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A New Way of Looking at Videogames

September 7, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

What is art? There is no single, workable definition. Is art just something that makes us feel? Or reflect? Roger Ebert, normally a rational and witty writer, concluded not long ago that videogames are not, and can never be, art, despite never having played one and being unable to offer a definition of art. Though this conclusion has little validity, Ebert revealed, subtextually, an important point. There is very little in the way of academic-style discourse on videogames. Other artforms, such as film, both mine and Ebert’s specialty, have dozens of journals internationally, each containing many essays on hundreds of thousands of topics relating to film. It’s clear that if film, as a creative enterprise, can stimulate such a vast amount of intellectual debate, then it must be an artform.

Logically, for videogames to stand alongside film as a form of art, then they must also generate discussion. The internet has provided the gaming community with an infinite forum for discussion, with hundreds, if not thousands, of websites dedicated to talking about games. Unfortunately, videogame criticism is, largely, not as developed as film criticism. That’s not to say that videogame critics can’t do their jobs: the problem is that videogames have only been around thirty years or so, while film has been around for over a hundred.

There has been a lot of discourse in that century: filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein forwarded his theories on editing, the Cahiers du Cinema detailed the importance of mise-en-scen, Laura Mulvey advanced her feminist theories and many, many more besides. Videogame criticism, simply, needs to get serious. Too many videogame reviews summarise the story, the genre, and a few gameplay mechanics, analyse the controls, graphics and sound and finish up with a numerical score. More reviewers need to engage with the game at a much more conceptual level. They need to look at the game textually and subtextually, considering themes and messages. What is the developer ultimately trying to say, if anything, and how is it said? Does the game accidentally reveal things about those responsible for creating it? Games borrow a lot from films and literature, and thus borrow much of that discourse. Things like connotations and representations of things like gender and race. Metaphors and symbolism could also play a large role – could the developer be using the game world to say something about the real world? Do certain gameplay mechanics support the themes and/or message? Do the graphics and sound design reveal anything extra about the game?

Beyond just reviews, there is very little in terms of videogame discourse. The vast majority of articles online are news posts or previews of upcoming games, again simply detailing plot points and basic game mechanics. Videogame discourse isn’t completely absent – articles about the nature of choice in games such as Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain and BioShock are both well written and important, as they cover a factor which is unique to videogames. There just simply isn’t enough of it, however. There are plenty of intelligent videogame writers out there, and they need to start thinking outside the box and start writing about their ideas. We need to start discussing how deep a game’s experience can be, how the best on offer are easily as complex as a movie, and, most importantly, what games can offer that no other media can. Roger Ebert and many others are convinced that games are nothing more than thoughtless entertainment, while I and countless other gamers know otherwise: it’s time for us to prove it.

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