This post was written in response to veteran critic Roger Ebert’s journal entry titled “Video games can never be art“. I hope that I provide an interesting counter-point.
I appreciate that you have already received a considerable response to your journal entry outlining your reasons to believe that video games can never be art. You have already responded to several individuals and I do not wish to repeat the same arguments myself. I have however been considering a response of my for some time now, one that will hopefully be able to persuade you to at reconsider your opinion, or at least provide an illumination on why others have a differing ones.
I could mention several examples of what I personally would consider games as art, but I suspect you would not agree and it would not really advance the argument. However, since you are a film expert and enthusiast, I feel it might be prudent to try and compare one particular game and its relation to another particular film in order to provide some context to my arguments and to aid your understanding of the game I wish to discuss. I am not as critically experienced as you are, so you may not agree with what I have to say, but I hope that I am able to make the argument as effectively as I can.
In 1983 you reviewed the film WarGames, giving it a four star rating and describing it as “an amazingly entertaining thriller”. Your review made note of how the film “absorbs us on emotional and intellectual levels at the same time” and describes the ending as “a moment of blinding and yet utterly elementary insight”. It would be presumptuous for me to assume that you consider the movie art, but it is certainly a film that you have spoken very highly of.
One of the key moments in the film is the discussion of futility, and this concept is explained using a game, namely Tic-Tac-Toe. As Falken explains, the game itself is pointless, as there’s no way to win. The metaphor is then contrasted with the current situation at NORAD, which is equally pointless but is not believed as such by those in charge. In the “wonderful” ending, as you described it in your review, the metaphor is used again, but this time by main character David against the machine. By forcing the computer into endless games of Tic-Tac-Toe, the computer is able to understand the futility of the game, and thus the similar futility of nuclear war.
Before you correctly point out that I have stated the game as pointless, please be aware that I mean that the game is pointless by itself. As a metaphor it is certainly useful, both among the film characters and to the audience. If I can make the argument that art is about illustrating and delivering a lasting concept to its audience, then I would say that the film qualifies, and the Tic-Tac-Toe metaphor is one of the many reasons why the film is able to do this.
This is all well and good, but this is an example of one very simple game, which is never played by humans, acting as a metaphor in a film. Playing a game is not the same as using a game. You have stated that games have rules and objectives, and winners and losers. You appear to be making the argument that a game cannot be art without a sense of context, and I would not disagree with you on this point.
I would argue however, that a video game is about so much more than the actual game itself. The best video games provide a setting for the game to exist in, and more crucially a setting that gives the context required to allow games to deliver much larger concepts. I hope to demonstrate this with my next example.
DEFCON is an online strategy game, inspired by the previously mentioned WarGames. It was developed and released in 2006 by Introversion Software, a small independent games company in Britain, with Chris Delay and Gary Chambers as the game’s designers. I mention this to demonstrate that the game is not the product of a large software company with money as their key motivation – this is a game made by talented enthusiasts with a love of what they are creating. I believe this to be artistry – whether you agree is up to you.
Like WarGames, the central idea is global thermonuclear war. The in-game setup is that you, the player, are a general in an underground bunker commanding your forces before the inevitable war begins. The game allows you to build defence towers and missile silos, send out scout planes and submarines, and ultimately participate in global destruction.
This in itself would not generally be considered art. The game itself is simplistic, and could probably by played using paper and pens. As I stated above, a game by itself is just a game.
But, DEFCON the video game is about so much more than its simple game mechanic. The visual look of the game, with its dark backgrounds and neon lit symbols and patterns, helps build the world which the player inhabits. It allows the player to feel immersed in the game world, and amplifies the idea that the actions that they are taking are doing more than simply moving stuff around on a screen. Suddenly, there are consequences to what the player does.
And once this is established, we can begin to see how a game can start to convey more dramatic ideas. While other games (and indeed other films) may show destruction as a simple loud explosion, it is represented here as a small blip with an accompanying statistic stating just how many people you have killed. It’s a cold impersonal means of displaying death, and this is not something that is lost on the player – suddenly a much bigger insight into what you are doing is gained. There are other touches – an understated piano tune in the background adds to the cold atmosphere, punctuated with a few choking coughs and sometimes a few cries.
DEFCON, like WarGames, makes no secret of the fact that its central game is one that has no winners. Alliances break down, nukes fly, everybody dies. It is an experience that leaves an impression on the player, and it is experiences like this in video games like this that bring me to my point of view that video games can be considered works of art.
You may argue that it is the experience that is the art and not the game, but I would argue that the two elements are required to make each other work. The game loses all meaning when taken out of its setting, and setting loses its ability to communicate to the player without the game. Like the WarGames example, the game is the metaphor – the difference is now it can be experienced rather than simply imagined.
I hope that you read this message, and I hope that it is useful to you as an argument. If nothing else, I hope I have been able to provide an alternative viewpoint.