Only a few years ago, it was a hot debate. Are games art? At this point most people have moved on, having either decided on an answer or just given up on finding one. But it remains an open question. There are arguments for both sides, though most man-on-the-street advocates for games as art end up arguing that Okami is art because it’s super pretty or Half Life 2 is art because it’s one of the best-made games in history and also comments on fascism. In any case, the debate has disappeared for the most part, replaced with a new debate over the actual content of games. And it’s proven gamers aren’t ready for games to be art.
This new conversation smacks of early 2000’s Jack Thompson and Hillary Clinton censorship-lite efforts, and perhaps that’s what causes so much consternation amongst the true-believer-gamer ranks. The issue of violence against women, which has reemerged with the rise of internet social justice and especially Anita Sarkeesian’s video series, is a reminder of all the clueless lawmakers whose fingers hovered over the legal guillotine for GTA as they gasped about high scores for beating prostitutes to death. As I detailed previously, gamers just want to be left alone about this stuff. “It’s just a game. It doesn’t make anyone more likely to do anything bad, it’s just a game, seriously guys, lighten up! Put on a helmet, cause the world ain’t gonna change for you.”
Back in the day, when the “games as art” debate still had some fire in its belly, what was it gamers wanted? Why was it so important that games be considered art? Couldn’t they just be games? Games can impart life-changing experiences to the player. That’s pretty impressive, and on par with anything art can do. But art does have a real cultural somethingness to it, and gamers wanted it. Faced with vocal opponents that so often misrepresented to a gullible public what went on in games, an art status could give some measure of spiritual protection on first amendment grounds. More importantly, that somethingness could give games the je ne sais quoi that apparently every legitimate art form has. They were foiled both by elitist assholes and elitist assholes who kinda had a point.
Games fulfill a need for play, for imaginative activity. They’re like food; you can dress it up and be creative and make a beautiful thing, but in the end it’s being consumed. Art supposedly exists on its own merit, for its own purposes. There is the question of indie games, with development teams as small as a single person, and with creative freedom rivaling any other more traditional medium. Elitist assholes have an answer for that too, citing a disconnect between the code (the “text”) and what we see, between the message and the actual gameplay (ludonarrative dissonance), and an inconsistent experience between players. There’s a lot of reasons games are under dispute as art, most of them bullshit, and while the argument has died down, it’ll probably never end until games have simply been around “long enough.”
The current debate assumes that games are art. Instead of bickering about whether or not games can have as strong an emotional effect as film, or if Shigeru Miyamoto deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Andy Warhol, we’ve collectively decided that’s a dumb conversation. So what’s been happening a lot recently is people have begun analyzing games as texts. This is where we run into problems.
Gamers are perfectly happy to read about how this or that game is All In the Protagonist’s Head As He Dies, or act all enlightened that they played Spec Ops: The Line because it attempts to use war to show that war is wrong. They love fan theories about how this or that character is crazy or a hallucination or whatever. A good amount of this “look how artistic” activity relies on close reading and examining minutiae.
Take a look at the Gary Oak theory. The theory goes that Gary is an orphan, whose best friend Raticate was killed in a battle by the player. He makes a pilgrimage to Lavender Town, the Kanto region’s graveyard, to pay his respects. His caretaker grandfather, Professor Oak, is unimpressed with him, and so he strives to be the very best and become Pokémon League Champion. As soon as he does, though, you show up and snatch his victory from him and Oak berates him again. You asshole. Gary is a jerk because he comes from a broken family and is unloved by humans. His only friends are Pokémon and women he impresses with his battle record and extensive Pokédex.
The absence of his Raticate after the SS Anne rival battle, his appearance in Lavender Town, the fact that Professor Oak is, as far as we know, Gary’s only parental figure. These things basically mean nothing to the game, but a compelling theory was put forth with the information available. It has been constructed through literary analysis.
But when games analysis even creeps towards suggesting a connection to real-world issues, gamers lose their shit. Analysis that isn’t about how cool a game is, or how it makes you a better person for playing it, apparently constitutes an attack on games and the people who play them. Scrutinizing a game’s treatment of women, for example, means you’re against the first amendment. Or that you want the creators to be branded as sexist, or that you look down upon anyone who likes the game. You hate art, you want to limit artists’ ability to express themselves.
Though the Gary Oak theory redefines the narrative of Pokémon as one of adolescent cruelty and obliviousness, it’s still confined to your Gameboy or emulator. It doesn’t pass into the real world, and besides, Gary is a cock. Discussions about Pokémon in terms of real-world animal cruelty, on the other hand, are a joke. Pokémon crammed into tiny little Pokéballs is a common sight gag. People will joke about how Pokémon is an inherently abusive game, as most people are aware, however uncomfortably, of the real implications of the game. But actually trying to analyze Pokémon in this way isn’t just a joke, it’s taking it too far, reading too closely. Taking a game too seriously.
Gamers are a defensive lot, and it’s not hard to see why, even if it does induce eye rolling in a lot of people. As one of the newest art forms around, games face a lot of criticism that more traditional art wouldn’t. The fact that hysteria over video games has been supplanted by hand wringing over sexting or YA lit or Odd Future doesn’t change anything. The medium was legitimately under legal threat not long ago. The MPAA has had a chilling effect on the film industry and creatives within it, and the ESRB similarly limits the video games field. People belittle gaming and gamers. “It’s not art,” after all. It’s for children.
Many gamers have built their identity upon games, and negative perceptions and opinions of games really tick them off. Especially when the opinions are built on something so abstract as close reading. But like I said, the Gary Oak theory is built on three details the programmers probably didn’t even think about. And can you shake that idea? It makes perfect sense.
The games gamers are okay with people picking apart tend to be designated “art games.” These games come out strong with an artistic statement or attitude, promote themselves as having a deeper message or “mindfuck” ending, or are otherwise inscrutable in a way that begs for interpretation. Braid, Spec Ops: The Line, Bioshock, Silent Hill, Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls, etc. Even then, most of these examples are only looked at on a surface level, i.e. “what the hell happens in this game anyway?”
Gamers like to think that games can tell us important truths, educate about issues. That’s what art does. But they don’t like to think that the content of games indicates something about important truths or issues. They want games to be an active force, using the medium’s unique interactivity to push this or that message, explore this or that theme. What they can’t stand is games being examined and critiqued as a force. The implications of the messages a game pushes, its shortcomings and failures that make it mean something it didn’t intend. But this is just as much a part of art and literature as what is intended.
Art is both, and gamers only want half of it. They don’t treat games like art. They treat games like food. Gaming forums are stuffed with “Most creative boss fights?” and “Your greatest victory.” “Parts of games that made you cry.” Reflection on games is limited to how good or bad they were, what you enjoyed about them. What you remembered. What it told you. Art is evaluated on a much deeper scale than that.
Games can be evaluated that way. And they are, but too rarely. Taking a closer look at how a game conveys a message, messages outside of the main themes, recurring tropes, is discouraged. Peering with a critical eye at the game’s subtle views on real shit is grounds for insults and threats. Taking games seriously, treating games as art, earns you a world of bullshit garbage from gamers. Gamers don’t deserve art.