Friday, 4 January 2008

"'Assassin's Creed' will not make anyone into an 11th Century assassin..."

Video games get a lot of bad press. When they’re not being touted as an illegitimate art form, they’re being blamed for society’s ills. Video games are held accountable for many things (usually by the same one person) from low cognitive development in today’s youth to any random act of violence that occurs, usually State-side. Games like Manhunt 2 and the Grand Theft Auto series are labelled as “murder simulators” which is frankly absurd. Although I’ve never killed anyone, I’m fairly sure it doesn’t involve pressing the right trigger at the same time as the X button. Whenever someone does something horrendous or there’s a sudden, seemingly inexplicable, act of violence, the press are always quick to find a scapegoat; video games, movies, drugs, or social alienation. Anything that avoids holding people personally responsible for their own actions. After the Columbine shootings, people pointed to violent video games that the killers played such as ‘Doom’. Is it more comforting to think that video games can make people into murderers than to think that it just happens? Is it easier to have a pariah to harass rather than the murderers themselves?

Video games are also discredited as not being a legitimate art form. Roger Ebert spoke out about this subject claiming that video games can never be “high art” whatever that means. This is a man who devoted his life to fawning over Scorsese’s camera angles and the symbolism in pretentious independent ‘Oscar-films’. This inability to accept the subtle writing and art direction of modern video games is nothing more than a cultural prejudice left over from the days where the height of gaming culture was ‘Pac-Man’ and ‘Space Invaders’. These media experts in the public spotlight look at video games as a pursuit for the youth or those without the patience to appreciate a great novel. Maybe they even lack the spatial reasoning or hand-eye co-ordination to enjoy video games appropriately. Akin to something like wine-tasting, it takes time and a measure of grown skill to appreciate the artistry of a video game.

I think video games can most definitely be art. Anything can be art. Although I haven’t studied the philosophy of art, it seems to me that art’s function is either to move someone or provide even one moment of aesthetic appreciation. When people from without the video game community look in, they see a plethora of vacuous and meaningless titles like ‘Halo’ or ‘World of Warcraft’ or stuff on the Wii console which has become oh so popular as a fashion item. Admittedly a great deal of games are crap and finding a good one is a matter of learning about the industry and refining one’s tastes.

People say video games are entering a renaissance period. From the philosophical meanderings of ‘Bioshock’, to the humorously black writing of ‘Portal’, to the cinematic grandeur of ‘Mass Effect’, games are certainly approaching a degree of nuance and immersion that hasn’t been seen before. If a movie or novel can be art then ‘Mass Effect’ can definitely be placed in that category. It is basically an interactive sci-fi movie where the immersion of a console allows one to choose the character’s path and shoot through action scenes (although the dialogue portions are vastly superior to the poor shooting gameplay). The Wii has enjoyed unprecedented sales over the holiday period and while a lot is down to its status as 'the hip item' to own akin to a fashionable piece of furniture, it may also serve to introduce the public to serious appreciation of video games. From the brilliant (if a little easy) ‘Super Mario Galaxy’, it’s only a small step to the harder stuff like ‘Zelda’ and ‘Metroid’.

Video games can be art. They offer a degree of immersion that a movie can never have. They offer more cognitive brain activity than watching the most high-brow television documentary. They increase problem-solving ability and hand-eye co-ordination. They can be breathtakingly beautiful; a gorgeous vista in a movie is momentary whereas a wide open space in a video game like ‘Shadow of the Colossus’ lasts for as long as the player desires. Whereas movies are static, video games are dynamic.

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