Ceci N’est Pas Une Power-Up; Why Video Games Shouldn’t Want to be Art


Each week, Death by Science sends out an all-points bulletin for the latest science and technology news, tracks it down and beats a confession out of it. This week, we examine the Supreme Court’s ruling that video games should be considered art and we ask Ruth Bader Ginsburg if she has any tips on how to get past the Cyborg Ninja in Metal Gear Solid.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court struck down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors on the grounds that video games are art. You may argue that the highest court in the land knows bunk about either video games or art, but their decision gives Crash Bandicoot the same first First Amendment protection as Jane Eyre.

Before the 7-2 Supreme Court ruling, the debate on the artistic merit of video games had one of its biggest moments with a Roger Ebert blog post that is boldly titled, “Video games can never be art.” Ebert deconstructs the argument made during a TED talk by video game designer Kellee Santiago, who insists video games, “already are art.” Ebert’s post has so far garnered 4,849 comments and, if anything, proves that both sides are more than capable of defending their own viewpoint passionately and at length.

Films were subjected to similar squabbles for decades until the Supreme Court decided in 1952 that movies should be offered the same Constitutional protection as plays or books. That ruling doesn’t make Metropolis or The Wizard of Oz any better or worse than they already are, but it serves as a weighty acknowledgement and expectation for an entire medium.

Once dismissed as outlets for teenage aggression and adult loneliness, video games now must carry the burden of being art.

There are rehabs for video game addition. In Japan, a man married a video game character. People have even died from gaming. Still, games have never had to face the intense scrutiny and haughty judgment that art criticism brings.

Want to know what it’s like? Three years ago, Esquire got a head start and ran a profile of game designer Jason Rohrer. Jason is an interesting fellow, an earthy family man who lives in upstate New York, fights for the right to grow a meadow in front of his house and earns a meager living making low-tech computer games.

One of those games, Passage, is chronicled in the piece and revered for its restraint and humbling message. The author depicts the experience of playing it as a raw, emotional journey. Rohrer is elevated to the status of artist:

By carefully constructing an alternate reality, bit by bit, Rohrer has been able to make the same creative leap that many artists have made in the past. His games start with an emotion, an observation about the poignancy of a certain set of trade-offs inherent to being alive; Rohrer then figures out how to abstract and encode these trade-offs using math and images.

You can download Passage here. Go ahead and play it, we’ll wait; it takes less than five minutes to complete. You walk around, meet a girl and then you both die. That’s it.

Welcome to the video game as art.

Dedicated gamers have always considered their passion to be art, and as the comments section on the aforementioned Ebert blog post can attest, they aren’t going to be convinced otherwise. But now that games are expected to be pieces of art, will they be the same kind of fun?

Twenty years ago when you bought a crappy game for NES you could dismiss it as a waste of money and then trade it to your buddy for a Kendall Gill rookie card. Not anymore; that piece of shit game is a devastating example of failed art.

Mike Piazza’s StrikeZone for N64 didn’t just rob you of two hours back in eighth grade, it ushered in the stark realization of how painful wasted human endeavor can be.

[Just as exciting as a real-life Mets game!]

Hardcore gamers who populate message boards and argue about which Final Fantasy game is the best will soon have to fight off Bard undergrads who log on after drinking five glasses of pinot noir at their Postmodernism in Interactive Media professor’s dinner party.

You didn’t see the connection between Cloud’s reluctance in Final Fantasy VII and the detached longing of Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise? FAIL!

Sure, you’ll still be able to smoke a joint, order Papa John’s and play Gran Turismo all night with your roommates, but you’ll be expected to talk about it afterwards.

That’s what art does; it changes expectations. It’s why you forgo that fun beach read and instead pick up the 2,400 page, posthumously released novel about literary conferences. It’s why you’re going to feel so guilty about seeing Transformers 3 on its opening weekend that you’ll force yourself to see The Tree of Life in order to make up for it. You will then walk on the High Line and pretend to dissect Terrence Malick’s use of narrator with your date.

You’re expected to.

If films were just considered entertainment, you would see whatever the heck you wanted and if it happened to suck you’d shrug it off.

Movies and books are too often expected to be an artful expression draped in pretense and pregnant with meaning. They can be rewarding, frustrating, challenging and disappointing. Rarely will you let them just be fun for fun’s sake.

Fun for fun’s sake should be the point of video games. They are violent, loud, sixty-dollar escape pods that can be played, paused and restarted on a whim. If you happen to get caught up in the storyline or form a bond with one of the characters, then neat; you have a pretty good game on your hands.

Should you expect to be moved to new emotional heights and have your soul stirred like never before?

Of course not, you just need to get to the castle and save the princess.