience is forced to choose their own interpretation of the work. In video games, the choices are simply intrinsic to the piece itself, instead of just the consideration of the piece’s meaning. For this reason, the accusation that video games are an inherently inartistic medium is a fallacious one.
Another complaint often aimed at video games is that they are unimportant, irrelevant wastes of time. One need only look at the statistics to see that the opposite is the case: as of a 2004 study by The NPD Group, video games are a ten billion dollar a year international industry (that’s more money than the entire film industry makes annually), and, according to Forrester Research, nearly half of all North American homes own at least one video game console. Social critic Chuck Klosterman has defended the medium, saying “people in America who do not take video games seriously are the same people who question the relevance of hip-hop and assume newspapers will still exist in twenty-five years” (47). He also likens video games in 2006 to rock music in 1967, and the comparison is fitting: both mediums are unfairly demonized as corruptors of America’s youth, both mediums are and were extremely prevalent amongst a younger generation, and both mediums, in Klosterman‘s words, “have meaning, and reflect the worldviews and sensibilities of their audienceâ€ (47). Video game designer Ernest Adams concurs, but calls the medium an “easy target” because “unlike the movies, games have no powerful friends and no beautiful film stars to argue for them” (1). To dismiss video games as irrelevant is to ignore mountains of statistical evidence to the contrary, and to deem them unimportant is to make the same mistake the eldest generation of the 1960‘s did.
Most importantly, it is necessary to note that certain video games have proven that the medium is already capable of delivering artistically meaningful experiences, such as my personal favorite game, the aforementioned Shadow of the Colossus. The main draw of Shadow of the Colossus is how consistently and effectively it mixes story mechanics with game mechanics; everything you do in the game helps develop a relationship or convey an idea, and vice versa. Most games attempt to convey a story solely through pages of dialogue or numerous “cutscenes” (noninteractive movie clips), but Shadow, not content to rely on conventional art forms to tell its story, relies solely on actual gameplay to do so. The story (which is to say, the raw narrative itself), like almost everything else in Shadow, is extremely minimalist.
There are only four main characters and only one of them is explicitly named:the protagonist‘s horse, Agro. The protagonist and Agro journey to the Forbidden Lands in order to resurrect a dead girl who evidently means a lot to the hero. In order to do this, the god of the Forbidden Lands commands the protagonist to destroy the 16 Colossi, enormous beasts made of metal and earth: if the player can somehow bring them all down, the god vows to revive the girl. In addition to the beautiful graphics and exciting gameplay that accompanies a game of such epic scope, Shadow seeks to convey legitimate thematic messages to the player. Benjamin Sherman, video game theorist, points out that the main character’s constant reliance on his horse for transportation across a completely lonely game world helps emotionally connect the player to both characters. Though neither the protagonist nor his horse companion ever speak, the sheer amount of time they spend together, the intentional loneliness of the lands the two have to travel across, and the incredible usefulness of the horse in fighting the colossi, results in a strong emotional bond between the player and the horse. When Agro dies at the end of the game, the player feels a sense of legitimate loss, and does not feel like “the hand of the game designer came down and decided” to kill the horse (Sherman).
Another theme the game develops is the morally ambiguous nature of the protagonist’s actions. At first, the player naturally assumes that the killing of the colossi is, all in all, a morally good thing: the colossi are huge, look terrifying, and have weapons, so the player naturally assumes that they are evil. However, after the player slays about four or five of the beasts, a strange thing happensâ€”the player meets colossi that do not immediately attack him. It is a subtle game mechanic, but an incredibly important one: instead of trying to destroy the player, the giants will examine you, run from you, or ignore you altogether. The giants begin behaving more like confused animals than evil killing machines, and in order to complete his assigned goal, the player is forced to instigate battle, and literally murder a creature that had not attempted to cause him any harm. The player begins to realize that the music that plays as a colossus slowly dies is not triumphant at all, but almost funerial in tone.
The game forces the player to re-examine what he is doing: is it morally right to kill these colossi? Why is the player even doing it? Because the player was simply told to do so? Of course, the player continues playing, wanting to get to the ending and find out the overall reasons for his actions, but as the player meets certain colossi–like a smaller bull-like animal who is terrified of fire, and cowers back like a frightened child at the sight of it–the game subtly but efficiently coerces the player into asking himself serious questions on the nature of right and wrong. The themes of friendship, loss, and moral ambiguity can be found in countless works of noninteractive art, but Shadow of the Colossus successfully develops these themes through interactive gameplay alone.
It is, however, essential to understand that Shadow of the Colossus is not some sort of artistic fluke: I personally own many other games that present the player with equally artistic themes. In Splinter Cell: Double Agent (2006), the player takes on the role of an undercover spy who has infiltrated a terrorist organization. The player is then forced to reconsider the definition of loyalty as he befriends terrorists who have helped him progress through the levels, but is then asked by his government to kill them in order to maintain his cover.
In Ico (2001), an earlier game made by the Fumito Ueda (the developer of Shadow of the Colossus), the player leads the daughter of an evil witch through a lonely castle, hoping to find a way to escape. Through leading the princess along, helping her solve puzzles, and defending her from evil monsters, the player becomes emotionally connected to her and is personally invested in the climax of the game, whereupon the princess is possessed by her mother and the player is forced to consider what to do if the companion he has spent the entire game with has turned evil.
In Deus Ex (2000), the player works his way through political conspiracies and underground organizations, and, in the end, has to choose whether to help the terrorists, the government, or neither. What would be an otherwise simple choice is made morally ambiguous as the player discovers both ruthlessness and compassion in both groups, and must decide which of the organizations is the “right” one. It is necessary to understand that there are many available games that have important messages to convey through gameplay alone.
Despite what much of the mainstream media assumes, video games have always had the potential, if not the desire, to function as art. Since video gaming is, in many ways, a combination of several different art forms (illustration, filmmaking, and music come to mind), the medium has the ability to tackle any of the “heavier” subjects that most established art forms address on a regular basis. In the words of Ernest Adams, an ideal video game would be about “history, science, technology, politics, music, art, religion, diplomacy, family, manners, love, death, duty, sorrow, revenge, depression, and joy” (3).
Granted, many video games choose not to aspire to such a lofty task. Popular mainstream games such as Halo, Doom, Grand Theft Auto, and Super Mario Brothers, while endlessly entertaining in their respective genres, have no messages to convey, no themes to develop, and their storylines are usually nothing more than scenarios for entertaining gameplay. Under the current definition being used, these games are not artistic. However, this situation is typical of every art medium: while certain noteworthy works will reach aesthetic and thematic greatness, others will, whether by choice or a lack of quality, remain nothing more than pointless entertainment. The film industry has slasher flicks and the music industry has “bubble-gum pop”, but these mediums are still universally agreed upon as legitimate art forms (Adams 2). With video games, the amount of pointlessly entertaining works is simply much larger than in most other mediums.
But despite these entries of lesser artistic value, the fact remains that video games have an inherent ability to function as art. Though many video games are indeed nothing more than flashy entertainment, many existing games develop meaningful themes through gameplay alone, and the medium has the potential to produce many more games of this type. It may be some time before video games are regarded as a relevant art form, but, inevitably, it will happen. As technology gets more and more advanced, and as the audience of gamers grows larger and larger, it will eventually become impossible to ignore the prevalence of video gaming in modern society.
But, for now, gamers can take on the role of a young boy attempting to slay a building-sized beast to resurrect the woman he loves: they can feel his triumph, his heartbreak, and they can take part in his moral dilemmas firsthand. In the end, if that is not art, what is?