Monday, May 5, 2014

Yes, Video Games are Art. There. I said it.

This is a common question that's come up over and over: Are Video Games Art? If so, what makes them thus? And so on, and so forth. Typically, the argument is divided by people who don't care for games saying, "No! They're silly kids' entertainment, and cannot be Art!" and people who like games saying something that sounds a lot like, "well, I like them, so they must be Art!" and people who like games, but want to be snooty about it saying, "well, what is Art anyway? And some are Art, and some are not," et al.

But what we're actually talking about here, at a fundamental level is legitimacy: should games be taken seriously as a medium and a format, or not?

And yes, I am using Art with a capital A, because it _is_ to be high-falutin' here. Or some junk. And because I am unable to avoid pretension or fulmination, because I am not as awesome as Shieldhaven. But I digress.

First, we have to separate Art from value judgement. That is to say: whether or not you like something has nothing to do with it's status as Art. There's plenty of bad Art. But the fact remains that movies, books, music, and visual art are all Art, and video games combine these elements with interactivity... thus, Art. But there's another reason too... the economics, the production, and the marketing of video games are all consistent with those for Art of various media.

I shall explain.

Most specifically, it's the way that games are, and should be, marketed. It's been a long time since video games were, on the whole, treated as toys, to be played with and broken. The industry has grown with my generation, and has ripened into an incredibly sophisticated medium for storytelling and interaction. Thus, the way video games work in the market is way closer to how movies do-- there are trailers, there's an all-important opening weekend, and the quickest way to tank a game is, like with movies, to create it to pander to what the market research thinks. No one likes a game clone, just like no one likes a movie clone, and they happen with similar frequency. The problem is that the expectation of what will happen after release is different from a movie, and to a large degree, that doesn't make any sense.

Now, there are differences in what roles are needed. Crew in a movie are replaced with developers, and while there's certainly movies that I kind of wish had a customer support email, that's typically not really necessary, while with games, it's pretty vital. Also, with games, you can segue into ongoing TV-show like territory with MMOs and DLC, for which you must constantly be creating content. The problem is that video game studios don't typically plan for the realities of maintenance, so it's a surprise when the product ships, and everyone is cut loose. Perhaps it is because the studios don't seem to budget as if they were making a film, or another piece of Art... they look at it like it's just another product, to be made as crowd-pleasing as possible and shoved out the door. And then they wonder why they fail.

While I can imagine it'd be annoying to work with people so focused on their narrow vision of artistry that it stifles creativity and passion in the other direction, I strongly feel that the thing that makes a game great is similar to that which makes a movie great: people caring about making something that, if nothing else, they can enjoy and feel proud of. Passion and interest are vital to a successful game, like a successful film, and if you are making something that bores you, chances are, it's going to bore those who approach it as well.

To be fair, this also happens to movies, and those movies are way more likely to suck. You may notice a consistency here. Pretty much all artistic forums which are approached from the stance of finding a formula to maximize profit are going to be kind of lame. You have to have something there which speaks to and engages the audience, else you're not going to last long. But that isn't the difference between making a commodity and making art. That's the difference between making good art, and bad art. And that's really what this conversation is about, and how it should be phrased. Because attacking games by denying what they actually are means that one is condemning more of them to be bad Art, by dividing them from the audiences that are looking for a solid narrative experience that they can take seriously, and which games provide in a way that not even movies can deliver.

And yeah, approaching the business of games like one approaches the business of artistic media does not mean that it can't be good, mindless fun. I'm watching the Marvel movie franchise too. It's really ok. It's only the medium that needs to be taken seriously, not every individual piece of it. But no one puts "Gigli" up against "Casablanca" and uses the former to condemn the whole of the medium, while folks are perfectly willing to ignore "The Stanley Parable," "Portal," and "Brothers," to focus on "Candy Crush Saga" and pretty much any game based on a movie, and thus blast games as a whole. And that, frankly, is the wrong way to think about the whole thing. Games, like movies and TV shows, are not monolithic, and don't serve a single audience or demographic. And it'd be a great benefit to the whole industry if those connected with it, or remarking upon it, would stop pretending that this was the case.

On which note, I leave you with these final thoughts: