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No, Video Games Aren't Art. We're BETTER.

by Jeff Vogel on 09/08/16 11:18:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
Do you think this should fill me with shame? Because it does not.
"When I was twenty, I worried what everything thought of me. When I turned forty, I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. And then I made it to sixty, and I realized no one was ever thinking of me."
- Bob Hope, as told by Patton Oswalt


I used to argue passionately that video games were art.

Then I stopped arguing about it, because why bother? Of COURSE video games are art.

Now I see that it's a waste of time thinking of video games as art. Why would we game designers ever aim that low?

I Don't Want Art. I Want Transportation.

I just finished playing DOOM. Like many, I was amazed by how awesome a game it turned out to be. Penny Arcade had the perfect description for it: "Playable sugar."

DOOM had three of the best boss fights I've ever seen. Punishingly tough and yet scrupulously fair. When I died, I could say, "OK. I know what I did wrong. I won't do that again." When I fought those bosses, I was utterly transported. The rest of the world vanished. When I won, I was sweaty, wrung out, and completely satisfied.

I love literature and theatre. I love great movies. Yet, I can't remember any work of art, no matter how good, that consumed and drained me as much as the Cyberdemon in DOOM.

When I beat it, I felt proud. It is dumb to feel proud about something in a video game. The feeling was real nonetheless.

Nobody considers DOOM a work of Fine Art. Nor should they. Bloggers are not grinding their gears contemplating the True Meaning of DOOM. Nor should they.

It's not art. It's simply awesome.

Why would I ever be unsatisfied with Awesome?
 

Put this in front of me, and I will be lost until the sun comes up. Nothing else has that power over me. Should I be ashamed of this? Because I am not.

 

We're Doing Fine Without You.

It always peeves me when some blogger says, "Video games are OK, I guess, to the simple-minded. But they're not enough. They are unworthy. They're [string of negative adjectives], and it is up to me, hero that I am, to FIX them at last!"

Get over yourself. Video games are fine. No, they're not fine. They’re doing GREAT, by every possible metric.

Number of titles? The market is gruesomely flooded. (Gruesomely for developers, I mean. For fans, it's an overwhelming embarrassment of riches.)

Number of fans? Video games are popular to the point of global invasion. Find me a human, and I will find a game that can addict them.

Financial success? We're a 100 BILLION USD a year industry. We're huge and getting bigger every year.

Artistic accomplishment? Creativity? Look up any Best Games list from 2014 or 2015. Video games are breaking new barriers in craftsmanship and artistic expression every year and turning profits while they do it.

Diversity? Pick any demographic group, and someone is making games to cater to them personally. It's one of the great advantages of a gruesomely flooded market. (Of course, not every game will cater to you personally, but that's not possible or desirable. Other people get stuff they like too.)

Video games are taking over the world, and they're doing it in style.

We're winning because we offer something better than art. We offer Experience.
 

If you don't think Pong is fun, try it with friends. It holds up.

 

I Understand The Last of Us On a Higher Level Than You

The Last of Us is a truly great game. Many have written about it,including me. I recommend it very highly.

But here's what bugs me. The cutscenes of The Last of Us told a very good story. Those cutscenes, all together, would make a solid B+ zombie movie. But when bloggers wrote about it, they treated the actual game part of The Last of Us as this sort of useless, irritating, vestigial limb.

Without the gameplay, the action, the battle, the fear, the dying again and again, The Last of Us is just an above-average zombie movie. The true greatness of the experience is in the sneaking and the stabbing and the shooting and the dying. (LOTS of dying.)

Here's Why.

Would You Survive the Apocalypse?

It's not a hypothetical question. I mean it. Think about it. Five seconds from now, zombies leap in through the window. Civilization is OVER. Would you make it through?

Well, here's a way to think about the question.

Imagine starting a game of The Last of Us on the highest difficulty level. (Or The Walking Dead. Or DOOM, for that matter.) Go into it blind. Try to play through the whole thing, front to back, without dying.

If you make it, you survive the apocalypse. If you're one of the 99.9999% of people who don't make it, you die. You help make up one of the mountains of skulls that serve as DOOM background.

Try it. It's an amusing exercise. It took me five tries to get through the tutorial of The Last of Us, so I know where I stand.
 

I had a much older relative once who thought she was immune to video games. Then this infected her. Eventually, she shook free, but she never again dismissed the power of our craft.

 

Of Course, This Isn't Literal Truth.

Obviously, the skills to win a video game are different from the skills needed to literally survive the End of Days. I know this.

The Last of Us, the actual game part of it, is trying to do something impossible. Like, literally impossible. It is trying to give us a glimmer of a portion of a sensation of understanding the experience of the end of the world. It doesn't succeed, of course. It can't.

But it does come closer to putting us INSIDE that experience than anyone else. We're not watching, we're doing. We are, in an indirect way, mediated through joysticks, living an experience. We are taking part in a compelling demonstration of how fragile our lives are. How utterly inadequate we are to the challenge.

The Last of Us can trick our brains, for a moment, into thinking we're struggling for survival. Similarly, Minecraft can trick us into feeling like we're building something glorious out of nothing. Cookie Clickercreates a powerful sensation of growth and progress, abstract but compelling.

When I write a game, I try to make you feel like you have power. Then I try to make you feel the awesome, terrifying responsibility of having power. When I force you to make a tough decision, for a brief moment, I can reprogram your brain and take your thoughts somewhere they've never been before. This is amazing.

That is, at heart, what the games we make are. They are tools we creators use to compel and rewrite your brains. We haven't begun to come to terms with the power we've unleashed with these toys, these addiction machines.
 

This is an integral part of childhood now. It will only stop being thus when it is replaced by something even more powerful.

 

SimCity Isn't Art.

Nor is Civilization. Or Halo. Or Space Invaders. Or Castle Crashers. Or DOOM. Or Super Meat Boy. Or Hearthstone. Or League of Legends. Or Clash of Clans. Or Minecraft. Or Pac-Man. Or Solitaire. Or Pong. Not art. Why would they aim that low?

They provide consuming experiences. They are compulsions.  I'm not going to argue that they're High Art. They aren't. They're SuperArt. They take over your brain and let you get lost in them.

I can see why Artists look down on what we do. They have no choice. They certainly can't compete with us. What we do is irresistible. Authors and playwrights are dinosaurs, and we're throwing the asteroids. We'll let Film and TV survive. For now.
 

Atari Adventure doesn't look like much. Yet I've seen this silly thing compel people, young and old, for a whole evening. Not an evening many years ago. An evening NOW.

 

"But What About Games That Do Try To Be Art, Smart Guy?"

They're great. I am a huge fan of video games borrowing storytelling techniques from obsolete art forms. Beginner's Guide. Gone Home. Her Story. Firewatch. All worthy titles that fused game elements with more mundane art forms to create things that felt new and fresh.

A lot of indie games now are movies that you stroll through with the WASD keys. You can make a neat game this way. I’ll probably buy it. Just don't think it makes your work inherently superior to more gamey games. If you're just telling a story at me, well, a lot of media can do that. When I play Overwatch or Dark Souls or Civilization, I am transported in a unique way only video games can provide.
 

This is my game. It doesn't look like much. Yet, for 20 years, I've gotten fan mail telling me how addiction to my work threatened relationships and livelihoods. Good.

 

I Am Done Apologizing For My Craft.

I have been obsessed with video games for as long as they have existed. These strange, shaggy, crude, profane, elegant, lovely creations are my life's work. I love them.

However, video games have a crippling self-esteem problem. We are desperate for validation, and this makes us targets for any shyster who wants to take advantage of us.

Roger Ebert says he doesn't think we make art, and we lose our minds. Some people seriously claim games don't deserve the journalism due any industry of our massive size, even while ripoffs and shoddy goods are an epidemic. Academics and print journalism write about us in terms that are condescending, uninformed, and occasionally slanderous, and we cravenly respond,  "A newspaper cares about us! Please act like we're worth something! Please!!!" When you are sufficiently desperate for validation, even abuse can feel like love.

Enough. Developers and gamers are working in a symbiotic relationship to create something entirely new, a craft unlike anything in human existence thus far. We are exploring a new realm of possibility, and I count myself truly blessed that I get to take part in it from its infancy.

I just finished a game called Avadon 3: The Warborn. It's pretty cool. It has a lot of neat scenarios, choices, characters, battles, and just plain good stuff. I made a little world for you to try on for size. I hope you like the little toy I made. I've already started building two more.
 

Video games are so powerful that they can even disrupt the Magic of Friendship.

 

We've Only Taken the First Few Steps of an Epic Journey!

Want to pitch in? If you have ideas, suggestions, or feedback, we designers need to hear them.

Don't get me wrong. While our craft is awesome, it's still young. We still have so many ways we can improve. There are so many sorts of things we can and should do (design, technical, storywise) that we aren't yet. We need everyone's feedback to make a great thing better.

But I personally do require one thing: That your criticism be delivered with respect and love for the craft. If you don't like video games, don't play them. Fine. It’s your time. But we're already pretty terrific, and we're getting better. Fast. With or without you.

Stop using the word 'art'. Erase it from your dictionary. It's too weak a word. I want nothing less than to compel you. I am coming to consume all your thoughts, all your attention. I want to absorb you to the point where it threatens your marriage and your livelihood.

Video games should not interest or impress you. We should scare you. Video games are taking over the world. You haven't even seen a fraction of what we can do.

###

My ramblings are available on Twitter. My newest indie oldie-timey RPG, Avadon 3, is out September 14.


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