Video games are suffering. Despite recent technological advancements and the success of certain games consoles (the Nintendo Wii has managed to attain true popularity with those who would usually be seen as non-gamers, a first in the history of video games), video games remain either intellectually underrated, abused, or just simply ignored. As an avid gamer myself, I spend a lot of time both bemused and confused as to why this is the case. After all, I would seriously consider certain games (such as Dragon Age: Origins or Half-Life 2) to be some of the greatest works of art I have had the pleasure of experiencing. Unfortunately, many people seem to consider video games to be either downright harmful or simply distractions from more important things.
Praise for video games
Despite this, I am not on my own in voicing my praise for games. A recent book entitled Fun Inc.: Why Games are the 21st Century’s Most Serious Business by Tom Chatfield surveys the state of play in society with regards to video games, and attempts to dispel many myths surrounding them. For example, he reveals that 40% of gamers are women, that most of the bestselling console games of all time involve no real-world violence at all, and that in South Korea it is more socially acceptable to hang out in a “PC bang” (a kind of internet café) than a bar, where people play networked games with their friends over a bowl of ramen and a coffee. I highly recommend this book; he gives a fair and clear headed analysis of violence in games, something which is very rare in an area mired by moral panic. Furthermore, this author collates various sources of evidence which all point to games being “useful” in some way (i.e. inspiring creativity or certain kinds of learning). Whilst I welcome these arguments, I am interested in defending a different stance. I wish to claim that video games are art, worthy of consideration by any academic working in art or aesthetics.
Academic examples of art
Most of my recent reading has been centred around Dennis Dutton’s book The Art Instinct and selected works from Lamarque and Olsen’s aesthetics anthology (I’ve been doing a bit of seminar teaching). Like in almost every domain of academia, the authors of the various works always end up using several paradigm examples of specific kinds of art to illustrate their arguments. This is useful for understanding their arguments, of course, and I have no problem with it. What is surprising is that all the examples tend to disproportionately originate from certain genres of art. I have seen many mentions of classical music, opera, theatre, classic literature, Renaissance painting, sculpture, and contemporary art (which I suppose encompasses many genres, but is pretty much always only used for one purpose: that is, to challenge some preconceived definition or understanding, and, to be quite honest, if I read another paper which uses Duchamp’s Fountain or Cage’s 4’33’’ to illustrate a point I will probably snap). I have not seen any examples drawn from modern indie/experimental music (modern pop music, however, is discussed briefly in Lamarque and Olsen), modern popular fiction (Harry Potter, anything by Dan Brown etc), technology (let’s face it, the iPhone is a really beautiful thing), architecture (surprising considering its cultural and historical importance) – or video games.
A plea to academics
I want to plead with the academic community to accept video games as art, because – quite frankly – I have seen them dismissed much more than praised. In Lamarque and Olsen’s book they are simply ignored altogether, but Dutton decides to have a swipe at them in this passage:
Video games are complicated and visually arresting forms of make-believe that allow viewers to jump onto the stage and participate in the action. This is regarded by video-game enthusiasts as an earthshaking advance. In a way it is less of an extension of storytelling art than a regression to its precursors. While the themes and content of video games may be complex and adult, the logic of viewer participation in the story reverts back to the child’s tea party with teddy bears… Video games do not produce a new kind of make-believe entertainment, or much improve on the older kinds of games and fictions, except by the addition of intense visual or virtual-reality effects (p. 133)
It is quite hard not to be offended by such a dismissive attitude. Dutton, for his part, is trying to argue that games are not a huge advance as stories, and that other kinds of art can tell stories equally as well. This is fair enough. Lord of the Rings tells a spectacular story, and it tells it just as well as Dragon Age: Origins or The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. He is very misguided, however, to dismiss player participation as a “regression” because it is like a “child’s tea party with teddy bears”. I say this not because player participation is nothing like childhood pretend play. In fact, it is rather similar. My problem with Dutton’s attitude stems from the idea that there is something less valuable in this kind of endeavour; that because it is somewhat similar to what a child might do then it is some kind of artistic regression. This is an insufferably pompous attitude. One of the many joys of games (for me) is that they allow me to experience an almost childlike sense of wonderment through play – that feeling of boundless opportunity, virtual freedom, the ability to be truly immersed in a rich world of fiction within which I am the centre. This is a feeling like no other, and to dismiss it as childlike is a spectacular mistake. If anything, it is something which has been missing from art for so long, and it is thanks to modern technological advances that we can finally participate in huge, beautifully rendered worlds that look and feel believable, in a way that we have never been able to before.
Aside from Dutton’s sweeping dismissal, I am yet to see any philosophers properly engage with video games. If work of this kind exists out there, then I would greatly appreciate it if someone would let me know.
The burden of proof
The burden of proof, for me, lies with the person who wishes to claim that games are not art, for they possess so many of the features of other kinds of works accepted as art that to disregard them would seem rather hypocritical. For example, Dragon Age: Origins is essentially an epic fantasy story, featuring Tolkein-esque characters and deep, complex narrative development. It is a heroic fantasy tale, featuring a Blight that is set to destroy the world until our hero emerges to save the day. It is visually impressive (bar some slight texture problems with the PC version) with many beautifully rendered areas and people. So far, it is almost indistinguishable from an epic fantasy film, which (I hope) everyone would agree to be a kind of art. Most importantly, however, it features a huge degree of freedom for the player. You are able to make many choices which significantly alter the game’s progression, causing many characters to love or loathe you, story arcs to close or open – choices which eventually lead to one of four very different endings. This is the beauty of the art, the childlike sense of wonderment through play as I mentioned before, and it is this which separates it from an epic fantasy film.