Why Video Games are a Danger to Art(ists)

No doubt you are expecting this to be an impassioned polemic piece (read: rant) about how video games threaten our society and our oh-so-inviolate morals. Though incorrect, given the climate of rhetoric on video games and “interactive entertainment” you would be hardly remiss in making such an assumption. Years ago, in 2010, Roger Ebert, the renowned movie critic, made a controversial blog post on a similar topic, and for his opposition to video games as art he was bombarded with comments upon comments, the most of which were of the same tone as the very first: “Roger- you just don’t get it.”

Such a line-drawing, “them vs. us” mentality is common in this debate, as is the refusal to engage in serious conversation. Video game fans and developers seek legitimacy for their creative medium, art “fans” seek to guard their Canon and dismiss video games as children’s entertainment- compromise would be fatal to either. Whatever camp you may fall into, I do not seek to sway you here: only to caution that part of you which demands expression. If you are an artist or writer, you know of what I speak; If you are not, merely think of the last time you truly loved something, when you felt like finally, something in this world was truly for you, when something was right, just right and that was the end of it. I aim to caution that, if you play games, this part of you is being slowly enfeebled, not from malnourishment, but, in fact, from overindulgence.

What drives us all to creativity and expression is the search for personal validation and perfection. Like a lovelorn Narcissus, we stumble around the world, desperately looking for a reflection of our own perfection. What good video games offer us is a way to cheat to such perfection. No matter the potency of your feeling, the work (writing, painting, reading, watching, understanding, talking) is difficult and the results often inaccurate. The painter tears his canvas, the writer has a block, the reader cannot penetrate the density of language, the movie-goer is cheated of a fulfilling ending. This is why works that truly move us are so rare: error is everywhere.

Not so with games. In a game you construct the story, you control the appearance, you are at once both creator and consumer. Now, you can satisfy your creative urge with ease. Why write a book when you can capture the thrill of creation without any of the effort or error? Why see a play that may fail to appeal when you could create the perfect play? It is after all, designed for you, by you. True, the formula realized, the rewards are great, but they come with consequence. The writer stops writing, the artist stops painting, the concertgoer refuses to listen to music that is not more personally appealing, the moviegoer can no longer tolerate the innate alienation of his lack of control. Arts and entertainment as we know it becomes simply not enough. Perhaps, one day, interactive art can rightfully supersede all that has come before it, but it is not yet ready. Indeed, the trend towards open worlds and exponential story choices has only just begun, few games can even execute it convincingly. Moreover, variety and maturity in video game stories is severely lacking. Therein lies the threat, to take the leap of faith before the God of Art is ready to catch us.

All these words of warning are not to discredit interactive works, for they have undeniable potential (either for greatness or disaster- depending on your perspective). They represent progress, a form of storytelling and expression only possible with modern technology, but as with all progress there is opportunity and there is danger.

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