Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Blip: Computer games as art

Computer games, particularly console games, have received a decent amount of attention, particularly negative attention, since they have become increasingly popular. Most of this attention, if it isn’t playing of the games, is focused on unbalanced and uninformed asking of moronic questions like “Do they have a bad effect on our children?” which is akin to the question “If the universe is always expanding, what is it expanding into?” incidentally, if you still believe that there is no such thing as stupid questions, read that last one back one more time.

Supporters of these games tend to be too busy playing them to properly defend them. I think this is totally the right thing to be doing. Perhaps if legislation appeared that threatened to ban them, we would have to fight more vigorously for them to be more accepted but at the moment, we can wearily wave dissenters away and get back to ‘Zapping Aliens’ as I’ve heard it called all too many times. As an aside, allow me to deplore this fully. Most games don’t have aliens and those that do won’t always contain zapping. I don’t tell university lecturers to go sing the ABC song or server maintenance operatives to go and turn the internet off and on again. The direction that this post is going is toward the overall worth of these games but regardless, there is much more to them than generic violence, flashy lights and mind-numbing repetition. I might be interacting with aliens, I might even be zapping them but how do you know I’m not trying to raise my SeeD level, searching for a chaos emerald or saving credits for a Temple of Nod?

Moving back to the topic at hand though. The dissent spread by non-believers comes from a position of ignorance. It’s not that we should be annoyed at them. They aren’t trying to marginalise us out of dislike, they’re just egocentric and arrogant. Essentially: “If I can’t see anything in it, no one else can.”

Apart from your average philistine who would have us working hard down coal mines twenty hours a day and burning Monet and Rossetti to stay warm, most of us accept that art has its place in society. Whether it be mimesis (that is, reflection or depiction of nature as a display of beauty) or diegesis (telling a story) or perhaps just as pleasing entertainment, we generally appreciate that it is a mark of a successful society if they create and celebrate works of art. Thus we reach a simple solution, if computer games could be shown to be art, they would be immediately acceptable. It certainly seems to be the most efficient way of solving this difficulty.

So, can computer games be considered to be a form of art?

Short, obvious answer: Yes and people are allowed to debate its relative worth in the art world just as they do with everything else.

Longer, more complete answer: I would begin here with, what is art? But I have no intention to write a philosophical dissection of the very nature of art nor to write a blogpost as long as a dissertation. Although the exact nature of art eludes us all, we all have a certain sense of what it is and what it represents and this reveals a simple way to make my job of converting non-gamers. If we all accept stone-carved sculptures, violin concertos and portrait paintings as art then all I need to is show some similarities between those types of things and games.

 Firstly, many computer games contain media that could more easily be considered art. FMVs (computer generated movie sequences) are often used to tell the game’s story, flesh out the world in which the game takes place or to simply increase the amount of immersion for the player. There have been many examples of computer generated art that I could draw comparisons too but I’m not writing this to show off all the artists’ names I know so I will simply say that if you can generate an image with a computer or use computers in the process in some way and consider the resulting product art then what is the significant difference between that and a CG sequence in a game?

Secondly, the same can be applied to the music of the game. Many games, particularly RPGs (Role-playing games) and other story-based games, have professionally written and composed scores that wouldn’t be out of place as the OST (Official soundtrack) of a hit film or being played live by a concert orchestra. The Final Fantasy game series springs to mind, they’ve had some fantastic music over the years that can’t be disparaged over such a simple debate of the relative worth of different media. Metal Gear Solid is another wonderful example, they have each had a lot of work put into their soundtrack, which brings me to my third point:

Many games (notice that I’m using this phrase a lot, this is because there are some terribly produced games out there that give the industry a bad name. From blank copy and paste fighting game sequels to straight-off-a-template rail shooters, the artistic spectrum of games, just like any other, comes with its rejects) take skill, flair, creativity and hard work to put together. The Elder Scrolls games and the Grand Theft Auto series are two loads of games in particular that are known for their impressive attention to detail when it comes to production values: Immersive worlds, breath-taking graphics, engaging storylines etc.

Once again carrying on from the last point, there is another similarity that I can show you: The viewer’s journey. An opera takes you through the twists and turns of a story through dramatic lifts and drop-offs, through music and stage direction and opera is considered a high-point of artistic merit. The same can be applied to film, which takes the viewer, through its camera work, script writing and overall composition, through a life-changing journey that can say more to a person in an hour and a half than an entire year of their own life. This journey of exploration and discovery, obstacle and solution, turnaround and finale can also be seen in a great deal of games. This is easier to spot in story-based ones but that isn’t exclusive.

Aeris. Liquid Snake. G-man. I’ll just leave those there. Believe me, a gamer who is in any way connected to their brain (as, admittedly, many aren’t) will be taken aback by just those words long enough to take stock and remember. This effect is identical to the introspection that films, and other artistic media, cause. Ofelia. Tyler Durden. HGW XX/7. Any well-versed film buff will receive the same recollection of movement from those.

Moving people to such a degree is due to efficient storytelling, successful character development and an accurate working knowledge into our emotional connections to the media in question. There is no reason why this can’t happen just because this particular art form is interactive. The interactive element actually allows you to trick the player into thinking they have control as to how the game develops. The truth is that even in the most sandbox of all games, the method and direction of the development is ultimately written in the coding, behind everything else. Interactivity is just another tool used by artists to subvert the passive comfort of the viewer, so they can better penetrate their delicate and unchallenged sensibilities, which is perhaps one of the more moving and important sides to art.

Of course, I could also draw parallels between the fact that computer games is itself a genre, with many sub-genres, with intra-genre debate as to which sections are more or less worthy.

Pre-Raphaelites and followers of their ideals rejected the mannerist approach to art and subsequently rejected the artistic status of the works and ideals of Sir Joshua Reynolds and his doctrine of the ‘grand style,’ which placed the emphasis of paintings on the principle of perfect and classical poses, exaggerated likenesses and simple, unmasked points in very readable imagery. The dissenters of current society call game producers philistines for daring to go near the world of art and their works are dismissed as inartistic. The same would have been said about the Pre-Raphaelites and look at how we revere them now.  

Blip (signature nearly ready)

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