Home Editorial It’s In Our Heads: Games and becoming art

In lieu of any sort of robotic assimilation that may or may not be taking *GZZT* place, I came to a realization as I was walking out of The Help a few minutes ago. This realization of mine was made possible by the tears I fought to hold back as the movie ended. I understood that what I had watched was not merely entertainment, but a form of art, a film of a higher order that taught me something and changed me because I watched it. That is what art does, and something I don’t think video games have quite achieved yet. Now, I don’t want to start the “Games as Art” argument here (*GZZT* contradiction detected! *GZZT*), but I want to describe why I think the whole argument takes place.

Dead horse engaged

It’s in the name. Video game. We enter into any interactive experience on a PC or console as a form of entertainment, escapism, a journey into a world like but apart from our own. We know we’re “playing a game,” some kind of extension of the playing we did as children, the make believe with no deeper meaning; a fantasy of something we may never be but wish were so. When we go to a movie we’ve heard or know is trying to send a message, or read a book whose purpose is to show us something about ourselves, we go in with no preconceived notions of play. Oh, yes, thrillers and formula fiction are certainly nothing to ponder over, but books like The Road and Dhalgren and Heart of Darkness are labyrinthine, suffused with a meaning that etches itself in our consciousness. I don’t think the same can be said for games, because we think of them as something to entertain and little more.

The phrase “interactive story” is cumbersome, but I think adequately describes the single player experience. The problem is, unfortunately, semantics. “Movie” and “book” and “video game” roll so easily off the tongue because of the syntactic simplicity of the words. “Interactive story” is anything but simple to say. What we need to take another step and allow “games” to be that fourth form of art is the discarding of the word “game” entirely. The word in itself inhibits deeper analysis of the material contained within the experience.


Assumptions engendered within words

When I think about this topic now, and the idea that the best books and movies force us to rethink something about ourselves, I go straight to Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which I will *GZZT* be reviewing in the future while the Failspy human is away). The problem is this: While the endings of books or movies force me to re-evaluate myself and my world, the ending to DXHR only reaffirmed my own beliefs. Now, I can’t say I watched every ending and maybe I should to make this a valid argument but bare with me. I think DXHR is as close as I’ve come to playing a game that made me think long and hard about something, make me walk differently around certain people, or even have my beliefs altered. The problem, of course, is the idea of the “game.” I’d spent the majority of my time in the world walking through air ducts, hiding behind boxes and fighting really bad boss fights. More than that, my mind was set on the idea that what I was doing was an entertainment, an aside that didn’t apply to real life in the way I experienced it. Sure, the people were those I might meet on the street in sixteen years, when I’m Jensen’s age. And sure, their problems were much like those I might expect in my own life. If I suspend my disbelief and accept Jensen’s metal arms, cloaking device skin and X-Ray eyes, the issues he often wrestled with are those of a person in an excellent novel. What does it really mean to be human and, if we change that by our own hand, are we doing something we shouldn’t or simply taking the steps we were always meant to? Questions like these are ones no author of merit would toss aside. But I was given the ability to teabag the corpses of strippers, dance up against walls and throw around dumpsters because they were there. In a book, no character would act so silly; in a movie, no plot would have such inane attitudes towards how one behaves. This is the third and most prevalent problem we have. It’s a sad one.


Blame yourselves

The gaming community needs to take its medium seriously. Everyone from developers to publishers and that eleven year old kid who kicks your ass at CoD every night. The problem lies, ultimately, with all of us, myself most certainly included. Sites like Halolz, made solely for the purpose of laughing at games and characters in them, are part of the issue. I love the site and visit daily, but it has no counterpoint. I don’t know of any high-profile site dedicated to the purpose of critically analyzing games, writing essays showing why such and such a series shows us some deep image about humanity or society or what have you. Yahtzee Crowshaw’s Extra Punctuation is a good start, and Extra Creditz is certainly a very nice introductory course on game criticism. But we need more. And again, the problem is the gamer culture.

It’s young.

Let me say that again. It’s too young. The average age of your typical PC “gamer” is what, early-mid twenties? The average console gamer is maybe 16? The average novelist is maybe thirty something (if they’re successful and up and coming), and your rising movie screenwriter/director is maybe mid to late thirties? This alone shows that there needs to be time spent just developing the medium, as it itself exploded in only the mid ’80’s. Only now, as the “video game” reaches maturity, can it begin telling the stories it was really meant to tell. Human Revolution is an early sign of something great, as is a game like Limbo or something Amnesia: The Dark Descent.


My answer

The video game and its culture is becoming that first great novelist with its formative years slowly winding down and its best years to come. I’ll put an end to nothing here, but I’ll still say this. I don’t think the debate needs to start or happen right now. Let more Deus Ex’s come out, more Limbo’s and their ilk. Build a powerful library and dive in. Swim in the experience and then dissect it. Remove “difficulty levels,” “boss fights,” giant explosions and needless special effects. Pare down the game to its most basic but with the powers we can now imbue it wish. I think then, with that pure interaction between the player and his extension, we’ll reach something approaching an Old Man and the Sea, The Road, and Beloved. Maybe. I’d love to see it.


I of course don’t want to open the whole “the industry is stifling creativity” argument. That’s a whole other article, and one I might write in the future. 

20 replies to this post
    • Good catch. From here on, I’ll keep that site on my research radar. As much as I want to have a conversation about how games might evolve, you’re right to make sure the actual facts I use are accurate.

  1. I want to make a quick addendum to this post. At the end of Assumptions, I compare video games to movies and books, and on further reflection, such a comparison is not as valid as I thought when writing. What makes our medium so wonderful is the freedom it offers, the same freedom that allows us to teabag the corpses of prostitutes. However, I think that this freedom need to be addressed within the games themselves. Somehow these things need to be made part of the story in whatever fashion that may take. The original Deus Ex reprimanded you for things mos games would ignore, and DXHR comes close a few times. The art of the game needs to take player habit into account, something books and movies are, by their nature, unable to do.

  2. Agreed. In fact back in the day (31 years-old here) there was a game called simply Count Dracula. It was text based and you told your protagonist (if you don’t know this word ask Borg Binerexis) to look and he described it, the game read like a book with twists and turns. The biggest aspect in a game is the twist, the beginning twist is, “Sorry your princess is in another castle” What? More notable twists are: Flashback super NES (one of the best games ever), Bioshock (of course), Golden Eye (I added this because come on if you hadn’t seen the movie first. 006 betraying you. Forgetaboutit.) Just the fact we have so many movies to video games, and video games to movies. If you want to see true art in a video game two instances stand out to me. Arkham Asylum where you see the large moon, and the grounds of the whole asylum with Gotham City as the back drop and Prey (if you have not played this game for shame) the action is pointless and the game doesn’t have the best in terms of everything else and it may piss you off the bad guys get to play with cool portals and you don’t) but there is an EPIC moment inside a tube you traveling to the next stage of this huge space station your on, and you view the Earth from space. THEY BUILT THE GAME AROUND THAT VIEW! Not really but after you see it . . . it seems that way. It’s just so cool.

    • Sorry, I have to step in here for a second. The huge moon in Arkham Asylum and the sprawling grounds are not examples of art in the definition being used for describing media (the ‘artsy-fartsy’ definition). Don’t get me wrong, it looks stunning and builds atmosphere but it lacks nuances of depth.

      To me, one of the best examples of ‘games as art’ is Eternal Darkness for the Gamecube. It didn’t do anything fancy with graphics, the controls and gameplay didn’t try to break any moulds but the story… by the GODS the story was brilliant. I may do a full write up (I’ll be quite honest, my opinion differs with Xiant’s when it comes to this topic) but, on a basic level, Eternal Darkness is basically an interactive story within the Cthulhu mythos. In case you haven’t read any Lovecraft books, they’re shear works of art in themselves and the game recreated it perfectly.

      In any medium, art is NEVER just about how something looks.

      • My favorite Lovecraft isn’t about the Cthulhu, but Pickman’s Models. And I understand and regretted a bit in hitting the submit button, however I stand behind the art behind that scene because art: inspires and affects us emotionally. That scene helped me realize where I was and who I was. I’M BATMAN. Next the scene with seeing the Earth, so many times we’re told we are in a spaceship fighting the oncoming surge but rarely are we shown the outside and realize our predicament full on, another space title that does this well is Dead Space.

        I agree Binerexis that video games as an art must speak to us on a whole, however, those two scenes although beautiful to look at, affected me more than a nice watercolor of a sun-setting on a lake.

      • Another thing that people say hinders the ‘games as art’ thing is perspective. For example, I thought Dead Space was terrible and only succeeded in reminding me that there are better horror games out there (and that Event Horizon was a pretty shit film).

      • I wouldn’t say that you’re out of your league, only that what different people consider art can vary wildly for videogames. It seems that everyone who looks at paintings, works of prose or films all agree on what’s artistic but it’ll be a long time until that kind of unification reaches videogames (for example, I don’t like Dead Space, hated Bioshock and can’t get into Hitman but Bastion, Sam & Max and the Half-Life 2 series are just godly to me).

  3. To allow for space, I’ll address Shadesnow’s reply to Bin here. As I define it, any work of art must be defined not only by scenes within chapter, or chapters within a book, but by the work from front to back. It cannot be influenced by authorial commentary or criticism from outside. Art must stand on its own and affect us, change us, through its own merits. The scenes you describe are artistic _elements_ within the game. Do they change your perception of the world or who you are, your place in the world, or how the world fits into a grand design? These are the questions you need to need to ask when considering any work of possible art. Arkham Asylum gives us the feeling of BEING Batman. Prey’s view of the Earth shows us how small we are, but in neither, I think, are we challenged, emotionally or psychologically, or are we required by the work to ask difficult questions. I could certainly delve a little to deep and do so anyway, but that’s my long and short of it.

  4. I’m a bit too bedazzled over the new school semester and the contradictory articles that I’ve had to write, but it seems that the main debate is over forms of art and how they should be interpreted. In all respects, I define art as an display of creativity from an individual. Of course, in keeping with the fact that no creativity comes unbiased, that would also leave the term “art” up to self-conclusions, almost as impossible to pin down as the idea of utopia or the legend of Binerexis’ beard. To have art in a video game would be all very well, but the level of ideological translation to a human perspective would have to equal or be greater than that of an actual piece of art.

    I now proceed to down this delicious muffin *nom* *nom*

  5. Hey I think I’ll write a response to this article because I think you are identifying fundamental truths about the videogame medium as problems in execution but I think they are facets which need to be embraced by developers instead of shied away from

    This is the first medium of art where absurdity batters down the floodgates rather than narrative, and that is a pretty cool thing, it’s just that developers try to impose narrative where it doesn’t belong, worse yet when it tries to do something “serious and thought-provoking” it’s on the level of freshman philosophy essay so

    brb writing a senior thesis then writing an article about video games

    • Post your senior thesis as a reply to the post yo write in response to this one as a link.

      If you can decode that sentence, you get a cookie.

      • *receives cookie*
        Everything worth being said, has been said, I have nothing to say.
        Every point has been pondered,
        Every idea perused,
        Or maybe my creativity needs a boost.
        No, seriously. Also, I loved this article, made me think and ponder. Then ponder summoar. Can’t wait for the next. By the next, I mean the industry is stifling creativity. Which I find to be quite true.
        I don’t want to contribute to the pondering of thoughts, because I’m pretty sure I’ll say something stupid. Nearly certain.

  6. If golf can be a sport, video games can most definitely be art.

    Story and character development are probably the “artliest” forms in a video game. The Mother series comes to mind- despite being child friendly and having an 8 Bit graphic style, it still manages to strike sadness and fear(YOU CANNOT GRASP THE TRUE POWER OF GIYGAS). I’ve only cried twice during a game- once during Earthbound(Mother 2) and the other during Mother 3.

    I can understand why people believe that games aren’t pieces of art, to which I refer to actual paintings or canvas style art. Yet, I do believe that every once in a while, there is that one game that is pure beauty, not because of the fancy graphics(Final Fantast -.-‘) or HD rendering. Okami is a “piece of art” game- the creativity but still strict adherence to Shintoist styles is phenomenal, and it truly looks like a breathing canvas.

    Of course, I think that as games expand and become the new books, level design will count as art. Half Life 2 is art to me, every bit of it is streamlined, the levels aren’t repetitive but still fit well together, you’ll trek back into older parts of levels, time seems to flow in the background and the game is never truly challenging in a sense of level design.

    • What you’re trying to hash out, I think, is the idea that we don’t have a defined set of criteria to judge games as an art form. We can only go on how they affect us, and not how they compare to one another. More than that, I think the fact that the old 8-bit games made a larger impact on you than more recent titles is a powerful one. Do we differentiate between those old, pixely, word-ridden games and the flashy, fully voiced, cut-scene heavy games of today? The distinction carries with it a set of rules that applies to no other form of expression. Much like how games have built their reputation from nothing, so does the critical conversation have to build from nothing.

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