The years 2015 and 2016 have been tremendous years for video games. The industry grows, more and more development studios are opened, the selling numbers are rising again and several AAA video games have been released. To name some examples, Fallout 4, Mafia 3, Witcher 3, FIFA 17, Battlefield 1. And although all of these titles have led to a profit for their developer studio and the publisher I was personally very disappointed by most of them. Although the games were designed often with a certain love to small details, had interesting stories and the graphic has increased in comparison to their former parts I have been still disappointed by them in regards to a special dimension, the cultural.
Art, video games and the Art of video games
Since the first video games have been published in the 70’s the struggle for respect has begun. Atari, SEGA, Commodore were the first video game platforms to which a broader population had access. And already soon the competition to create better and funnier video games have started. Legendary are the first parts of Monkey Island or King`s Quest, which were early creations that surely are called art. Since these early master pieces, which have opened the way for other genres and video games, it was an unofficial goal of huge parts of the industry to gain respect and to be seen like the society looks on other mediums like songs, movies or even books.
That’s the reason why even “stupid, senseless” shooters were built around a story (or something that could be called story). And the published games of recent years have shown that the discussion if video games have finally reached the level of art and high culture, has reached finally also the society. Games like Life is Strange, in which the protagonist has insight in the life of a young adult with all its difficulties and beautiful moments; The Last of Us who creates not just several deep and more-dimensional relationships between the protagonists, but also goes into details of this relationship; Gothic 1, that is able to show how societies are able to establish even without laws or regulations; the Fallout series, that creates a whole world and societies which behave ignorant and selfish; Firewatch, which makes the player establish a deeper relationship to a person just via phone; Bioshock with its describing character of societies that gave itself entirely in to a political idea like capitalism, socialism or a religious fascism; Heavy Rain, which functions almost as a psycho-thriller movie; That Dragon Cancer tells the story of a family and a small child that suffers a cancer, and while doing so it goes very deep into the emotions, the relationship and living with knowing to die; Valiant Hearts tells the story of the First World War from the perspective of several individuals with different background and therefore showing the different faces of the Great War.
Some of these games are often referred to being very intense, having a deep and well-thought story and asking the player philosophical questions. Questions to which humans have tried to find answers since the beginning of life. Some of these games try to show a certain perspective of life and giving a new insight, and some try a new way of storytelling which has been unique and original so far. Which leads us to the question: Is this art?
But what is Art?
The oxford definition for art is:
- The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
If art is a way to express knowledge or emotions and has to be appreciated for beauty and emotional power than are already some of the mentioned games indeed already art! Especially because most of these have gone individual and original paths. Paths that weren’t thought of before, situations, perspectives and stories that weren’t told or not in this way.
And also that is a crucial point: Art has to be creative and individual. Something new has to be created in order to be called as art: A one-to-one copy of David by Michelangelo will always be just a replica and not be the original – the Mona Lisa is amazing us because da Vinci has used an original technique of letting her smile and grieve at the same time – and a rewriting of Tempest that tells the same story has to be judged carefully if it can be seen as art. Therefore, Games are often criticized that they are too close to either books or movies. While they are at the same time too far away and to sloppy in story-telling. Irregularities within the story, the game-play or stupid collection tasks are taken as a reference for this argumentation. And indeed: Many games interrupt their story-telling or the situation with badly placed tasks like collect 100 coffee cans (Alan Wake), polaroid-photos (Life is Strange), graffities (GTA San Andreas) or voice recordings (Bioshock).
And indeed, are these tasks often conflicting and destroying a certain atmosphere, but there are mostly put in to stretch games playing time. Playing time is seen by players, developers and computer magazines as a variable to judge the price, the fun and the overall value of a game. Unfortunately, is though that this variable doesn’t tell much if buying the game is worth it, if the game itself is fun, if it tells an interesting story? A Gothic 3 or a Fallout 4 with a play time of several hundred hours is not comparable to the deep and well thought story of Heavy Rain, which offers (depending on the game play) not much more than 15 to 20 hours. And this is why players have to learn to expect less from the gaming industry. But can games grow then in the future to be more cultural if we should expect less?
We should certainly expect less in regards of playing time (and therefore less in regard off collection items and most certainly less in regards of unthought quests). But apart from that small detail, video games should not be compared to movies or to books, because basically you can’t compare the art of the Sistine chapel with the portrait of Mona Lisa or with Kafka’s works; just because they are different type of arts! And it’s time to acknowledge that video games have become to a new branch of art. Expression, communication of emotional power and creativity are all characteristics of mentioned games and characteristics of art.
Just not enough
I have started with my disappointment about the last years regarding the cultural dimension of the games, and have changed to the question of art. Here I would like to combine these two different thoughts.
Although the recent published AAA games have addressed political issues it was just not enough. While the protagonist of FIFA 17 is black, he is not facing any kind of racism or discrimination, while it would be expected that at least once or twice such a situation may occur. Mafia 3 which puts the scenario during or shortly after the Vietnam War mentions the racism and the race separation in the USA, but apart from the racial insults, and the prohibited entering of some few places the racism of the 60’s is not felt at all. Instead of stressing these issues, they serve as an atmosphere helper, to give the player the possibility to feel more about the time, not about the protagonist itself. A similar problem faces Battlefield 1 in which the games follow several soldiers in the First World War. According to DICE and EA the producers wanted to show all sides of the war, not letting out the brutal ones. And while the short prologue makes a strong point as the player begins during a German assault and dies constantly to continue fighting from the perspective of another person. Together with the names and the living dates of these falling soldiers, the developers are able to show the ridiculous slaughter of men in war. Flamethrowers, tanks, machine gun fire, artillery and other cruel weapons are shown in this short prologue. During this short sequences you could clearly call Battlefield 1 the first anti-war video game, but unfortunately as the game starts it soon changes. Glorifying the soldiers, who are able to kill as a lonely fighter hundreds of enemies. Forgotten are the cruelty of the war and the enemy (German soldiers & Turkish soldiers). Forgotten is the fact that the enemy soldiers were also sent by their government to be slaughtered in the battlefield. Indeed, is the only known enemy a sadist, who seem to deserve the death. More and more glorifying speeches follow, more and more heroic actions are made, blinding out that the First World War was a horrifying slaughter in which the life of individuals didn’t matter at all. Battlefield 1, was therefore not able to show the brutality and senseless massacre of war.
This War of Mine, which shows the war from the perspective of a civilian made in this perspective a better job. Same happened to Watchdogs 2 that loses the strength of its story due to overly funny characters who seemed to fulfill the cliche that the society has about hackers and to impossible solutions. The video games of the last time, and especially the big developing teams and publisher have been too weak, too cowardly when it came to society, politics and history. When it came to talk about the important debates within the society the games remained mostly silent in last years, not like media, books, songs or movies. Of course are many reasons responsible for this fear, but the main reason is: money.
Why Games need to be art?
The gaming industry is a hard-fighting industry. Except of the big companies developing companies are constantly changing, closing or going bankrupt because of wrong decisions. To choose a sensitive topic like racism, discrimination or war is a dangerous decision that could not pay off. Especially because games have no protection from censorship and basically no possibility of state funding if they address important political issues. For example, are games with explicit nudity always in danger of being banned in the USA, just like games with “senseless brutality” or swastikas have to be prepared to censor their game in Germany and Austria. Similar or comparable laws are in place in many other countries prohibiting or at least not helping video games to become more.
More freedom for games
If video games would be recognized as art by law and regulations they could act more self-independent from publishers, more self-confident about addressing issues and problems. Acknowledging that video games can be art, respecting the artistic freedom of this creations can give the whole industry the freedom to talk more efficient about urgent matters and serve furthermore for a motivation to create better, more touching and deeper stories, and so we can expect finally again more of games. So the question remains: Are games art (Aga)?