I certainly didn’t start this blog as megaphone for public service announcements, and I wouldn’t be reaching many people if I had, but one of my regularly followed YouTube channels brought up a topic that prompted me to discuss my thoughts on the artistry of video games.
I’ve always had a passion for video games and the many disciplines of art that they require (and often excel in); I’ve made the argument more than once that I think games are the highest form and final evolution of art, since any branch that I can bring to mind has a place in game design. Musicians create works that react dynamically to their listeners. Painters create textures and skyboxes that take our breath away as we interact with them. Sculptors create 3D models that build worlds to spark our imaginations. Dancers and actors translate their movements through motion capture to inform and deepen our experiences. Writers weave intricate narratives that drive players to tears and make them question their decisions. The argument over whether games are art is still strong today because, I believe, games surpass traditional art, both by combining various disciplines and by using those disciplines so interactively. In no other medium is the observer of art also one of its creators, but games require an observer to witness their artistry by unfolding their layers over hours of effort.
This question of validity, so often posed by the uninitiated and so incredulously dismissed by the avid player, took decades to be answered by those outside the niche community of video game fans. Throughout their history games have been marginalized and demeaned and threatened by society and even by governments. Anyone over the age of thirty easily recalls Sega and Nintendo representatives having to justify the existence of Mortal Kombat to a Congressional committee, and that highly successful series now has a dozen entries.
And yet, over and over again, games proved their worth. Mortal Kombat was deemed permissible, even if it’s existence led to the creation of the ESRB to rate the age appropriateness of future games (a move volunteered by Sega as a self-policing action, by the way). The Smithsonian has hosted interactive art exhibits of classic video games, drawing crowds of thousands. The NEA has sponsored games it deems artistically important. The world has begun to accept the validity of art appreciated via controller. As Raph Koster puts it in his text for A Theory of Fun for Game Design:
“[P]ainting was once a blasphemous act that robbed reality of its essence. Dance was seen as wantoness incapable of expressing any higher emotions. The novel was self-indulgent gothic nonsense for cooped-up housewives. Film was once trashy kinetoscopes at the penny arcade, unworthy of adult attention. Jazz was devil music that would lead young lives astray. Rock ‘n’ roll was destroying the fabric of our country.
And Shakespeare himself was no more than a bit player and a sometime scribbler for a theater in the bad part of town. Proper women weren’t allowed into the theater because their reputations would be ruined, and their stepping on the stage was unthinkable.
We learned better.”
Continually, we learn better. We accept what is valid instead of fearing what is new. It is an inevitable yet satisfying step that even our federal government has begun to accept the artistic validity of games, moving from witch hunts over pixelated blood to financial support for Walden (based upon the Thoreau text of the same name).
And yet, we seem on the verge of a major step backward, for all forms of art, which now includes games after all the struggles of the last few decades. The federal government is considering completely defunding (thereby effectively dissolving) the NEA, the NEH, and even PBS (although their frequent donation drives may keep Masterpiece Theater afloat).
This speaks volumes to me about the value we place on art and culture. In a capitalist society there is no greater or more tangible expression of what we prioritize than the amount of funding we put forward. All categories of arts funding combined account for only 0.02% of our federal budget as is, which is a statistic that screams that culture is considered unimportant at present. And yet discussions are taking place to remove even that meager percentage from the table. Doing so would shackle artistic expression and cultural exploration by tacitly removing our approval, by turning art from a noble endeavor worthy of national recognition into the basement hobby of the eccentric. As the aphorism says, “money talks,” and we are on the verge of making a devastating statement.
By no means am I saying that the creation of art will cease or that the industries around them will crumble, but the way we view art will be changed for the worse, as will the many industries and endeavors that draw from them. Sure, the next Call of Duty will not suffer, nor the next Marvel movie, but devaluing art will affect even popular media. Bioshock could not exist without Ayn Rand. Journey could not exist without Joseph Campbell. Spec Ops: The Line could not exist without Joseph Conrad. Even common pulp media draws inspiration from art and culture. She’s The Man, How to Lose A Guy in Ten Days, The Lion King, and even Sons of Anarchy all come from adaptations of plays by the Bard himself, that bit player in the bad part of town.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that all media is art, but all media houses great works of art, and that art is not lesser for the remainder of the medium. Tom Clancy and James Patterson do not devalue Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare. Mass produced kindergarten hand turkeys do not detract from the works of Van Gogh. Every medium has its Custer’s Revenge or its Dante’s Inferno (the game, to be clear), but that never cheapens the Life is Stranges or the Limbos of the medium.
What this means is that even though defunding art won’t stop its creation, it will affect all aspects of our culture. Art influences other art as well as popular culture. If we devalue art, fewer artists will create, fewer media will acknowledge art, and, most horrifying of all, even fewer people will care. The concept of art will diminish further from the thoughts of the average American to the point of becoming a social non sequitur. And what is the point of our nine-to-fives, our struggles with bills and taxes, our efforts to continue existing if we have no culture beyond those mechanical purposes? Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the joy of art take us away from pain awhile? Whether it’s through literature or film or game or sculpture or music, art is that which by definition is essential to life but superfluous to staying alive. It gives us reasons to push through the mundane and seek out the extraordinary. Games are one facet of art (and one that bears more scrutiny these days than most), but to strike a blow to all forms of art for the sake of pinching proverbial pennies is ludicrous and dangerous.
As a final note, to any who wish to see what good games can do even beyond their purely artistic value, I encourage you to check out these videos on games in education. Coming from the same channel as the above link, these videos demonstrate how video games can be used to enhance learning and teach effective skills for life management and societal interaction.