The Case for Video Games
Video Games are fun, but are they art? Heck yes. We explore the history and present of video games and what sets them apart as a means of artistic expression.
WOMAN: I am not a gamer.
If anything, I tend to be overwhelmed by
and fearful of the addictive immersiveness of video games.
But the first time I saw this game Monument Valley,
I was completely and utterly mesmerized
by its spare beauty, its M.C. Escher-like sequence
of pathways and structures
and ladders that this quiet little person
deftly navigates and unlocks.
I was not just entertained, I was moved.
It was poetic, challenging, metaphorically resonant.
How was my experience of this game
in any way lesser than my encounters
with other forms of art?
And what else out there was I missing?
This is The Case for Video Games.
Video games have a rich history, beginning
before you think they did with proto computer games
like Tennis for Two in 1958.
But they really kicked off in the early 1970s
with the explosion of arcade games and the dawn
of home consoles with minimalist wonders like Pong
and an impressive variety of plastic boxes
with faux wood details.
And there have been a huge range
of kinds of video games since
of varying quality and popularity.
Video games are not a passing fad.
They're a multi-billion dollar industry.
I mean, seriously, as big if not bigger than the film industry.
And it sees growth every year,
evolving as the world and technology evolve
and as developers and corporations and gamers
respond to those changes.
It's hard to talk about video games as being one thing,
because they perform varying functions
and address differing needs.
I mean, some games are primarily about pattern recognition
and spatial reasoning, like positioning Mario above a pipe,
or dodging bullets, or fitting blocks into an allotted space.
Other games are educational, either vaguely
or strategically, imparting history or math or engineering.
Sometimes you can choose whether or not
you want the game to be educational.
But video games can teach and test
your coordination and rhythm,
alone and of course with friends.
Competition is at the core of many games,
but so is collaboration, allowing you to work together
with others toward a goal, whether your teammates
are in the same room or on a different continent.
Now it may be obvious, but worth noting
that video games are almost always about strategy
and problem solving.
You can learn the rules of sports
and play them with less risk of injury.
You can simulate potentially real-world situations
and also not-real-world situations.
Video games allow you to build worlds, evolve worlds,
and explore the amazingly intricate worlds
that others have created.
Who doesn't want to turn into a cat and jump through a tree
or discover a new planet--
a planet that admittedly no one else
will ever see in this vast and lonely universe?
The quality of CGI in games has improved significantly
over the years, offering up immersive cinematic worlds
and almost but not quite naturalistic reproductions
of human beings.
We're still in the uncanny valley, folks,
and we likely will be for some time.
Developers have brought in actors
you know and love to voice characters
in a number of games.
MALE: I'm a ghost, actually.
WOMAN: And some games feature footage of real life actors,
like Her Story in which you explore
a video database of fictional interviews of a woman
to try to uncover the truth of what happened.
Video games are really good at telling stories,
letting a narrative unravel over time.
Like a good novel or movie, they're paced,
alternating periods of fast-paced action
with slower moments allowing for exposition
and character development.
Movies are actually a really good point of comparison here,
as they're also a more populist accessible art form.
Some are considered high art or film.
And others are, well, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses II.
And like our taste for movies, sometimes we want
something fun and easy, and other times
we feel like something super challenging and intense.
Likewise for the kind of art you see in a gallery or museum,
one day you might want to gaze at a captivating landscape
whose equivalent in gaming might be something like Firewatch.
Another day, you want to stand before Picasso's Guernica
and feel the pain and misery of the Spanish Civil War,
an experience closer to something
like playing This War of Mine about a group of civilians
trying to survive in a besieged city.
Now there's been plenty of work assigned
to the realm of visual or fine art
that has involved video game technology,
like Corey Archangel's 2002 work, Super Mario Clouds,
for which he modified the code
of the original 1985 Super Mario Brothers,
erasing all sound and all visual elements
except the sky and the clouds that scroll across it.
Video games have also been collected by art museums,
like Jenova Chen and Nick Clark's Flow
and Jason Rohrer's Passage, a five-minute game where
a character moves through the stages of life
and dies only once at the end,
both of which were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.
But for what it's worth, they also have The Sims.
There are a number of creators making games
who work between disciplines,
not confining themselves to one field or another.
Actually, opera might be a more fitting point
of comparison for video games--
in particular, the idea of the total work of art,
propounded by German composer Richard Wagner.
Rather than all the arts existing separately
in their own silos, Wagner wanted his own works
to synthesize music, drama, dance, costumes,
set design, and everything else into one harmonious whole.
Similarly, video games are consolidations
of the creative output of many.
Writers, designers, programmers, composers, concept artists,
modelers, directors, sound engineers,
and many other roles all brought together into one package.
The creation of video games is largely
a collective enterprise, but there are plenty
of individual artists and auteurs
who are credited as the visionaries behind given games,
like Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of classics
like Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda,
and Hideo Kojima, the lead behind the Metal Gear series.
But while the most popular games are truly team efforts,
there are still lone wolves out there,
like Eric Barone, the single developer
behind Stardew Valley, one of the top selling titles
of 2016 on Steam,
who created the game by working on his own ten hours a day,
seven days a week for four years.
Like any artist, a game developer
begins with a relative blank slate.
They have a particular set of skills and technologies
at their disposal, and a knowledge either thin or deep
of what's been done before.
Whether working alone or with gobs of money
and a team of folks behind them, developers
build complex, many-layered microcosms for others
to investigate and decipher and explore.
And that's really what sets video games apart.
They need you to complete them.
All art is interactive to some degree.
If a painting hangs in a forest and no one sees it,
is it really artwork?
Sculpture and installation require you
to walk around them, to take them in in full.
More and more works of art assume and necessitate
viewer involvement, but very few as inherently
as any video game.
They not only respond to you but adapt
and offer diverse experiences
depending on the choices you make.
This extreme interactivity makes it so that you,
at least to some extent, become the co-author.
You are the artist too.
You can try to understand what the developer
might be trying to say or accomplish.
And you can also bend the experience to embody or project
how you see the world.
There are genres of video games, just as with
other forms of art.
You've got your first-person shooters and role-playing games
But also like other forms of art,
the expectations and rules for every kind of game
have been stretched and broken and intentionally subverted.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows for open-ended game play,
enabling you to navigate the world
in an unstructured and non-linear way.
Some titles completely discard the idea
that a game needs a clearly-defined objective.
Like, what am I supposed to be doing on this island, exactly?
Or maybe the developers completely
throw away the idea of a cut scene,
pioneered way back in Pac-Man,
and make the entire game
feel like a single, unbroken tracking shot.
Or maybe the game's objective is to take care
of this fish man thing?
Not every new idea is a winner, people.
But video games require much more than coordination.
Whether solo enterprises or social undertakings,
they challenge players to think critically about
not only the world of the game
but also the real world around them.
The game The Last of Us, in which
a smuggler has the job of escorting a teenage girl
across a post-apocalyptic, zombified United States
sparked discussions about what it means to be a father
and the dynamics of father- daughter relationships.
Games like Life is Strange tackle
difficult problems head-on, like online harassment
Life is Strange 2 follows teenager brothers
of Mexican descent who are dealing
with the traumatic death of a parent
and citizenship and racism and religious extremism.
One first-person exploration game, Gone Home,
follows a young woman as she returns to her Oregon home
in 1995, finds it empty, and pieces together
that her family fell apart after her parents found out
about her younger sister's lesbian relationship.
Video games can provide a platform
for many underrepresented voices and stories.
Like Never Alone, which was developed in collaboration
between game makers and Alaska native storytellers
and is based on a traditional Inupiat tale.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
ruled in 2011 that video games
deserve First Amendment protection,
just like books, plays, and movies,
writing, "video games communicate ideas, even
"social messages, through many familiar literary devices
"such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music,
"and through features distinctive to the medium,
such as the player's interaction with the virtual word."
Of course, you don't have to look far
to find a game that will offend you, no matter who you are.
But that's true with any art form.
There are big issues with gaming.
But I'd argue they're not baked into the medium.
As Seth Schiesel argued in 2018, "It's not the content,
it's the culture."
The online gaming culture, that is,
where bigotry, bullying, sexism, and all sorts of toxic behavior
have run amok and ruin the enjoyment for many.
It can be hard, if not impossible,
to separate these issues from the games themselves.
However, they certainly aren't exclusive
to the gaming community.
Video games have always been a reflection of their times,
and these are indeed the challenges of now.
Whether you play them or not, gaming culture
extends far beyond screens and headsets,
and is no longer confined to virtual space.
But it never was, really.
Arcades were physical places
where human bodies shared proximity.
LAN parties in the early aughts were actually real parties.
Playing Wii together, and Guitar Hero,
and Dance Dance Revolution
aren't merely virtual experiences,
and neither is getting into a car accident
trying to catch Pokemon.
Video gaming, like much of modern life,
blends online and offline experience.
And it's firmly part of culture and cultural memory,
whether you consider it high art or low.
In his 2005 book Everything Bad is Good for You,
Steven Johnson reminds us that there is nothing
trivial about game play.
When negotiating various worlds, young and old alike
practice patience, delay gratification,
and negotiate complex social relationships.
Gaming, according to Johnson, is "about finding order
"and meaning in the world, and making decisions
that help create that order."
The more I learn about video games,
the more my respect grows for those
who routinely fling themselves into the unknown of a new game,
armed with knowledge of past games, sure,
but up for the challenge of finding order and meaning
in a new world, ready to confront unforeseeable futures,
It reminds me of the bravery required
to walk into an art gallery, where you're unsure
of what you'll find or what will be required of you,
but are nonetheless open to whatever
the artists have in store.
When it comes to video games, there is still so much left
to be done, so much territory to conjure and explore,
so many more perspectives to offer on the part of developers
as well as players.
It's an outstandingly elastic medium,
receptive and also susceptible to all the best and worst
we humans have to offer it.
Video games shape our understanding of humanity
just as they are shaped by it.
Oh, and they're also really fun.
[ELECTRONIC MUSIC PLAYING]
Special thanks to our director, editor, and lifelong gamer,
Brandon Brungard, for his help advising on this episode
and bringing it to life.