I play computer games.
There, I said it. I play computer games. I do, in fact, play a lot of games. And I think it is time for a post about games like the ones I play. This may be of utterly no interest to most people, but there IS a point to this. One I hope some of you may stop and think about, if nothing else.
First of all, I don’t play all types of games. Shooter games tend to do very little for me (with one very notable exception which I will get back to shortly), and puzzlegames bore me to tears in almost all cases.
I play strategy games, but apart from the classic Civilization-series, which I love to bits, what I want is a story. The writer in me craves a great, epic tale that I can take part in, even as my miniaturized units are moved around the screen. Some games are better at this than others, obviously, and some game worlds speak to me to a greater extent than others. This is also why some games, like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series speak to me. In fact, Mass Effect is the one shooter game I do enjoy, as it tells an absolutely captivating story.
But recently, I came across this strange concept that I had never given much thought.
“Computer games as art”.
This is scoffed at by many. It is as if this somehow has to be looked upon as an inferior thing, like something as trivial as a /game/ can’t possible be artistically done, or hold any real, cultural value. I think this is a grave mistake, and here is why.
If you look back throughout history, art has changed dramatically, even fundamentally, many, many times. When Picasso helped to introduce Cubism, people considered his art terrible, vulgar, tasteless … even ugly. Today, his paintings are sold for sums that stagger the imagination of most of us. One paintings of his will sell for many times what any of us will make in an entire lifetime of work. It is possible to go back further, of course, and to spare you all the boring list of examples of sculptures and paintings that one might come up with, I’ll settle for jumping back a LONG way, to ancient Greece. Pre-classic Greek sculpture is stiff, archaic (in fact that is what it is called … archaic art), and while often incredibly beautiful, it is not lifelike. It is possible trace the evolution of early art in certain sculptures, where suddenly an artist has attempted to create lifelike musculature on a male statue, but still keeping the statue itself in the same, rigid pose as most archaic sculptures, with an enigmatic, unknowable “archaic smile” on its face. It is a period in art spanning hundreds of years, with practically no change.
We might look at music as a different art form entirely. The songs played by ancient Romans and Greeks are almost universally lost to us now, although some interesting studies are made in trying to recreate them. But we don’t have to go back that far to see how fast this particular area moves. Just look at the 20th century. This is the century that started with men like Shubert and Liszt being the hottest thing on the block, and ending with Eminem and Metallica. In between, we had Swing, Jazz, Rock n’Roll, Funk, Pop …
The list is almost endless. If you doubt me, go to Facebook and try to look up the different subgroups of Heavy Metal. You don’t have to listen to the music if you don’t like it, but simply look at the sub-genres. They are practically legion, and that is simply one example.
My point is … art changes. And while it may seem ridiculous to us nowadays, where we as a society are more or less indifferent to female artists getting up on stage wearing outfits that would make your average porn-star whimper about indecency, and where male performers routinely sing about sex in explicit terms, Elvis Presley was considered utterly, completely amoral when he gyrated his hips on TV. The Doors were blacklisted from Television for singing “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” on a live show, where they couldn’t be edited, and the Beatles … now considered practically the most mainstream and “nice” of all early rock n’roll bands, were seen as youthful rebels with terribly long hair when they started out.
Yes. Long hair.
I’m not talking about the late sixties John Lennon with flowing locks and a beard to shame Father Christmas, but the fifties version of the same young man, with hair that covered the top of his ears.
Literature changes. While there are great constants in literature, and we still laugh at Shakespeare’s comedies, it is because the jokes he told are timeless and deal with ever-present truths of the human condition. Regardless, no one would write the way Shakespeare wrote and get published nowadays. Imagine the much-hyped Millenium trilogy … a series of books so popular that they were made into world-wide smash hit films, and which are now getting a remake via Hollywood … getting published even twenty years ago? Unthinkable, and I am not even referring to the computer-themes in the story being impossible at the time. Or Harry Potter, perhaps THE defining series of books of the turn of the millennium when it comes to literary mass hysteria. IMAGINE someone writing those books in the mid-1800′s and trying to get them published? Just imagine.
Ain’t gonna happen, bucko.
So yes, art changes. And I think it is problematic to scoff at something like computer games. It is part of the aforementioned human condition that tastes change and evolve, even over the condition of one lifespan. When I was a child and a young teenager, I listened to the same pop-songs as my peers and I thought they were great. Then one day, someone played a Metallica-song called “Battery” to me, and I was forever changed.
These days, I do something called “Classic of the Day” on facebook, where each day sees me posting a new piece of classical music. Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Beethoven, Albioni, Vivaldi … the great classical composers get airtime on my facebook page. So my tastes have changed quite dramatically. These days, I am one of those weirdos who can RIGHTFULLY claim that my tastes go from Heavy Metal over Edith Piaff to Classical music. So tastes change, and with it, the very conception of what “art” is.
So why not video games?
If a story told in a game can be enthralling, deeply engrossing and keep the player coming back for more, again and again … even playing the same game again and again to get reminded or to find new details they hadn’t noticed before, why is this different, in its essence, than a person going back to a beloved book, over and over again, finding new meaning and new insight with each new read-through? A well known example would be the great classical actor Christopher Lee, who spent so much of his career doing B-list Dracula-flicks and who only came into his own later in life … a man practically revered nowadays for his amazing skill on the great Silver Screen, was a real life friend of J. R. R. Tolkien and still, to this day, reads the Lord of the Rings every single year, and allegedly still finds new nuances, even after all these years.
Why is this different, than someone going back to a game every few years to replay something they thought was amazing and engrossing?
Art is in the eye of the beholder, and while I personally consider games like Grand Theft Auto to be absolute trash, others may enjoy them, just as I wouldn’t voluntarily sit down and read certain books that others find deep and engrossing.
When movies went from black-and-white to color, some people scoffed that now the detail would get lost and no one would notice the amazing acting anymore. When “talkies” came out with “The Jazz Singer”, it was absolutely ridiculed by a large number of screen actors who felt that only silent movies were proper art. But without talkies and without color on movies, we would not have had classics like “The Shawshank Redemption”, Brannagh’s “Henry V” or the Star Wars films, just to cover a wide spectrum in one go.
For me, computer games may be art, and it may be trash. I am not saying that every game released is worthy of enshrinement in the Smithsonian or similar. I am saying that some of them tell stories that are so well crafted and so well written, and so engrossing that you genuinely end up wanting to know “what happens next”. You want the character in the story to succeed, not so much because you want to succeed yourself, but because you end up feeling something for the fictitious person on the screen, not unlike wanting to just read the NEXT page and the NEXT page in a good book. Just like a great movie or TV-series may rivet you to the seat, unable to get up even if you DESPERATELY have to use the bathroom.
We as human beings are endowed with this amazing, wondrous thing that is an active imagination. Some people do not like fiction much, and that is fine, but without fiction, without imagination, we would not have music which is practically always themed, and rarely around real life events. We would not have movies, and television would be reduced to a domain for newsreaders and documentary programs … both of which have a very real and very important place to occupy, admittedly. We would, in fact, never have created civilization, as every step forward is made by men and women asking themselves that incredibly important question “what if …”
Wanting to make something better which doesn’t exist just yet. The very notion of an “idea”, of “innovation” is the process of making something where nothing exists.
We should not scoff at new definitions of art. We may not always understand it. We may not always think it is worth spending time, money and effort on. But that does not mean it is not art to other people. I don’t understand or bother with Performance Art myself … a man jumping around one one leg on top of a skyscraper, wearing a yellow spandex suit, shouting “I’m sent by the Gods of the Tortelini-people!” while throwing animal feces into the air and trying to catch it with his head is not my idea of art, but to others, it is a sublime expression of the transitory nature of life and the meaningless of existence (I wonder if Sartre would have understood it …).
And who am I to tell them that they are wrong?
We are all individuals, and what is art to one man, may be tripe to another. Computer games should not be dismissed for that reason alone. Work goes into them, and deep thought, and a great deal of writing. And frankly, some of the stories are good enough to keep people not only coming back to the same game, but buying the sequels as well …
Not unlike a good movie.
And not unlike a good book.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.
This entry was posted on Thursday, February 9th, 2012 at 2:07 pm and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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