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Video Games As Art?

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If it isn't obvious by the fact that the huge majority of my posts are in the gaming forum, I love video games. I've been playing video games since I was two years old when my half brother gave me an NES for Christmas, along with his entire game library. Ever since, I've enjoyed a wide variety of video games, and I've really enjoyed watching the games industry grow up... though some things are a bit of a let down, like how cash-cow franchises release a new game every year, and then it's just the same old thing.

 

Recently though, I notice a lot of people talking about games as art, or games as an artful experience. Upfront, I'm gonna go ahead and say that as long as books are considered art, and movies are considered art, there's no reason to say that video games aren't a form of art. They cross an interesting boundary, of course, since it takes the hands of so many different people to make one video game, and honestly, every facet of a video game can be considered art in and of itself, even coding.

 

The thing that has come up lately, though, is people I talk with seem to consider video games sort of a lesser art. Just today, I had a conversation with someone about storytelling in video games, and he asserted that video games are not on the level of movies or books because the stories presented in them don't affect us in the same way as movies or books - we don't feel empathy for characters, especially when the game immerses us in a world where the very concept of death isn't permanent. I can agree with this wholeheartedly, most story heavy games are RPGs, and the most widely known RPGs are Final Fantasy games. One of the most well known RPG deaths is Aeris, from Final Fantasy 7, and of course, the biggest problem with dying in Final Fantasy is "why didn't you just use a phoenix down?" I can understand how people use this argument to say that using death as a meaningful plot device is stupid in a video game, but I have two counterpoints for that:

 

1. Why is the "death" of a fictional character any more or less effective if the means to revive them are there but are not used/are not effective in a video game, in comparison to a book or a movie when an equally fictional character dies? I know people who have cried after reading Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows, and that's over the death of two fictional dogs that aren't represented visually. The ability to revive a character through any form of miracle, magic, or science is technically always available to an author.

 

2. Why do we consider "death" by the player's action (or inaction) canon or even death at all? If a character in Final Fantasy hits 0 HP in a battle, why do we consider it death and not unconsciousness or incapacitation? Even if it is death, we know that as far as the story is concerned, that never happened, especially since we can consider Final Fantasy very much not a player authored story.

 

Compounded with this is the comparison that I've heard many times over, including the conversation I just mentioned - video games have not reached the level of Citizen Kane. I'm not a film snob and I will never claim to be. My favorite movies are among some that would have me laughed out of a film appreciation class, though I will always admire and respect the works that are considered classics of the motion picture industry. Having seen Citizen Kane, I recognize it for what it is - truly one of, if not THE first movie to treat itself like a movie and not like an animated storybook. It took full advantage of the fact that the viewer would be able to see and hear the story that they would otherwise be reading. The film showed a clear descent into greed and partial madness of Kane and pushed symbolism the likes of which great novels had done previously. However, to set video games in the light of Citizen Kane is the same as setting any other film in the light of great works of literature - it is comparing apples to oranges.

 

Considering that the topic was story to begin with, obviously what we want to see from a video game for it to be on the level of great literature or film is a story that is told by taking full advantage of the medium. A book alone can tell a story. Visuals are what set movies aside. For games, it's gameplay - it is the player's immersion into the world on that extra level, to believe that they are the player, or at the very least, to believe that they are there with the player, being a guiding hand to their decisions. Our literature teachers will tell us that great literature is set aside from lesser works by the use of symbolism to convey a somewhat hidden meaning that the author wanted the reader to get to, and we'll consider the same true for movies. I firmly believe that video games have long since reached this point, and that as a society, and as far as the world of art criticism goes, people are too old fashioned or deluded by the constant production of games starring senseless violence to believe that there are any video games that truly provide the kind of experience or emotional investment that a book or movie could provide.

 

My favorite example to use for this is the Mother series, specifically Mother 1 and Mother 3. Mother 2, known to the west as Earthbound, is a bit of a break from the heavier tones and themes in Mother 1 and 3, and honestly, the greatest example is Mother 3 (although I found myself very emotionally involved in Mother 1, to the point of actual tears at several moments). Released in 2006 in Japan only, Mother 3 goes unnoticed probably mostly because of its limited release area. The game itself focuses on things that typically wouldn't be suspected in such a cute game, and it does it in ways that the uninformed observer would be mostly oblivious to, including homosexuality, humane treatment of animals, the effect of the media and government in people's lives, treatment of the elderly, materialism, environmentalism, and a host of other issues. Each of these is examined comically, to the point that a child could enjoy the game fully without their parents needing to worry about them being introduced to any adult concepts too early - literally the exact same kind of family friendly entertainment that heavier movies were considered during the early days of film.

 

As mentioned earlier regarding death, Mother 3 shows the player almost instantly that death is indeed permanent in the game, and also puts a sense of helplessness into the player. The mother of the main character, who is also the wife of the character you play as at that point in the game, is killed by a horrifying science experiment on her way back home through the forest with her two children. To anyone married, especially husbands, this moment actually has real impact, since during the time that she needed help, you (the player) had been controlling Flint, her husband. The feeling of guilt, as if there may have been some way to avoid this outcome had he acted differently, is extremely real, and the actions of the characters convey it perfectly. Death caused by the player, however, is clearly shown to be incapacitation, or more accurately, exhaustion, further conveying that death in the game world is permanent. We've crossed that first hurdle within ten minutes of gameplay - we now have characters that we can feel for, even though the graphics are SNES quality sprites. Sound effects and other game overlays, such as weather effects and music, are used perfectly to enforce emotions, just like in any good film.

 

So we've covered symbolism and storytelling, along with taking full advantage of the visual and audio aspects. Is gameplay conducive to the story? Well, at first, no. Not at all, actually. Nowhere does the gameplay really immerse you as you the player until you feel like you're Lucas or any of the other main characters. However, if you analyze the gameplay a bit deeper, along with how you as the player are credited at the end of the game, I've theorized that the player in the Mother series is actually the god of that universe. At the beginning of the game, a character asks Flint to pray at an altar, at which point the player is asked to enter their name. This is standard of the Mother series, to ask the player for their name, typically so that it can be used later, especially in the credits. However, Mother 2 and 3 are the only ones that use it in the sort of diety-esque position that it is used in. in Mother 2, the player is the final blow against Giygas, the final boss. The player's attack is the strongest by far, and saves the protagonists, as well as winning the game. The player's power is called upon by prayer. In Mother 3, after the credits, in total darkness, you can talk to the many people who had been living in the game. You would expect to be playing as Lucas, but they refer to you by your name, and thank you for saving everyone. So in a very abstract way, the games do actually involve the player in a more thought provoking way. Technically, since you hold their world in your hands, and your decision to stop playing effectively does end their universe, then you are a huge part of the story from a gameplay standpoint.

 

There we have it. Mother 3 represents one of the myriad games that could easily be considered the pinnacle of the medium thus far. There are many others that address the same sort of themes and go about it in deeper, more symbolic ways, many of which I haven't played or simply haven't played enough. The final stone in my argument is how we treat video games, even as players. When people criticize traditional art, or books, or music, or movies, they observe/listen/read/watch hundreds of times. Sometimes, generations are spent, the minds of hundreds of people are put together, to analyze paintings or to agree on symbolism in a book. However, when we play video games, we typically play them once. Many will write a quick review of a video game shortly after it comes out, as has become popular in recent years. These reviews are mostly just to help people decide if they want to buy the video game, and often are written after the game is played for only a few hours. Even on my fastest playthrough, it has taken me a bit more than 13 hours to complete Mother 3, and I've run through the game four times. The question is, why do we not do that for more video games? Why don't we bother treating them like art if we're willing to say that they haven't reached the level of other media?

 

I believe if such effort actually went into them, people would find a lot to talk about in video games outside of their kill/death ratio and whether or not video games directly lead to violence. If we would simply treat video games as if they were extremely long movies, play them over and over, and put the game under a microscope, we might just find that a lot of video games are on the level of classic movies and literature.

 

Feel free to input your thoughts or discuss video games that you consider truly on the level of fine art.

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Video games are definitely involve a lot of art. When you receive a computer game within a package, the graphics on the box are art. The advertising on banners and on television are art. The cutscenes, which are movie clips, are art. Sounds, music, and singing are included in computer games too. Adventure games like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle are largely dependent on the dialogue-writing and story-writing, which are forms of art. There are just so many different kinds of art involved in making and selling computer games that it seems like it is just the perfect thing to do for an art graduate. Computer science majors are living the experience too, as computer game developers, and work the magic behind the scenes.

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