Why aren’t video games considered a mature medium?
Roger Ebert left us with the legacy of his insightful but sometimes misguided criticism of film. Many learned through him that film was more than just an entertaining spectacle on the screen. It’s about storytelling, acting, camera angles, etc. He peeled back layers of understanding that some might say detract from the movie viewing experience but others say enhance it. Along with that legacy, he also left us with the inspiration to continue doing what we love, no matter what. Despite his diminishing health due to cancer, he kept reviewing movies. His last blog post was literally two days before his death.
Video game fans see a slightly different man with a slightly different legacy. Roger Ebert was the most famous, loudest voice claiming that video games are not art. The video game press tried to take him to task, as did readers on his blog, but no one could convince him otherwise. Games enthusiasts view him as a stubborn old man who just wasn’t living in the present day. An old man who couldn’t see that new art is always emerging.
The question of whether or not video games are art was never difficult for me. They are art. They are an intricate art that requires participation from the viewer in order to get the full experience. Some games should be considered higher art than others. Some games don’t need to be high art, but their merits should be noted anyway. Some games are just bad, but I wouldn’t say their existence counts against video games’ being art.
Games are not highly regarded in culture, though. They rate little higher than toys only because games are so easily accessible on most devices now. They make for a good distraction. That’s it. Even though everyone knew who Mario was back in the 80’s and 90’s, even though Nintendo became synonymous with video games for a time, even though the Playstation 2 sold millions of units, even though everyone knows what Halo is and even though the Wii became a surprise cultural phenomenon, video games rate very low when it comes to our culture. Video games aren’t a medium worth much note.
Well, why is that?
My first thought when it comes to reasons why are the people who are heavily involved in the medium. No, I don’t just mean the developers. The players themselves project an image that ensures that no matter how popular an aspect of video games get, the culture surrounding it will always remain insular. These are the players who pollute your headset while you play online and the people who cause trouble for no good reason on message boards and websites. Whenever they’re complained about, an apologist is sure to point out that these people are a vocal minority. Then they do nothing about those members of the community. That’s tacit approval. Meanwhile, a group of men who catcall the ladies in their office and call some of them sugar tits will be asked to shape up or ship out because not only is such behavior toxic to the work environment but also because these men, whether they realize it or not, represent their company. The vocal minority who make the video game community so uninviting are representatives of the community at large.
The developers are at fault, too. Look at the contents of games being created these days. I focus mostly on console games with this, but I can’t go without targeting mobile games. When a game like Candy Crush Saga is one of the most popular games out there, despite its purposeful screw you design in order to goad people into paying for progress, it’s certain that games will be seen as disposable entertainment. Console games are often sequelized and franchised, with many resulting from corporate decisions to just make money off of names. If it works it works, but who can take a lineup of games seriously when the only thing differentiating one from another is the year written on the cover? Also, I understand that they are good games that I haven’t played yet, but there’s no reason there needs to be a Bioshock line of games. The latest one could have been named something totally different. They just wanted the sales.
And then there are games with cheap titillation, aiming to get adolescents (and the adolescent-minded) on board by somehow convincing them that they are having a more mature experience. Graphic violence, sexualized women (rarely, if ever, the men) and sex itself do not make you more grown up. In fact, if you are grown up, such things make you feel more embarrassed playing the game than anything else. And again, this prevents new people from wanting to come in and experience the medium for long.
The types of people who become more outspoken in the games development world are often problematic as well. Phil Fish has been notoriously rude when it comes to voicing his opinion about games (such as saying that all Japanese developers “suck” while at a convention), but he seems to be quitting the medium entirely because he is unable to put up with criticism. Meanwhile, Dennis Detwiller, a lesser-known individual who happens to be the Vice President of Creative at Warner Bros. Games, responded to the ongoing dialogue about the inclusion of characters who are not heterosexual white males with, “Seriously, I don’t care about your thoughts on gender roles or the how x thing is not inclusive. Make art or STFU. Complaining is not art.”
The lack of inclusiveness is also an issue, but it’s one that exists in other mediums as well. However, it’s incredibly interesting that a medium that has always prided itself for its customization and the possibility of being whomever one wants to be is dominated by heterosexual white males, over sexualized women and the inability to create characters that look convincingly like any other race.
But it’s not the mere existence of these problems that holds the video game medium back from being considered at all mature. It’s the fact that criticism of the medium’s problem areas do not lead to further discussion or any solutions. The so-called vocal minority often successfully silences those who wish to advance the medium, and the publishers are perfectly contented with letting it happen. It seems that people aren’t fighting hard enough. On all accounts, the problem isn’t with games themselves or the problems specifically. The problem is us.
Roger Ebert was wrong to say that games aren’t art. He was also wrong to draw focus to that particular question. Artfulness honestly doesn’t matter when the question should be is it worth delving into this culture to find out? Ebert might have made the right move by not even bothering with it all.