The world of video games has a number of stigmas built into it. The most prominent of these is the belief that video games are merely sources of entertainment. Some believe that video games lack the capacity to become art, that they are this way by their very nature. Another widely recognized stigma is that video games anesthetize their players from reality, pulling them away from real world experience and deadening their senses. While there are certainly many reasons for people to disparage video games, I would like to take this opportunity to provide my own take on video games, and perhaps show to some of you naysayers that the world of gaming is more complex and imaginative than it seems.
Video Games as Sports
The notion that video games are merely entertainment is certainly valid: they are called games for a reason. Their primary function is in fact to entertain, and for most people, there is little to be learned from them. The early days of video gaming gave birth to the most simple of games that required good reaction speed, but employed minimal thinking (think of video games like “Snake”). Even today, there are few games (aside from perhaps puzzle oriented games) that are more rewarding to players who employ intelligent play styles over reactive play styles.
As technology became more and more sophisticated, gaming evolved into an increasingly complex beast. While the old skills never faded, new ones came into the mix. Anyone who has ever played an RPG (role-playing game) or an RTS (real-time strategy) can tell you just how complex the world of gaming has become. Despite what most parents tell their children, there is room for real, critical thinking in video games. That’s not to say you can learn all of your life lessons from a video game: what we learn from video games is something akin to what we learn from sports. If there is anyone who doesn’t believe this, all one merely has to do is peer into the world of professional gaming and see just how surprisingly similar it is to the world of professional sports.
Traditional Art Forms in Video Games
If one were to tell me that there was no art in video games, I would merely point to games like Limbo or Braid (shown below).
While I myself cannot claim to be a connoisseur of indie video games, I can say that I have experienced first hand just how artful and beautiful games can be. Art in video games is perhaps most akin to art in movies. Just as in film, sound design and camera direction are crucial elements of the art of video games. Look at games like Shadow of the Colossus or Amnesia (clips below). There are aesthetic experiences here that one can only truly appreciate by actually playing the game.
New Art Forms in Video Games
When film emerged as an art, it created for itself an unprecedented artistic space that simultaneously engaged the aesthetic values of older, more established arts while simultaneously exploring new notions of aesthetics. What was once photography became videography. What was a book’s passage became a movie’s scene. Video games, much like film, have formed their own artistic space with its own set of values. What makes video games unique as an art is the fact that everything is created in a digital landscape. The AI (NPC’s), the world mechanics, the sound, and the controls are all written as code and come together to form a world that you can interact and intervene on.
It takes a gamer (or a coder) to really appreciate good game mechanics, to understand how complex a task it is to create a world that functions in a gratifying and meaningful way. For example, its one thing to put sound in a movie, but creating effective and realistic sound experiences in a video game is a highly complex task. Certain events must trigger certain musical cues. Entities in the game must make sounds in the world, not merely act while the sounds of their actions are playing from your speakers. Sound designers have even developed complex AI that control music and sound, like a composer that scores your adventures as you have them. There is real, but subtle craftsmanship hiding below the surface of video games. Video game designers aren’t merely creating entertainment, they are crafting worlds.
The claim that video games anesthetize people from reality is certainly a real problem. We see this when violent video games stimulate violent and unremorseful behavior in children. Playing a video game is only psychologically gratifying: there is no real experience to be felt or had. no real consequence or result. We see this problem with movies and books, but video games are uniquely problematic in that they create an interactive experience that is non-rewarding in a real, experiential sense. Just as with any other art, meaningful experience in video games can be found through real intellectual engagement. One does not simply look at a painting or read the words of a book: one communicates with the artist through the medium, forming a complex mental dialogue. Art on its own is mere stimulation: it takes an engaging mind to create meaningful experiences and a real sense of appreciation.
The main problem with the world of video games is that video games are primarily created to entertain children, children who mostly don’t have the intellectual strength to separate art from reality nor the patience and rhetoric to really engage themselves with it in meaningful ways. Video games, in this sense, have become mere stimulation, an outlet for feelings rather than a place to examine and really understand those feelings. Just as with any other art, a careful balance between mere gratifying entertainment and intellectual engagement must be struck.