Let's Just Admit Video Games Can Plausibly Be Art And Move On With Our Too-Brief Lives
Let's play a question game! How do you convince the mainstream media that video games can potentially be a legitimate and meaningful form of narrative?

If you answered in the way that IGN's Michael Thompson does in the above video, you've lost the question game!

There is much that is endearing about the above ABC News clip -- the cross-cuts between Citizen Kane sequences and shots of Samus Aran blowing things up, the way he emphasizes the fact that "you play a woman," the way he equates a kid with a controller reading a bunch of text about alien religions in order to learn about a vanished civilization to a newspaper reporter tracing the growth of evil in the heart of one of the powerful men who made America what it is today.

Congratulations, Michael Thompson, IGN employee — in other words, IGN Entertainment, in other words, News Corporation — in other words, Rupert Murdoch's man, bought and paid for! You've just set back mainstream coverage of a potentially valid medium twenty years!

The one thing I can say in your defense, though: if it hadn't been you, it would have been someone else. This story wanted to happen; wind blew through the corridors of power and took shape as this pretty pitiful dust devil of a filler piece for prime time. You have the network considering all points of view: hey, maybe there is something to these video games! Games as art! Who'd have thought it! Then you have games speaking up for themselves in a cute little voice, explaining what all the parts of their crayon drawing are, and why the drawing as a whole is good. You have the pat on the head that keeps you smiling and keeps you in your place. And you have the safety of knowing that no one's definition of a video game has been changed one iota by this piece: we're still at Mario's square one; video games are mindless entertainment where, as old-school LucasArts developer Douglas Crockford says, "your character met people, killed them, took their money, and then bought more weapons." Video games involving blowing people up make billions of dollars for people every year; if a corporation can sell that experience as art to boot, get the cake-eater crowd involved, then by god it's Christmas Day in the workhouse at last.

There are plenty of ways to think of video games as art. One of them is just to assume that any creative work anyone puts together is good, no matter what, if it's well-rendered -- this is the "feel-good" option, through the use of which Boris Vallejo sleeps well at night. You can argue that Metroid Prime is artful, sure, in the same way that you can argue that The Bourne Identity has good camera work. Make Batman violent and claim it's an allegory for fascism -- you're still writing about Batman. We don't need Batman: we need games about failed relationships, games about political expediency and its human costs, games about sexual confusion, games about racial strife, games by people who have other voices, who inhabit other rooms. (And we need them not to be terrible on their own aesthetic terms.)

I don't care how well-drawn your cheap thrills are -- the issue is that the thrills are cheap. Good art gives you laborious and dangerous thrills, like breaking something expensive and precious to you.

And there's just no reason video games can't be art in the better sense: work that doesn't waste your time. This is a classic and stupid debate and there's no reason it should keep going forward, except for the fact that NewsCorp shills in conjunction with ABC News want to do stories about how a AAA multimillion dollar game produced by hundreds of corporate employees can somehow represent human life by telling a story about a space girl blowing shit up with space missiles. So we have to keep going over this same ground and, yes, wasting our time.

(N.b. I keep referring to NewsCorp because you should really name your villains, but I should say that I don't think Michael Thompson is being disingenuous here, speaking the corporate party line. I think he is in earnest in believing that Metroid Prime is as good as Citizen Kane. This is worse.)

Video games by their nature are good at communicating to you what it feels like to be faced with a decision of some kind, a goal. The whole process of making art is to continually undermine whatever everyone else believes to be true -- that's what produces the shock that people seek out when they seek out good work. There are people who are doing this kind of thing, who are trying to figure out how far the medium can be pushed, and there are people who are trying to figure out where it should be pushed to.

Any video game necessarily involves a narrative -- there's a player; she's trying to do something. If you have a narrative, then you can have an artful narrative. If not, we might as well all go home. All we're waiting for is for the right person to come along and figure out what the right mix of details are to have something that's relevant to human life, that carries some meaning at the same time as it delights and offends. Video games are art to the extent that playing them doesn't waste a chunk of the years you have before old age and death, by which criterion Metroid Prime pretty much fails.

The above clip is not art yet -- it's still Jonathan Blow making clever fun of guys jumping on platforms. It's still Alan Moore letting us know that superheroes are a pretty stupid thing to write about; it's still Cervantes letting us know that it's stupid to believe in dragons when you're living in the brutal and cruel world of seventeenth century rural Spain. Everything starts as foolish commercial art, and then the people who grow up with it go on to make it something better than that. You start with corporate money and then gradually you whittle it away and away until the good people are starving, but free.

Marcel Duchamp didn't ditch sculpture and painting for chess for nothing. And the taste in narrative of corporate punks like Michael Thompson, IGN commentator, doesn't matter. Corporations aren't people -- stop thinking of video games in the way corporations want you to think of them. Narrative is all we've got, so let's make our narratives as good as we can make them, whatever means we choose to get them delivered.

Posted by future on Sat, 27 Feb 2010 21:59:26 -0500 -- permanent link

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