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The Future of Prestigious Awards for Video Games - Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, Etc.
by Karin E Skoog on 06/29/12 01:38:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(First posted on KitGuru Gaming.)

When will video games be taken seriously?  When video games (or their creators, rather) take themselves seriously…

The basic guideline for a Nobel Prize in Literature is that the work signifies, “the greatest benefit on mankind [and heads] in an ideal direction.”  While you certainly cannot encapsulate the full impact of this definition in one short paragraph, the general spirit of this guideline is arguably embodied in an excerpt from the 2010 Nobel Prize Literature winner The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa, which invokes powerful questions of humanity:

Why did [the anthropologist] cling to that allusion of his: wanting to preserve these [Amazonian] tribes just as they were, their way of life just as it was? […] Was this chimerical preservation desirable?  Was going on living the way they were, the way purist anthropologists of Saúl’s sort wanted them to do, to the tribes’ advantage?  Their primitive state made them, rather, victims of the worst exploitation and cruelty.

The actual Nobel Prize Medal for Literature includes the inscription “Inventas vitam juvat excoluisse per artes,” which is translated as, “And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found mastery” or, literally, “Inventions enhance life which is beautified through art.”  While video games have certainly evolved from their humble beginnings, have games truly reached this transcendental level of impact upon its audience?

literature The Future of Prestigious Awards for Video Games – Pulitzer Prize, Noble Prize, Etc…

(The Nobel Prize for Literature.)

The video game industry is only just beginning to mature, in respect to the industry carving out set industry standards and expectations for the future.  I’m not talking about standards and expectations related to graphics but rather, standards and expectations regarding plot, character development, and other elements key to masterpieces like classic novels and films.  After all, why would critics of other disciplines give credence to hack-and-slash games and other genres designed to provide entertainment without also imbedding an added layer of complexity?  In the same manner that literary critics and prestigious awards like the Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize don’t touch books designed for light reading and mere entertainment purposes, video games won’t be looked at as serious mediums of art that have the power to move audiences and inspire questions about humanity until video games make these storytelling narratives and psychological and societal aspects a main focus.

The industry is in the transitional stages of achieving a new level of recognition.  Video games have entered prestigious museums like the Smithsonian and are being studied by academics at universities around the world.  However, these methods of studying video games are young yet and still developing into their full potential.  As universities yield academics focused on achieving new levels of complexity within games, we will likely see the industry transform even more.

smithsonian 9433158 300x200 The Future of Prestigious Awards for Video Games – Pulitzer Prize, Noble Prize, Etc…

(The Smithsonian.)

The next phase is for game developers to strive for that next level of complexity, in which games serve to appeal beyond mere entertainment and rather, to what it is that makes us human.  In fact, I believe that games will someday be included in prestigious award ceremonies similar to the Pulitzer Prize and Noble Prize in Literature (though not necessarily candidates for the actual Pulitzer and Noble Prizes).  This can quite possibly be achieved if developers fashion games that achieve the following points:

-          Adhering to guidelines similar to what classifies a novel or movie to be a great work of literature or film (ex. having “superior or lasting artistic merit,” “expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest,” and dealing with topics of the humanities such that would have universal appeal)

-          Focusing upon storytelling elements and character development to keep the player engaged in the plot and the lives of the characters, preferably able to sustain this level of engagement throughout gameplay

I’ll likely add to this list and revise it in the future, but I believe these aspects would provide a decent foundation for determining whether games are on par with similar art forms.  Very likely you have your own ideas for what constitutes a game as a work of art or a masterpiece approaching the quality of classic literature and films, or you may even believe that video games could never come close to achieving what other art forms have achieved.  Within the realm of the humanities, experts and students will forever maintain the debate regarding how one classifies great works of art as such, and there will be no exception when it comes to video games.

TCOM 182x300 The Future of Prestigious Awards for Video Games – Pulitzer Prize, Noble Prize, Etc…

(A precious classic.)

An interesting aspect of video games is the player’s involvement in the medium.  Gamers were unsatisfied with Mass Effect 3’s ending largely because they felt more choice should have been awarded to the conclusion of a series arguably defined by the decisions of the players.  Literary critics in particular have hashed out the implications of readership and the individual’s role in shaping the overall experience of the story, but video games have an incredible opportunity for basing player experience in the perceived freedom of choice, which cannot be quite as easily mimicked by other art forms.  Just as the excerpt from The Storyteller at the beginning of this article alludes to the role of anthropologists in regard to their subjects (and whether or not the “observer” should involved themselves in the lives and overall well-being of their subjects), future video game critics will have quite a time of determining the role of players – their actual role vs. their perceived role – and their subject matter – video games.

In an article I posted in the spring, “Petitions to Change Mass Effect 3’s Ending,” I mused about gamers and their demands for BioWare to change the ending of the beloved series Mass Effect.  I wrote:

If video games were ever discussed in schools, I could imagine high school English teachers prompting an analysis of the Mass Effect ending situation.  “Now class, today we are going to debate whether the authors of creative subject matters control the outcome or whether the outcome is defined by the people.  Here’s an excellent example of a circumstance in which video game fans believed they had the power to change the conclusion to a well-known series.  What are the overall implications of this event regarding art forms, the creator (author), and the consumers?  Due to the nature of video games as an interactive medium, should gamers have more control over their outcome versus the outcome of other art forms, say film?  What does this petition attempt mean for the relationship between games, the creator, and the consumer in the future?

The first obstacle for video games to overcome is gaining more widespread recognition of video games as an art form.  This, I believe, can be better achieved through developing industry standards via a body of experts held in esteem not only within the gaming community but those who would be regarded by the world at large as authority figures in the arena of the humanities (at least in the beginning stages, until the gaming industry develops its own body of experts that would be considered just as reputable as critics like Harold Bloom and Roger Ebert).

PS – This lengthy analysis is what happens when you mix a World Lit. major with the means of publishing articles about video games!  If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy my analysis of how video game developers can propel the field in a new direction via Africans, Native Americans, and the power of storytelling.

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John Flush
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A problem with the industry gaining such respect is how do you declare what is meaningful out of games beyond the story telling aspect? (both of your examples were such). In the same note you have most people that play games claim it is 'the gameplay' that makes a game. If that is so, unfortunately I don't think there is that much correlation to bettering society with this medium. The way you better society is by making them think about things. Thinking of the story is what matters.

Now how do you layer that on a games story when there is a belief that there is should always an element of choice? If I always get to modify the outcome to what I want it to be by my actions then I would actually think it would only justify my own opinion of what I think is right, not cause me to question myself. I guess you could make the choices always get their appropriate consequence for what 'bettering society' should be. Is there always an appropriate story worth telling in those cases?

Also in the discussion of choice, if everyone gets to experience something unique based on their own choices, how do you even sit down with people and debate the meaning of the story? Few people have had the exact same point of reference to draw conclusions from, thus reducing the effectiveness of analyzing it with others.

Interesting topic to be sure and I feel like yes the story is the place to put the emphasis. Unfortunately I feel the industry doesn't see itself as an effective story telling medium yet as compared to books and movies. When I see "if I wanted a good story I would read a book" it makes me hurt inside simply because I feel like that is how games want to portray themselves.

On a positive note though there are a few games out there that really do make you think about things and character development though so there is hope.

Ara Shirinian
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Neither bettering society, nor making people think about things are the exclusive domain of stories.

John Flush
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I pointed out that both of her examples were tied to stories though. As for "making people think" I'm having a hard time of thinking of a single example that doesn't involve a story...

"Bettering society" is clearly not a story item, but there isn't a single thing in a video game that would better society without one. Even still art makes people think because they are trying to figure out the story behind it.

Randall Stevens
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There aren't any written stories in games that compare to the great works of literature, but that isn't what games are about.

There are great games that make people think because of what has emerged from them. Some obvious examples would be Train and Chain World. The way those simple games impacted people was so interesting, and those were intended to make people think. Other games have revealed things about humanity, even though it was not the intention. The various social experiment scenario's that have arisen in WoW or the grand sweeping moments of intrigue and betrayal in Eve Online have been very thought provoking, even though that wasn't the intent of the game at all. All the way back to Ultima Online and that group that decided to defend the low level animals people were farming. Games have the ability to let the whims of humanity manifest themselves through play, and that becomes very thought provoking.

Luis Guimaraes
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I don't recall many interesting game stories but there's a recent one still fresh in my mind:

The other day a player was telling how he was playing DayZ one night and was stuck on top of a building being invaded by zombies and tried to jump to the next roof to save himself while his comrade got killed. But didn't make the jump and fell to the groung breaking his leg.

He then crawled for twenty minutes trying to reach the next city in the hopes of finding medicine or somebody to help him. He ended up crawing into a paranoid survivor that thought he asking for help was a trap, and got killed while asking for help.

Karin E Skoog
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I appreciate the detailed response, John. I wrote a follow up piece specifically focused upon your first question. : )

Joe Cooper
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To what extent do we strictly care about the game design per se (Tetristically speaking) as opposed to the whole product?

Or to put it another way; say we have a product - we'll call it Stash Elect 3 - and the story is all that and more and Charles Dickens can kiss its digital rear.

But we're talking about story and art wrapped over it, which for the sake of argument we'll assume could've been written into a book by the same author. The actual game is a pretty by-the-numbers shooter game.

Does it count?

Or does it need Braid-style use of mechanics to express or even something more ambitious?

John Byrd
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It might help win one if we correctly refer to it as the Nobel Prize, not the Noble Prize.

Luis Guimaraes
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The waypoint direction.

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TC Weidner
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god no, please no "experts" who declare what is good art and what is poor art. That is the last thing this industry needs, freaking self adoring and indulgent gatekeepers.

Karin E Skoog
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My follow up piece further explores some of the questions raised in your comments:

Thanks for the comments bringing new ideas and questions to light!