The nascent art form

— 9:44 AM on June 11, 2009

The subject I'm going to discuss in this post probably isn't new to you, but it's also going to be the basis for some other blog posts I want to write further down the line. I'd like to address a question that rears its ugly head every now and then about video games and hopefully put a concrete stamp on it.

Are video games art?

I expect The Tech Report's peanut gallery will overwhelmingly (and correctly) respond in the affirmative. If you don't agree, then you're in the right place, because this blog will hopefully help elucidate the question.

The first and most basic thing to recognize is that video games are a nascent art form. They haven't been around that long, especially compared to other, more entrenched forms of art. For example, classicist visual art like painting and sketching has been around since proto-humans scraped coal on the insides of cave walls. Over time, the art form changed and mutated, going through phases and ages, and it will continue to do so. For what it's worth, I'm not a fan of where it presently sits with respect to the "art scene" proper—art produced in the past twenty years tends to be too meta for me; too much about answering the profound and profoundly dull question "what is art?" and less about just making something that inspires thought beyond that.

Likewise, when we introduce photography into the discussion, we bring with it the discussion of art forms being defined by one another. I don't find it unusual to suggest that the introduction of photography in the 1830s was key to steering visual art away from more traditional representative work and into more abstract, experimental endeavors.

When you move forward in history to motion pictures—really just high-speed photography played back at high speed—it isn't surprising to find that medium defined chiefly by art that preceded it: photography and theatre. And just in case you're curious, I feel compelled to point out that Americans were nowhere near the kinds of pioneers of film that artists in other countries were. German expressionism gave birth to many of the ideas of special effects and lighting tricks we enjoy today, and Sergei Eisenstein helped pioneer the concept of montage—two images played in sequence representing a third idea.

Bringing up contributors from other countries is key to my central thesis—video games as art—because it forces us to shed light on why the debate even exists. Motion pictures as introduced in America were ghettoized from the get-go. Film was nowhere near the respected art form it is today; just a century ago, it was a baser means of entertainment for the masses and ill-regarded in artistic circles. Does that sound familiar at all?

The funny thing is, in other countries, film was being more aggressively pursued as an exciting new means of artistic expression. As a result, while Americans were futzing around with the Hays Code until the mid-1960s, Europeans and Russians were going absolutely nuts with the new medium and pushing it much further than we were inclined to. I'm not one of those "old films are the best films" blah blah jackasses; for my own enjoyment and education, I generally don't watch anything made before 1970.

But one of my favorite examples is in a French film I watched in one of my classes, Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player from 1960. There's a scene in the bedroom where the main character has just had relations with a prostitute, they're lying in bed together, and her breasts are exposed. They're having a conversation, and the prostitute says something to the effect of "look at me, I'm an American" before covering up her breasts with the sheet. Keep in mind that in 1960 with the Hays Code still active, this scene would never have made it to America. So if anything, what you learn from this bit—in context—is that censorship stunts art, and the French will mock us for it.

I've digressed by ranting about the Hays Code (this is the tip of the iceberg; such is my loathing for censorship), but hopefully you're starting to see some parallels here. Video games are taken more seriously in another country (Japan), while here, in their youth, they're regarded as amusement for man-children and lacking in artistic merit.

And it's important to note that video games are still very young. We still have developers flirting with mature content. Violent content is almost a non-issue in America, where John Carpenter's seminal horror classic The Thing gets played virtually uncut on the Sci-Fi Channel while people have fits over Janet Jackson's nipple in the Super Bowl telecast (a case that's still an ongoing legal issue). Violence, though it's had its watersheds with Doom, Mortal Kombat, and the Columbine incident, is still something developers are fairly comfortable with. Complex issues like war can actually be handled in a fairly intelligent way. I was very impressed by Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in that respect—and subsequently disheartened by Treyarch's World at War entry, which squandered Modern Warfare's good will.

Turn around and take a look at how sexual content is presently handled in video games, though, and you'll find it's still very stunted. BioWare seems to have had the most success in introducing sexuality without making it completely moronic, but the love scenes in the otherwise outstanding Mass Effect are still awkward to say the least, and rumors about Dragon Age: Origins are disappointing. Likewise, look at how sexuality is handled in games like God of War, which has generated a bafflingly small amount of negative media attention. Or in The Witcher, where sexual conquests are literally collected like trading cards. (The Witcher is a Polish-developed game, but these other ones are American.)

At the same time, I also want you to note how video games are currently progressing. Given that newer art forms will often define themselves against pre-existing ones, consider the heavy push for theatricality in video games—even going as far back as when SquareSoft, then still interested in making good games, marketed Parasite Eve for the PlayStation as "the Cinematic RPG." Consider how Mass Effect parlays this theatricality by opening up options to control dialogue and relationships in-game to an extent. One of my favorite examples of the potential of video games as an art form, Call of Duty 4, follows similar lines by driving you to your own execution or forcing you to drag your mangled body out of an airplane, exploiting the first-person perspective and interactivity in ways film never could.

Or you can just go on your merry way analyzing BioShock.

I hope I've made my point. Video games are indeed art—a nascent art form, as I enjoy saying. Those who would claim otherwise seem to have a very short memory.

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