ImRage: Why Video Gaming As An Art Form Is Under-Developed
There have been two major events in the gaming industry recently that have reopened the debate as to whether or not video games can be considered art. The first is that 14 games (including Portal and Tetris) have been added to the Museum of Modern Art (click here). The second is that the PSN title Journey was nominated for a Grammy for ‘Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media’ alongside The Dark Knight Rises and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (click here). Even if you are a sceptic as to whether or not video games can be considered an art form, the world does slowly seem to be coming to terms with the idea.
For me, personally, it hasn’t really been a contentious issue. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines art as: ‘a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination’ and video games are nothing if not that. But even though I, and many others, believe that video games are a canvas for creative expression few can deny that, in terms of being a true art form, video gaming is still in its infancy. Very few intellectuals take it seriously and the number of games with profound things to say are limited. So today, I’m not going to reopen that tired old debate of: “Are video games art”. Instead, I’m going to look at the environment surrounding video gaming and point out a few areas where it might be under-developed in allowing video games to flourish as an art form.
No Decent Critics
As possibly the most obvious reason for why gaming isn’t taken seriously, this one should be mentioned first. If you want your art to be appreciated, you need to have people that can actually appreciate it. Yes Shakespeare wrote some magnificent plays but a large reason why they are exalted so highly is because they’ve been analysed over and over again by people who really understood what he was doing. You had scholars, playwrights, authors and all sorts of learned and intelligent people all dissecting his works for years and years after they were published. In fact, people are still finding new meaning in them or imitating them today. The same can be said for the music of Mozart or the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci; powerful critics have been able to analyse and appreciate them for years.
In the world of gaming, such critics don’t really exist. You’ve got your review sites and some universities even offer game design as a course but who really writes papers analysing the artistic qualities in video games? Who really takes them seriously or writes books on them? Close to no one really. I suppose that one of the major reasons for no one daring to go as far as to study them is because most universities will probably laugh someone who tries to do this right out of the door. But many artists and art forms weren’t taken seriously in their time until a culture developed that could appreciate them. I believe something similar may be happening with video games.
No Recognition of Quality
Another problem ties into the way that games are evaluated and appraised. It’s all fair and well to say that there are no critics or scholars to analyse the ‘great’ games but one of the reasons for this is because it’s so hard to identify what a ‘great’ video game really is. For instance, in film, we know that Pulp Fiction and Gladiator are excellent movies while the Star Wars prequels are terrible movies. Why do we know this? Well, if you want a really simple answer (that doesn’t involve my previous point), it’s because the first two won Oscars, while the latter three didn’t.
When it comes to other art forms like film, writing, painting etc. you have internationally recognised bodies that exist to acknowledge the quality of certain pieces of art compared to others; like museums, registries and appreciation societies. In film, for instance, we have the Academy Awards to tell us which movies really stood out from the pack and, when a movie gets a nomination it’s usually because it deserves it. When a new movie is released, it can often quickly be discovered if the film is of a high quality or if it has any artistic merits. In the world of gaming, not really so. All the review sites do is just rate the games 8s and 9s. As a result it becomes very difficult to separate the real gems from the shiny rocks. And when was the last time you saw critics rate an art form out of 10? If they really must, they use the purposely vague five-star system. I suppose there are, of course, end of year awards from various websites like IGN, Gamespot and VGA but these are less like the Academy Awards and more like the MTV Movie Awards… and in the MTV Awards, Twilight won film of the year…
The main why reason its important to recognize greatness in gaming and other art forms is because we learn from analyzing progress and then imitating it until we find the next step. More is to be learned about taking video gaming forward from The Walking Dead than from Call of Duty 57. Likewise, in writing, few are under the illusion that 50 Shades of Grey is taking storytelling forward.
Lack of Visionaries
In my opinion, this may actually be one of the biggest reasons why gaming isn’t taken seriously as an art form. Every art form needs have the kind of artists to take it forward and gaming, surprisingly, seems to have very few. Let’s ignore the ancients like Beethoven and Dante Alighieri and just concentrate on the last 100 years. In music we have the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Metallica, Elvis Presley etc. In film we have Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg etc. In writing we have JRR Tolkien, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, etc. In gaming, who is there? Hideo Kojima, Gabe Newell and… Peter Molyneux? With all due respect, Kojima and Newell are probably two of greatest visionaries gaming has at the moment (for Molyneux on the other hand, if over-promising and under-achieving is noteworthy then George Bush should be called a visionary too) but after that, the list gets pretty thin.
In all fairness, video gaming has only been in existence for around forty years now so its still in its relative infancy when compared to disciplines such as music and writing which have existed for well over two thousand years. Even film and photography are well over a century old. So admittedly gaming does still have a lot of room to explore before it can reach the same heights. But what would certainly help it get there, is a group of keen-eyed visionaries. Special individuals have always been crucial in taking art forms forward and, unfortunately, you can’t just manufacture them or suck them out of thin air. But, if the culture around gaming develops, you can be sure that more intelligent and special people will be attracted to developing gaming.
There are a lot more points to be mentioned as to why gaming isn’t yet universally considered as an art form and the main one simply seems to be that it has a lot more growing up to do. As the environment around it begins to mature and new visionaries are attracted to entering it, we could see a lot of spectacular and groundbreaking games in the next ten years or so. If the last ten years are any indication, then gaming is one of those art forms that’s growing very rapidly in a short space of time and, eventually, we could see the world start to take it more seriously as its potential for interactive storytelling and immersive experiences becomes more widely known.
See you in two weeks time…