(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?
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.
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.
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.