Can Video Games be Art?

(Or, wherein I beat a dead horse…)

I reread Maus this weekend.  One of the things that struck me, upon reading it again after so many years, is how it would have failed in other media.  The Nazis as Cats, Jews as Mice metaphor works beautifully in cartoon panels.  But I can’t see it working as a movie.  In animation or CGI, there would have been something horribly cheesy or heavy-handed about the visual.  Nor, do I think, would it have worked as a literary metaphor – the constant mental translation it would have created for the reader would have prevented any sort of immersion in the story.

This idea of a serious, intelligent, emotionally arresting and gratifying story being best presented in a medium that was classically considered frivolous brought me around to another idea – Roger Ebert’s now classic assertion that video games can never be art.

Part of this connection was probably due to my recent reading of Brian Moriarty’s post supporting Ebert’s position.  Moriarty and Ebert are both much smarter and well-versed in their respective subjects than I am in ANY subject, so its hard for me to say this – but they failed to convince me.  And Maus is the reason why.  If a comic book can become high-art (Maus won the Pulitzer Prize), then doesn’t that mean a video game might some day too?

Before I should go any farther, I should say that I am not much of a video game player.  I play casually at best, mostly the occasional game with my son.  I used to play video games quite a bit as a kid, but gave up on them years ago.  And up until recently, I would have agreed with Ebert.

But something struck me about Moriarty’s argument, which I would distill thusly: a video game cannot be a work of art in the same way that chess and go cannot be art.  And what struck me was the idea that games, inherently, cannot draw from the narrative tradition – that is, the game part of ‘video game’ is the salient part.

This is part of Ebert’s argument as well – that the malleability of narrative in a video game makes it incapable of communicating to its participants the way that a directed narrative can.  In other words – “Romeo & Juliet” would lack its power, and therefore its ability to be art, if it were a video game, because then you could save Juliet.

This point made me remember Final Fantasy VII.  Final Fantasy VII is beautiful, but it’s not art.  However, there is a moment in the game that makes me think that a video game could someday transcend the medium and become art.  About midway through the game, a player character – Aeris, dies.  Death is, of course, a constant part of video games, and for the most part, lacks in dramatic potential because the character can always load a saved game, come back to life, and start over.

What made Aeris’ death interesting, however, was the inability of the player to stop it.  Many people tried.  But they only way to prevent Aeris death was to stall – to wander aimlessly, preventing the narrative from going forward.  But many players were unwilling to let Aeris die, even if it was a required step to complete the game, because through building the character, they had become emotionally invested in her.

That moment led me to believe there are real narrative possibilities to video games and, more importantly, there are narrative possibilities that exist in the medium that don’t exist elsewhere (or wouldn’t be as effective).  In this, I am reminded of The Godfather, the book, vs. The Godfather, the movie.  The book is pulp, but the movie is transcendent.  Our investment in Aeris is due to the fact that the game requires us to expend energy in her development – to actively engage in her success.  No other medium can create that kind of engagement with its characters – movies and TV are entirely passive.  Reading is active, but nowhere near on the same level.  Theater is the only medium that seems close.

So, for me anyway, the next question is what kind of story would work better as a video game than anything else.  Video games have a few advantages over something like, say, a movie:  people are willing to spend 40 to 60 on a video game.   They can play with interesting questions of fate vs. freewill (could you create a Romeo & Juliet game where Juliet’s salvation seems possible, but never truly is?).   They can play with multiple interweaving narratives, as well as multiple endings.

Finally, then, if it is possible for games to be art, why hasn’t there been a game that can rightfully be considered art today?  My thought here is that video games are a very new medium – only 35 or so years old.  It was 70-some years between the first comic books and the publication of Maus.  Novels took hundreds of years.  Movies took forty-some years.  It’s not that a video game cannot be art – it’s that no video game has become art yet.

Sounds like a challenge.