This is the first of two pieces in my Games, Journalism and Culture series, focusing on how games are represented across the breadth of journalistic output. The next piece is due on Wednesday.
The debate of video games as art is an debate, and one that seems to have hit a wall. Games were notably regarded as not worthy of First Amendment protection by a U.S. court as apparently “[There is] no conveyance of ideas, expression, or anything else that could possibly amount to speech.” (2002, cited in Wagner, 2002) Roger Ebert famously once argued that they’ll never be art (at least within readers lifetimes, though he did change his mind). Games journalists and developers have varied opinions: Phil Hartup sees player agency as a game’s artistry (New Statesman), Sophia George wrote for The Guardian that actual art design is key, and some, like Michael Samyn of development studio Tales of Tales, thinks games aren’t art. Despite the breadth of opinion, the debate is inconclusive, and it needs an entirely new approach by games journalists.
It doesn’t matter which side of the argument you fall on. If you think games are purely entertainment, fine–as long as you don’t hate games, which would be very odd if you are a gamer. I don’t think that the purpose of the debate is to make games necessarily be seen as art, but at least to be a cultural item worthy or serious mainstream discussion. Even if you disagree with that, then at least this debate should be re-energised, as it will in turn energise discussion within gaming communities.
A step towards making this discussion more lively is to not be ashamed of comparing video games to works from other mediums. Yes, Citizen Kane has often been referenced in the discussion of video games – so much so that a tumblr exists collating such references. Some say we have had a Citizen Kane moment – even film magazine Empire hasn’t been afraid to make such a claim, saying The Last of Us may be seen as that moment. It is worth being aware that Citizen Kane is generally regarded highly for it’s direction rather than it’s story, so whether it is one of film’s greatest works of art is up for debate. Yet, if it is culturally revered primarily for it’s technical prowess, then why can’t games be?
Is The Last of Us a marvel in story or just technical elements? (Credit to IGN, game by Naughty Dog/Sony)
Of course, Citizen Kane has an interesting story as well as. However, there have been many masterworks that games journalists shouldn’t be afraid of shouting to the skies about. The narrative of the likes of Final Fantasy X should willingly be compared to works of literature and film. There should also be the willingness to not do so at all: films and books are generally looked at within their own mediums and, as such, our medium does not need to be placed alongside others.
The problem is that the debate is limited to semantics when focused on whether games can be ‘art’, which Ebert showed by searching for a suitable definition of art in both of his posts. What needs to be discussed is what games can do rather than trying to fit them into a box that can’t be found. What they can do is make you cry. They can fill you with wonder. They can make you consider philosophy. I’ve discussed two of the three, and I’ve certainly encountered the latter, with BioShock making me consider the nature of society like few works have.
I urge every games journalist to look at this debate anew. If we can get people to consider that games have merit beyond pure entertainment value – yes, merely to just consider it – then perhaps we can push video games into the cultural conversation. That is long overdue.