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Video Games: But are they art?

December 19, 2010

I got pointed to this article in the London Review of Books on games and art.  It’s a great read.  Here’s an extract where the author talks about the idea of how a game explored a political idea;

An example. One of the hottest philosophical topics on the internet is Ayn Rand. Her ‘objectivist’ philosophy, positivistic and materialistic and focused on the need to get society out of the way of the genius so that he can get on with his geniusness, is popular with a broad spectrum of alienated semi-young men tapping away at computer screens and dreaming of world domination. Complicating the picture is the fact that she was also the main intellectual influence on her close friend and protégé Alan Greenspan, author of the recent monetary boom we were all enjoying so much until it destroyed the world economy. The only thing which isn’t ridiculous about Rand and her ‘objectivism’ is the number of people who take her seriously. It would be a good time for someone to publish a work of fiction or make a movie going into Rand’s ideas and duffing them up a bit – for instance, imagining what it would look like if a society with no laws were turned over to the free will of self-denominated geniuses.

Well, someone has done that, except it isn’t a book or movie, it’s a video game. BioShock, which came out in 2007, was conceived by Ken Levine and developed by 2K Boston/2K Australia, and is set in an alternative-reality version of 1960. The main character – from whose perspective you play the game – is involved in a plane crash in mid-Atlantic, and ends up in an underwater city called Rapture which, he learns, was founded by one Andrew Ryan (spot the near anagram) as a genius-led paradise of unrestricted scientific experiment. The scientists invented a technology of genetic improvement, ‘splicing’, and under pressure to keep this secret, Ryan made a fatal mistake: he passed Rapture’s only law, forbidding contact with the surface. This law instantly made smuggling a profitable business, and a criminal empire developed. Rapture descended into civil war, and then into the world of the game: a dystopian horror in which genetically altered ‘splicers’ run amok. BioShock is visually striking, verging on intermittently beautiful, also violent, dark, sleep-troubling, and perhaps, to some of its intended audience, thought-provoking. The game was a huge hit, and I have yet to encounter anyone who has ever heard of it.

I should point out that in the last sentence I assume the author is talking about non-gamers.  Us gamers, we’re well aware; though I wonder how much we also away of the work of Ayn Rand and it’s influence on the game’s narrative?  (I’m aware, but have not read any Rand.)  I guess that’s the point – as gaming grows in scope and influence, we also need to look to the mainstream to understanding gaming for what it is (not what they fear it is) and that means playing games.  But for us gamers, we also need to engage with the non-gaming world (I’m a huge reader for example and love to read) and also enjoy the amazing works of art they produce that don’t have multiplay.

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