Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Why video games are not art

Video games are the fastest growing medium of entertainment in the past 20 years. Going from a simple child’s toy to a multi-billion dollar industry in such a short time is fairly remarkable. But are video games art? This is one of the hot questions surrounding the video game industry as it gains more and more mainstream acceptance.

Encyclopedia Britannica Online defines art as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” By this defeintion video games are absolutely art. Video games take immense skill, imagination and time to create, can be shared with others, and are free to critique and praise. But are video games really on par with film, painting, architecture, literature, and music? They are not, not yet, at least. Video games are a spry 20-30 years old, infantile compared to other artforms. Something so young and fresh can be considered art. In the video game market crash of 1984 video games almost ceased to exist, who is to say they will be around in 5, 10, or 20 years? Nothing can stop music, film, or literature. Those will be around forever, as long as humans exist. But video games could easily die if the money well dries up and people lose interest. This is one of the biggest problems with video games breaking the art barrier, expendibility. Right now, the market seems stable and healthy for video games. But as graphics get better and more realistic as the years go on, is there a ceiling on video games? Could there be another crash like in 1984, with companies constantly trying to outdo each other and drive prices higher and higher? There are a lot of question marks looking into the long term future of video games.

The average film today runs just under two hours (correction welcome). The average video game runs about eight hours (again, anyone with hard numbers on that feel free), with some running north of 50 hours. This fact alone is enough to hold video games firmly in the toy category. Between jobs, family, spouses and friends the everyday person just doesn’t have those 8-10 hours of free time to spend on a game. If a person has a free weeknight, they can go to the movies for a scant two hour time commitment and some social interaction. To finish a video game it would take that same busy person at least a week of playing, and that is if they don’t get stuck or frustrated. Books can be read on subways or trains, music can be listened to almost anywhere with iPods, and films are digested quickly. Video games, on the other hand, require a time commitement that most people just can’t give.

The number one obstacle standing in the way of video games becoming art is skill. A video game takes skill to enjoy and truly appreciate. Some of the best ones, a lot of skill. Almost anyone can look at a painting and get something out of it. Same with music and film. What true art does best is appeal to casual fans at first glance, but allows for deeper dissection by those dedicated to it. “I like that song” or “that was a good book” are opinions anyone can have. But getting into why the song is good or the structure of the novel are things that make those artforms great. Video games are a much different animal. Instead of appealing to anybody on base levels, video games have fairly steep learning curves. Some games may take a few hours to get down. A movie is over by then and you are already talking about it. This fact may also be why video games are so popular. People who play them can do something that the everyday person cannot. It is, in some ways, elitism. This form of elitism is going to prevent video games from becoming art.

Video games do have a lot of artistic elements working for them. For one they are very “reviewable.” There are a copious amount of game review websites, magazines and television shows that help guide consumers to what is “good” and what is “bad.” Art has to have this element of criticism, and video games have it. Video games also have an element of interaction that most other artforms do not. When someone plays a video game they are looking at the screen, using their hands, listening to music and thinking all at the same time. Offering this wide range of stimulus is a plus for the industry. Most importantly, video games have a huge and dedicated fanbase that will not let their favorite hobby die. As the “video game generation” begins to slowly creep into the workforce (in a lot of cases the video game industry) video games will only continue to grow and evolve.

When asked if video games were art Hideo Kojima (mastermind behind one of gaming’s most artistic franchises, Metal Gear) responded by saying he didn’t think they were. This coming from the man whose games have politcally driven storylines that truly make the people who play them think about their world. Mr. Kojima is right, video games are not art. They have come a long way since Pong and the fact that there is even a debate about video games being art is something to be proud of. Game franchises like Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid and The Legend of Zelda are doing wonders to blur the lines between art and video games. Games like these feature sweeping storylines, dramatic characters and plot twists that you would find in a lot of big budget films. I would even say that some of the best games are better pieces of art than some mediocre films. But video games aren’t there yet. Video games may never be art, but that may not be such a bad thing.

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