Give the People What They Want: Art, Artistic Integrity, and Why Video Games May Never Be

By Zak Edwards
April 23, 2012 - 14:35

A few years ago, the world’s most famous movie critic, Roger Ebert, famously argued that video games are not art and will never achieve that status in our lifetime.  He has a fairly articulate article that uses a TED talks video as a framework here that works well (even if dissecting TED talks videos on culture are about as easy as putting on socks in the morning), but what I want to talk about is the reactions by fans to his statement and recent video game experiences.

In response to Ebert, gamers became notably upset.  Opposition articles were written everywhere and blogs of disgust using primarily all caps raged against this aged white man who didn’t know what he was talking about.  People who read books likened experiences between novels like “Crime and Punishment” to the climax of Metroid, citing the ability to emote as the primary factor, all with a straight face.  And why not?  Art can be in many mediums and do many things, including evoke emotional responses.  Unfortunately, I think there is a heavy irony in the responses by gamers.

Art, in my opinion, has become synonymous with entertainment and, if not pleasure, than socially responsible expression.  It seems art must either entertain or make a statement that lines up with the popular modes of thinking that people who engage with that art agree with, making people either feel happy or artificially challenged with their own opinions.  It must not, under any circumstances, actually challenge the audience, only those the audience dislikes.  For example, the film Milk was about Harvey Milk, his murder and, by and large, contemporary LGBT politics.  It’s timing was immaculate with Prop 8 coming back up for the right-wing conservatives wanting narrower definitions of family and expression, yet the people who watched the film were not the people voting to destroy gay marriage in California.  Milk does not challenge, it affirms all the way to the Oscars.

Yes, I recognize there are films that do legitimately do many of the things I’m saying they don’t, but I would argue most people haven’t even heard of them and, if they have, are either limiting them to art house cinemas or trying to get them banned.  Experimentation in film is restricted but still happens and the extremely graphic abilities of film can really challenge audiences.  It seems films can do things, grow up as it were, and become something, even if most have no idea it’s happening.

Kathy Acker, like her major influence William S. Burroughs, used heavy experimentation and shock value to write her novels.
The novel has experienced such growth as well.  Jane Austen, a central figure in the acceptance of the novel as art, laments the disregard of the form in “Northanger Abbey,” pointing out that novels are seen as “trash” and read with “affected indifference, or momentary shame.”  But there are novels widely read that do, in fact, avoid being both entertainment and politically agreeable.  I have used this example before, but Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Rape: A Love Story” is certainly not enjoyable whilst avoiding being sensationalist, but also contests simple revenge narratives by complicating the processes by which the characters deal with the titular act.  William Burroughs also manages to be heavily experimental while staying in print and his most obvious inheritor, Kathy Acker, while less popular, is almost always in bookstores I go to.  What I am trying to illustrate is this: novels are considered a form of art, an intellectual haven where experimentation and challenge can actually occur.  They haven’t always been thought as such, but continue to be a medium people have the patience and interest in to not be simply pandered to.  Yes, ninety percent of novels are trashy, pulpy messes (we can argue this by simply saying “glittery vampires”), but they have their moments and continue to do so.

Video Games, by contrast, do not appear be moving in such a direction because of the fans, the gamers themselves, who simply won’t allow the medium to evolve or experiment.  They are forever in the pulp, wishing to remain there, and it looks as if video games will never escape it.  So here is the irony I mentioned earlier: the same people who so energetically argued that video games are art also vehemently oppose expression through video games and attempt to force creators to narrow their medium’s potential for the sake of such novel concepts as closure and entertainment.  Now, as Mass Effect 3 is issuing apologies for the ending and creating a free update to change their own story, video games are swiftly becoming narrower in scope simply because the audience is expressing a desire for more of the same, more of the happy familiar, more garbage with which to stuff their faces.  Want to make an ending to your game that you think is pretty cool and a little different?  Well, it better wrap up everything in a nice Hollywood bow so people won’t give you a hard time.  Want to maybe try and tell a single, cohesive story rather than an open-concept game?  Well, people will lament against this too, just as they did with Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII, coupled with Bioware’s choice to give the people what they want, is the reason I feel video games may never be able to experiment, challenge, or evolve.  Square-Enix, bucking the trend of open-world, sandbox experiences, attempted to tell a story that was much more singular.  Players could only go one way and couldn’t even choose their own party for most of the game.  The plot was thin as well, favouring instead character development where players actually played out their characters’ realizations and evolutions.  In response, many gamers were upset, saying they felt restricted, that all they did was run down a hallway for hours, and hated how nothing seemed to ‘happen.’  This was all true, but I felt it was for a reason.  The creators behind Final Fantasy XIII were trying to do something other than give their audience what they have come to expect from other video games, especially RPG’s coming from companies like Bethesda and Bioware.  The scary part is what came next:  Square-Enix responded with Final Fantasy XIII-2, which is a game that responds to the criticism entirely.  Open-world with the ability to literally rewind time, characters can do what they want, when they want.  It also has an even thinner plot that also doesn’t have any character development, so things happen more for no reason whatsoever.  You can look at the primary complaints about Final Fantasy XIII and see it countered in the sequel because the game is nothing more than an apology to gamers who wanted something they already have.  The game, while being vastly inferior, is also showing how companies are responding to fans by pandering.

This is why Ebert was right and why fans are not.  No medium can evolve if it is simply expected to do no more than entertain because entertainment is easy.  Making something that sticks in people’s heads, making them think and engage on more than a very surface level; that is art.  Making people experience art is accomplished through surprise, giving audiences something unexpected and actually new and interesting with which to engage.  When the audience doesn’t want anything to do with this and actively fights against it, then we will only have pandering and rare glimpses of what this medium can become rather than actual accomplishment.

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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