The ‘videogames as art’ debate has gone around and come around. Sure, we’re all bored with it, but is that a good enough reason to drop it permanently?
It’s no secret that videogames struggle for legitimacy. Every gamer has their own personal memory of their hobby scorned, buried deep in their unconscious, waiting for the right moment to erupt and turn them into a blubbering mess of Freudian analysis.
Personally, my own was born of a games journalist. Three years ago, Chris Buffa rightly took apart games journalism. It was inspiring stuff, but the most devastating quote encouraged videogame journalists to “keep in mind that no matter how successful you may think that you are, there’s a very hot person in a bar that’s going to laugh in your face when you inform them what you do for a living (they’ll be sober, by the way).”
Can you imagine N’Gai Croal, svelte dreads in tow, getting a rejection line handed to him at the end of the night based solely on his occupation? Can you imagine Leigh Alexander getting the cold shoulder after a long night of dedicated small talk only because she let slip she’s pretty big in the male 12-20 demographic and she’s not a porn star?
Well, yes, actually, I can. All I know is that there are a horde of videogame journalists out there right now – this instant – pretending to be hard news reporters, or graphic designers, or god knows what (mechwarrior pilots, knowing the imagination of half of them) in order to pick up. It’s an amusingly worrying thought.
“Legitimacy” is an interesting thing. As Michael Abbott pointed out recently, if it’s hard data signifying legitimacy that we’re after, we have plenty. A cursory Google search will tell you that most consenting adults now enjoy videogames; that the average age of the gamer is probably older than you are; that the demographics are expanding constantly; that when Jesus returns he’ll come bearing a DS and a Japanese copy of Professor Layton.
Yet your average gamer remains skeptical (as perhaps he should in the case of the last point). Perhaps he is right to be. For the stats don’t stop “regular players”, as deemed by the surveys, still contributing to the “games-as-insignificant-distraction” section of society. The stats don’t stop Barack Obama, a politician usually considerate when it comes to cultural scapegoats, from urging parents to “turn off the Xbox” in order to revive a generation. It’s a cultural touchstone: games aren’t serious. With the introduction of Wii Fit and Guitar Hero, they might be fun, just like they used to be in the ‘80s, but they aren’t important.
It comes down to this: you might play ‘em, but that don’t mean you think they’re art.
And yet it’s this here “art” thing that we most shy away from. Oh, not in the initial years: anyone who was anyone was willing to send a vociferous email off to Roger Ebert in the hopes that the old man would change his mind on the basis of ill-conceived, capitalised arguments from a pre-teen. Games were art. This of all things we were certain of. We even let Clive Barker speak on our behalf, as our head advocate, so confident we were of the self-evident obviousness of our case.
Then something changed. The industry matured, and walked away from the frothy-mouthed flailing of a juvenile media looking for a pat on the head from Daddy. It decided that actions, more than words, would speak for their medium. And perhaps they do. Portal and others have made large steps towards showing how games can be art, and not merely talking about it. In many senses this is far more important than arguments.
But somewhere along the line, we forgot that arguments are vital.
There are almost certainly those who’ve been reading this article who have begun to cringe involuntarily as soon as I mentioned the word “art”. I know your type. I used to be one. You began by radically supporting the “art” argument. You chatted animatedly, passionately with your friends. Perhaps you were at a LAN party. Perhaps you were among non-converts, and you struggled to get your opinion across. But that didn’t stop you.
You signed up to an online forum. You clearly outlined your reasons. You carefully selected your criteria, and you made one hell of an argument.
And everyone agreed. Except those who didn’t listen. And they were the ones who really counted; the uninitiated masses.
So you went around in circles for some time. Maybe even a couple of years. And then you stopped. You became jaded. “Games-as-art is the most tired, uninteresting debate out there,” you eventually conceded. “It’s not worth debating about any more. There are more worthwhile topics.”
Maybe you were right. Maybe it is boring. It does goes around in circles. It is pointless, in terms of any tangible aim: it is beyond doubt that we’ll ever see an all-persuasive argument surface any time soon.
But we can’t stop talking about it. We mustn’t.
The reason is clear enough, if you take the time to think about it. Why are you here? Why are you at this blog, reading an article on videogames and cultural legitimacy? What was that moment that kicked it off?
I’d wager that it was because you felt that videogames were under-appreciated. I bet that you heard, saw, or read someone talking about your hobby in a serious way. It connected with you. Someone showed you that you weren’t alone in your experiences: other people believed that your emotional experience while playing Final Fantasy VII, or Knights of the Old Republic, or Zelda was authentic and meaningful. They had reasons. They had good reasons. And it was so reassuring to have these reasons validated that it triggered off a whole host of thoughts about videogames. You wanted to talk to others. You wanted to play more. Maybe you wanted to become a journalist.
This is why we can’t let the “games-as-art” discussion die. The truth is that the vast majority of people, even if they play games on a regular basis, don’t necessarily think of them as a serious medium. It isn’t because they’re being unfair on videogames – it’s mostly because they either haven’t had enough playing experience, or the thought just hasn’t occurred to them.
We need to be that thought.
Every time we debate “games-as-art” we can put that seed of a thought into someone else’s mind. Even if they laugh at it, it’ll sit there. It’s the kind of thing that hangs around. Next time they’re playing Guitar Hero or Wii Sports, they might have a think about what they’re doing. Or they might not. It’ll either germinate or it won’t.
But the thought will be there. And one day they too might sign up to an online forum.
And maybe one day politicians like Obama will stop trying to turn off the Xboxs and instead try to reach out through them. Surely that’s worth getting over your own boredom for.