Friday, January 15, 2016

Video Games Are NOT Art

They are games. And that is perfectly fine.

The "games as art" meme is almost as popular on the internet as kittens falling over, but it's always struck me as a fuzzy position. Video games can incorporate artistic elements - and the best usually do - but they are fundamentally toys to be indulged in leisure time.

Understand I greatly enjoy video games. I've even dabbled in the rhetoric of games as art, but it simply doesn't hold up under scrutiny. The artistic elements of a game detract from gameplay the more dominant they are - Silent Hill 2 may have a brilliant narrative, but it is janky as all get out and anyone who says they prefer save points to quick saves is a dirty liar. And that brilliant narrative is still inferior to, say, House of Leaves if for nothing else than the gameplay hours spent dodging monsters in between James Sunderland's guilt-induced breakdown.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that “Drama is just life with the dull bits cut out”. In contrast, a video game is drama with dull bits added in.

Yet Silent Hill 2 is still a better game than damn near everything in the survival horror genre from the past decade. With a notable exception, "survival horror" just means a compendium of jump scares on the level of three star horror movies on Netflix, but even lacking in the tension of waiting to see which characters get knocked off. There's always going to be one character who survives everything - otherwise it ceases to be a game in any sense - and they're either a blank cipher or a bland Everyman, as any greater characterization could alienate the player. Characters in film and fiction need the freedom to alienate their own audience, but the opposite holds in video games because otherwise no one will play them. Or spend money on them.

In his critique of criticisms of his position, the late Roger Ebert pointed out that those who assert video games are art spoke not in the language of artists but of salespeople. "Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management" are, in the words of the games as art evangelists, the components of this new artistic medium. It's neoliberal logic, which any indie author can tell you is antithetical to artistic expression.

The drive to label video games as works of art appears to be driven by both this attempt at marketable branding in the industry and a deep insecurity among video game players. Is it really so bad if video games are not art? Does that in any way detract from the enjoyment of playing them? Or to draw a comparison - how is Garry Kasparov's lifelong commitment to chess different from a professional Halo player?

FunFact: Bobby Fischer teabagged every opponent's king.

Chess is not art. It's a game, but no one will deny its depth and cultural significance. Why not compare your favorite indie or triple A title to chess? Or go? Because that's what it really comes down to - you call your past time an art because that confers an air of maturity and respectability.

It's an argument that starts from feelings of inferiority, that spending a dozen hours or so with "just a game" makes you a manchild. That's particularly ridiculous when you factor in the majority of video game players being women - now watch the angry comments over that one! - but more importantly, there's nothing wrong or shameful about leisure time. Playing a video game, even an artsy one, is not productive in any sense and that is okay.

So stop trying to compare Call of Duty to Rembrandt. It's intellectually dodgy and concedes that leisure time is not a right everyone should enjoy.

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