Games as an art form. Pretentious? Moi?

· by Steve · Read in about 5 min · (1008 Words)

It has struck me lately that some elements of the games industry appear to be becoming a mite pretentious and self-absorbed in recent times. It seems like some people are starting to believe their own hype about games being a bigger industry than Hollywood, and that the whole world better goddam take them seriously, right now. Presumably with a stamp of the feet.

Case in point is Chris Hecker’s rant at the GDC last week. Now, I respect Mr Hecker a great deal, having read many, many of his technical articles in the past, but his comments at the GDC made me seriously wince. Not really the Wii-specs-bashing part - I’m sure that as a Spore developer having to code for something less than stellar in the CPU department must be frustrating, but to which my response would be to go make it on something else then. After all, there’s no point having a tantrum that you can’t make Crysis on the DS. Is it a bad thing that not all games fit all consoles? I don’t think so. But still, being a tech I know what it’s like to have to pull something off and feel limited by the hardware so I can sort of sympathise, even if I think his level of subjective vitriol was out of order and actually quite childish. [edit] He’s now retracted his statements - smart move.

No, the part that made me wince was his ‘games as art’ rant. Apparently he searched for “games as an art form” on all 3 of the console manufacturers websites and found numerous references on the 360 and PS3 sites, but none on the Wii site - only references to games as “fun”. Which he considers a bad thing.

To which I hold my head in my hands. I see this argument all the time that games should be recognised as art, and should strive to become it, so it can be taken seriously and perhaps discussed and debated over coffee in ‘good’ company. To that I ask - why? What’s wrong with ‘just’ being fun (and lets face it, so many games fall short of even that)? Being a source of entertainment? What exactly do you think is wrong with being ‘just’ a game anyway? Games (and now I’m talking about the wider game industry, not just computer / video games) are one of the most important elements of our culture - they teach us to take on new skills, how to interact with others, provide a vital danger-free sandpit for all kinds of things, and all the while they entertain us. This in itself is utterly worthwhile - Raph Koster puts it more elegantly in his book.

This attitude that games must become this higher art form seems to me just an extension of a pretentious sector of the gaming world that has really ludicrous levels of Hollywood-envy. As if being just like the film industry is a laudable goal to aim for - please God don’t let us become like that, with far too many overpaid self-absorbed mannekins swanning up and down red carpets having their crushing superiority complexes fed by a vacuous baying media horde. Film is a completely different medium - it’s non-interactive, like a book. There is no concept of ‘fun’ in a film or book (in terms of enjoying oneself through participation). Why does gaming have to try to become more like other non-interactive media, and be measured against those same standards? Can’t it have it’s own unique destiny? Is it so shameful to be different?

Take sport - no-one says it has to try to become an art form to be taken seriously. Gaming arguably has much more in common with sport than film, despite so many game designers out there yearning to be film directors (painfully obviously at times) - in that the core enjoyment is really about the activity, the act of participation. Yes, the window dressing helps, as does context, but if the core activity sucks, no multi-million dollar budget is going to save you, any more than a multi-million dollar stadium makes a good football team.

I can understand why some elements of the game industry feel this way. Star-struck by Hollywood, yearning for general recognition in higher circles - these are all very human needs. But I think it has less to do with the improvement of the games themselves and more to do with the advancement of personal egos and the yearning to throw off the perceived stigma of making things that are ‘just a bit of fun’ for a living. Do I think games would be better if Jonathon Ross was debating them at 11pm on a Tuesday night? No. Do I think games should stand up for themselves as a unique medium , celebrate the pure fun and enjoyment they bring as a laudable goal unto itself, and stop tragically trying to emulate and beg acceptance from other media circles? Hell yes.

Nintendo is happy to just promote fun as an ultimate goal, and doesn’t feel it has to try to become art to be considered worthwhile.  I salute that. All the money in the game industry seems to have inflated some people’s egos, just like is has in Hollywood, perhaps some of them need to take time out from the afterglow of La-La land and get a better grip on terra firma.

[edit]Just to be clear on this - I’m not saying that some games shouldn’t try to become art - I am saying that an absense of such a goal should not be perceived as a negative thing, which is what Hecker was saying. He was basically saying that Nintendo weren’t looking to make games an art, just fun, and therefore they don’t care about games. Which is an elitist bunch of tosh. He’s got his fingers burnt and has had to retract his statements anyway so I guess I’m not the only one who thought he inserted his foot cleanly into his mouth on this one.