On Art And Video Games… Again


The Games As Art discussion has flared up again thanks to a new book out and an article Polygon did on it. I guess it was about time we had renewed arguments on the subject.

Pretty much everyone I’ve seen criticizing or otherwise discussing it this week has focused on the Polygon article and its excerpt of the first chapter of Phil Owen’s new book WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? Of course it’s too soon to expect everybody to analyze the whole book. I don’t currently plan to read it either out of a simple lack of time, but what’s in the Polygon piece brings up some ideas I don’t think have been thoroughly examined in the context of today’s era of gaming.

Firstly, just the title of the book and the subtitle on the front cover: “How A Multi-Billion Dollar Creative Industry Refuses To Grow Up,” has got people riled up. In certain people it immediately brings back images of being told their favorite hobby is an infantile one and that they’re infantile people for enjoying it past a certain age. I have the feeling what’s on the front cover is there to grab attention and sell copies, and might not fully represent the author’s intent or the tone of the book as a whole. Just a guess.

Overall, in the Polygon piece I think Owen has some good points but possibly ignores some of the potential of the interactive medium, or maybe doesn’t fully understand how some people appreciate video games.

Owen criticizes certain gameplay aspects of The Last of Us because they don’t seem to exist for any reason other than creating a challenging video game, or parts of Gears of War because they serve no purpose other than to be fun. I agree with the assertion that video games probably shouldn’t be 100 percent fun escapism 100 percent of the time. I think one of the problems with the industry today is that it’s filled with a ton of unnecessary action schlock because almost every company believes it needs to be there because they believe every video game should be “fun.” Every book or movie isn’t “fun.”

This is why I have no problem with “walking simulators” or visual novels in principle. They’re simply using the medium of interactive software to do other things. I’ve already talked about how the North American console industry seems to be too stuck on action games and sports games. I think we could use more adventure games to balance things out and because they might be an underused vehicle for interactive storytelling.

However, the whole Polygon piece is dedicated to criticizing AAA games — the biggest of the biggest blockbusters. I doubt the entire book does this, but it would be like judging cinema based on Avengers and Transformers. Those and other action movies have lots of action in them because action is fun. The same is true for action video games. It is okay to have lots of fun in any medium, I just don’t that should ever be the sole driving purpose of an entire creative industry.

Maybe Owen’s book does have sections on what we’re seeing today from indies. I don’t think the Games As Art discussion has flared up like this since before indies got so numerous. Compared to say, 2004, today you’ve got a much more diverse landscape of developers, many of whom are trying to say a lot of different things through interactive media. What we have now is probably this industry’s equivalent to the contrast between the art house film and the Hollywood blockbuster.

Another thing the Polygon piece misses (again, I don’t know if the book proper covers it) is how much some players appreciate gameplay elements as works of art themselves. It’s really a whole other dimension of artistry unique to video games (and possibly sports or analog games). Around the same time Kotaku posted an article analyzing the emergent gameplay possibilities of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, going into the depth behind its enemy AI and level design.

What some people miss is that there is definitely a certain craft or artistry in designing certain mechanical aspects of video games. I’ve seen people talk about classic Unreal Tournament or Counter-Strike maps as if they were works of art because of how well-balanced they are. The “obstacle courses” Owen talks about have themselves been appreciated for the extreme care taken in designing them. That’s something you can’t really judge by the metrics of film or really any kind of passive medium. Owen may have a point though that we don’t have enough such set pieces or level designs that actually try to have a message beyond being a fun game. All of them shouldn’t need to do that, but it would be nice if some of them did.

I think in terms of “being art,” video games are actually a lot better today than they were 10 years ago, but I also think they can still get better.


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