In Shadow of the Colossus, you control a lone figure riding a steed across a vast expanse of land; the few scattered trees that puncture through the earth serve only to be juxtaposed against the desolate, lifeless land they inhabit. In Braid, the gameplay becomes a living portrayal of the themes of the narrative as your ability to rewind time echoes the emotions of regret and remorse that pervade the game’s metaphors. In Ico, you must directly guide your companion through an empty ruin; their role as your only companion and your role as their guardian protector creates an experience of real anxiety and stress when they are separated from you.
It’s difficult to argue that games lack any form of artistic merit; the effects of visual metaphor and stylisation as well as emotional plots and characters seem only to be heightened when the audience can directly interact with them. However, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers and novelists”. Gaming has yet to find a work as worthy of appraisal as those of Picasso or Hemmingway. But does this mean that videogames are not art at all?
Within the debate on the nature of art, there are two prominent views. Some try to objectify art under a strict definition. Plato viewed art as the imitation of nature and Kant as that which “promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication”. The problem with this is that for any definition, there is almost always an exception. In light of this, there’s a temptation to take a subjective approach to art; the idea that everything can be art and that it’s purely down to the individual’s experience. The view of the subjectivists is an appealing one and it raises the question of whether defining the limits of art, and the place of video games within or beyond them, is a viable or indeed a worthwhile endeavour; simply put, does it matter?
Within the USA, there’s often been attempts to subjugate videogames to state censorship on the basis that they are ‘obscene’; containing content that would be considered offensive to the average member of the community. The defense against these accusations argues that videogames are protected under the first amendment of the constitution because of the artistic value the medium exhibits. The censorship of literature and film has become a thing of the past but for videogames it’s still a real threat; as an emerging medium of expression it is imperative to defend its artistic merit, both politically and culturally, else we may see the right to that expression stripped away.
However, there’s a more personal element to this debate. By recognising videogames as artistically significant, we also legitimise the creative process of the developers. The video game BAFTAS are a key example of this, where critically acclaimed games are formally recognised for their achievements. By granting great video games artistic validity in the eyes of the ‘intellectual elite’, we both support and inspire the creative process.
And that’s the real importance of this debate; if we want to see more emotionally charged interactions within videogames that carry a truly contemplative poignancy, we need to convince the industry that they are capable of it. Conversely, if you tell designers that they’re crafters of cheap thrills and children’s toys we are going to see adrenaline charged games (i.e. modern warfare) dominate and ultimately define the medium. If we want to see truly brilliant games that can compete with the great artists and poets, we must begin by convincing the industry that it’s possible. Therein lies the importance of the debate surrounding art and video games and why we must pursue the objective artistic justification thereof, not made pessimistic by, but in spite of the presumed unattainability of that goal.
Editor’s Note: The Gamer’s Guide is our brand spanking new Video Games blog. Whether you’re a massive game conventions keeno, or just someone who longs for those good, old days of button-mashing to Tekken, Tom’s blog is open to all and everyone. He’ll be looking for as much interaction with his readers as possible, so feel free to comment below!