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Can Video Games Be Art? Quick Answer – Yes

July 26, 2012

UKIE recently hosted a screening of Indie Game The Movie, a documentary about 2 small teams of developers making passion projects.  It’s a fun film and I really enjoyed it – I was expecting not to, given I also make games for a living.  But I did and the key reason was that the film shows the artistry that can go into making a game.  I’ll talk a little more about that in a moment but first, here is the trailer for the film:

What is clear in the film is that for the people making the featured games (Supermeat Boy, Fez and Braid) these not far from throwaway bits of fun, these are reflections of inner emotional states.  Supermeat Boy explores vulnerability and the main character – lacking skin – is a reflection of that.  Fez is about a 2D character in a 3D world and is about trying to make sense of, and rebuild a chaotic world into something that makes sense.  The creators make it clear that in each case they are putting something of themselves into the game. Whether or not the player sees this is a different question, but then that has always been a key aspect of art; the interpretation of the audience.

Now I am not saying that every game is art, but it is glaring obvious that games – via interaction, graphics, narrative, gameplay – can and do make art.  Consciously and intelligently – even outrageously – but art, yes.  it is not just Indie games or deliberate game/art projects that can go in this direction.  Even mainstream games can make art – exploring issues that society may not wish to face:

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.

Debate over. Next topic please?

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