Well, at the moment gaming is the red-headed stepchild of media; desperate for attention and acceptance from the older kids. It's still an immature medium (in oh so many ways), there's still a social stigma attached to it, and so people like me with nothing better to do stroke their beards and talk about emergent narrative and why we don't have an equivalent to Citizen Kane yet.
None of this matters in the long view, of course. Within, say, 20 years, nearly all of the people making up mainstream Western culture (whatever that is) will have grown up with shiny modern commercial gaming, and the wider popular perception of games will have changed from Pac-Man and Space Invaders to Gears of War and Halo. Which is just as inaccurate a representation in its own way, but that's beside the point.
This whole wordy think-piece comes up because the 'can games be art' question has been going around this bit of the blogosphere, from Kapitano and Aethelread. Plus, of course, I'm thoroughly invested in it myself; I write a series of columns based almost entirely on the contention that games are art for a most excellent webzine of win and awesome called Sublime Rush (look for Flashing Pixels, if you want to have a read). On top of that, I've been playing videogames for as long as I can remember, instead of doing healthy things like going outside.
It occurs to me, though, that I've got through four instalments of said column without ever trying to define what art is. Possibly I am not a very good writer. Thankfully, the drunken librarian that won't shut up of the internet, Wikipedia, gives us something good enough to be going on with:
Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.It might also be true to add (stealing a little bit from Kapitano's comment on Aethelread's post) that you can distinguish art from design because, in Oscar Wilde's words:
All art is quite useless.Which is somewhat problematic. Most games are, on the face of it, useless for anything other than entertainment or diversion (and unlike novels, you can't even use them for kindling), but then there are plenty of games designed specifically to be educational (you might argue that these aren't entertaining, but then again I'm still looking for Carmen bloody Sandiego). And on the commercial side, they're certainly useful for making money. But still. If film's useless enough to make the cut, games are art too.
But there were a couple of bits from Aethelread's post that I'd like to pick up on.
...our culture is still deeply bound up with Romantic notions of the artist. The idea of the artist as a solitary figure working in isolation on a thoroughly original piece of work is one that still has a powerful hold on our collective imagination. Recently that’s been undermined to some extent – it’s been pointed out, for example, that many of the most famous painters in history only supervised some of the work produced in their name, with the actual act of applying paint to canvas being carried out by anonymous assistants – and there’s been an appreciation of the importance of collaboration in the production of all works of art. Even so, video games, being such an intensively collaborative medium, radically violate the convention of thinking of a work of art as the production of a single ‘creative genius’. There’s a similar phenomenon at work in cinema...Which is absolutely true, of course. I can point to a handful of relatively well-known (amongst gamers, anyway) game designers; Warren Spector, Will Wright, Harvey Smith, Robin Walker, Clint Hocking, Jordan Thomas - to name a few, but none are really known outside the field, and as with cinema, while you might have two or three guys at the top supplying the vision (and it's nearly always guys - another problem right there), most of the grunt work is being done by a pool of bearded men in Star Wars T-shirts who almost inevitably seem to be called Andrew. Of course, as a film nerd and a gamer both, what I'd like most of all is for the gaming culture to start developing its own take on the auteur theory. And individual game studios do tend to develop a reputation of their own; Bioware make excellent RPGs, Infinity Ward make (or rather, made) their name in the shoot-lots-of-men-in-the-face genre, Russian developers generally make unpolished and sometimes unplayable or even downright incomprehensible works of genius (rather like the literature, really), and so on. But that's not quite the same thing. And the common-or-garden pubescent morons you find on Xbox Live don't much care who developed what unless it's an excuse for a console war. But I live in hope. Next bit:
So far as I can see, video games seem to be relatively uninterested in educating their players, or providing them with transformative experiences. I suspect people who appreciate a good game do so in aesthetic terms – that’s to say, appreciate it for its skilful balancing of the intellectual interest of the narrative, and the emotional resonance of the characters and situations, and the challenge of the problem-solving, and the excitement of the gameplay – rather than because it teaches them something. I also suspect that, when the game is better than merely good, the experience of playing it may well be transcendent – in that it takes the player away from themselves – but is unlikely to be transformative.I beg to differ. I mean, I'll cop to most games not caring about educating their players, unless it's about the virtues of firing in short, controlled bursts or unsubtle America-saves-the-day-again propaganda. But games can be transformative. Taking the player away from themselves is one thing (immersion), and it's pretty much mandatory for a game worth its salt, and a large part of the appeal, but there's more to it than that.
To put it another way, everyone has music like that. Maybe you spent your teenage years being an Afghan Whigs lyric. Or met your future wife through a shared love of 'Across the Sea'. Had your mind blown by a combination of controlled substances and The Wall. Or cried your way through a painful bout of unrequited love with 'I Still Remember' and 'Mr. Brightside'*.
Well, all the same things can be true of games. I mean, I grew up with them. I remember playing Age of Empires with my dad as a kid. I was being scared by System Shock long before I ever saw a horror movie. The first time I got drunk at a party me and my friends ended up playing Guitar Hero. My first kiss happened after some guy and I got bored with Super Smash Bros. Melee (huge indictment of my seduction skills there, I know). This is beside the point; none of these are evidence of games being transformative, but the memories are still evocative. Everyone's got a mental soundtrack to their lives, and pretty soon there'll be a gaming equivalent.
But games can be life-changing in and of themselves, too. I know I've had my sense of humour informed by everything from Theme Hospital to Portal. A large part of my horrible personality comes from the residual bitterness you get from trying to play anything multiplayer with dial-up. Deus Ex got me into cyberpunk novels and The Man Who Was Thursday (still my favourite book). I know for a fact that I inherited my ...unique approach to problem-solving from text-adventure games. I got a vast breadth of war-nerdery from the likes of Operation Flashpoint.
OK, these aren't great examples, but for God's sake, people are getting married in MMOs. That should tell you something. Games journalist (and part of the Rock Paper Shotgun hivemind) Jim Rossignol credits Quake III for saving him from the drudgery of financial journalism in his (much-recommended) book This Gaming Life. And of course, just about everyone working in the games industry got inspired by it somehow, mostly by the work of their predecessors.
And if after all that you're still in doubt, it was Bioshock that finally persuaded me to read Atlas Shrugged, and that's a feat that all the teachers in the world couldn't perform. I still hated it, though. There's some things even art can't do for you.
* All true, canvassed from friends. One of them is mine. Shouldn't be hard to tell which.