Video Games as Art… Again

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By now, this controversial post on Polygon has made its rounds and got nerd panties up in bunches. I thought of writing something about it not because I have anything to prove, but merely to express a bit of my incredulity on the subject, which is a moot and futile point anyway. But since I don’t take myself too seriously, I’ll make an ass out of myself anyway by putting on my pretentio-hat and stretch my pseudo-intellect to analyze this whole “video games as art” topic, just like hundreds of thousands of times before by other pretentious pseudo-intellectual pricks before me.

Mind you, it’s actually an excerpt from a book by a guy named Phil Owens. Through a Google search, I found out that he’s basically this guy. I read through the excerpt and found myself agreeing to a lot of its points. It’s actually not bad; controversy only comes from the reactions, most likely by those who didn’t actually read it and just reacted from the title or stereotype of “video games are not art” alone.

This isn’t entirely a reaction to the article, but also adding my own two cents to this age-old discussion on video games as art.

A Couple of Reactions to the Polygon Article

Then you find reaction posts like this one on Medium, which you’d first think is a fair assessment of the post, but only if you didn’t read it first. I’m not saying that I totally agree with everything Mr. Owen wrote (especially his argument on video games refusing to grow up), but he did make some good points. That Medium post also has some good points, although it’s mostly smothered by a thick layer of “that man is absolutely wrong”.

Then there’s TotalBiscuit’s video response. I have to admit that I’m a fan of John Bain’s work, so there may be a bit of bias here. However, I can’t say that the points he made here are wrong.

Old and Tired Arguments

There were times when genres we now see as art these days were ridiculed as not art before when they first appeared. To hell with this whole notion of a creative product being “not art” by a pompous and close-minded few, audiences will consume whatever is fun and/or compelling anyway. Good shit that gets enough visibility will almost always gain traction, whether you or critics find it to be crap.

But despite that, it’s still an important question to ask because it serves as a litmus test for the medium’s progress in its refinement. Back in the day, there was only so many bytes you could jam into a cartridge or floppy disk, so storytelling was limited. But once technology advanced, we got Half-Life and various other titles that had so much narrative packed into them. Now here we are with games like The Last of Us and so on that pushed it even further.

From the way I see it, most of what Mr. Owen wrote about is how most games have clumsily told stories through cutscenes and dialogue sequences that broke things up. To say that a narrative experience feels too much like a video game is somehow wrong is rather silly; it’s still supposed to be a video game.

He compares video games to film, which is absolutely pointless. Film has had a whole lot more time to develop through multiple generations who practiced it over many decades, and it is a visual medium that is only meant to be watched. I’m not saying that film is easy, but there are a lot more variables involved with an interactive medium like video games.

Once again, fucking apples and goddamn oranges. (He fell into the same trap as Roger Ebert did.)

He then turns towards “video game logic” as the weak link in the chain. He does point out that it’s not inherently bad, but also being meaningless beyond their function as a gameplay device. I see video game logic as that plant that is constantly being made to grow straight; you can’t simply leave it on its own and expect it to turn out alright.

Realism is still a goal for many developers, and we’ve seen constant strides towards that direction. Perhaps most attempts end up not solving the problem entirely, but that’s just how evolution is. It’s never a 45-degree upward angle on the chart, but a series of ups and downs.

If that’s what he’s really ragging on about, then I think he’s chasing his own tail. Sure, they’re still valid arguments, but it’s like telling a cat where to shit and expecting it to actually obey right off the bat.

There is No Refusal to Grow; Evolution is Inevitable

I disagree with Mr. Owen’s argument that the video game industry refuses to grow up. It’s like saying that film is being stunted by directors who decide to shoot in black-and-white. (Horrible argument there, but that’s all I can think of.)

It’s a sensationalist subtitle that must have been put there just to sell his ebook. When you read it, you may find yourself nodding to most of it, then perhaps you forget about the main argument once you finish it. At least from the excerpt, you can agree to most of it, but not find the punctuation mark that seals the deal.

Maybe I should read the rest of the ebook, but I personally have doubts as to how he proves that the industry actually does refuse to grow up.

From Half-Life to something like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, with 17 years between them, where is the refusal to grow? Maybe you can argue that there hasn’t been much development between the two as desired—disregarding technical improvements—because video game logic still pervades (and perverts), but is that really where this whole debate lies?

Is it really just about video games being video games, and thus not being equal to film that also has its own set of rules as well? If that’s all there is to it, then I really don’t see it.

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