VIDEO GAMES have come a long way but are no match for great books and films, while commentators should stop trying to be hip by venerating the games industry, writes Tiffany Jenkins
Judging by the success of its predecessor Grand Theft Auto IV, which sold about 3.6 million units on the first day, Grand Theft Auto V is going to be big. Grand Theft Auto IV was released five years ago. Today, gamers all over the world are waiting for the next instalment, which has cost £170 million to make and market, and which is out next week. A selected few permitted to preview the game have already declared it a triumph.
For those with little experience of videogames, the Grand Theft Auto franchise is far more demanding than space invaders or Pac-Man, it is not just a shoot at the bad guys or play a little bit of golf game. The publisher, Rockstar Games, has created a big and complex city – Los Santos – loosely based on Los Angeles, which you can explore, and multiple activities in which you can participate.
You can be one of three protagonists and engage with a range of characters as well as a dog. Admittedly, this does involve shooting people and various criminal acts, but you can choose your weapon and target, as well as follow through the consequences of your actions, to a certain extent. And it’s fun.
Researchers spent 100 days in LA for inspiration and I expect that will show with an impressive level of detail, although it’s not all based on American cities; there is a bridge inspired by the Forth Road Bridge, reminding players of its Scottish roots – the franchise was created and developed in Edinburgh at the company Rockstar North. It will be an involving and challenging game that will grip millions of people for hours. But it is not art. It is entertainment, good and absorbing entertainment, which reaches a level that surpasses many TV programmes, films and books. And yet every time a new game is released, there are those that want to call it art.
It’s a debate that has been raging since 2000, when film critic Roger Ebert took part in a series of exchanges in which he made the point that videogames are not art.
He restated his position a few years ago with this observation: “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives and an outcome.” The row shows little sign of abating.
To start with, let’s look at what art and videogames do. Both can touch a chord and provoke strong emotions. Art (and I am referring to high art, really) and computer games are involving and engaging. You can be provoked to feel anger, sadness and exhilaration. But a soap opera or football game can also do this. I have seen tears shed in response to EastEnders and at a penalty shoot-out.
Both art and videogames involve creativity and artistry. They have to look good or have an intentional aesthetic. Many games have their own look; they don’t all feature bulky, animated men with machine guns. Flower, a game chosen by public vote to be in an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum called The Art of Video Games, departs from the usual caricature. There is no stilted dialogue and no fighting. Instead, the player has to move the wind in various beautiful environments so that flowers drift or soar through the air. Flower also suggests that Ebert’s point – that a game has an endpoint and purpose and a work of art doesn’t – may not apply to games forever.
But high art and videogames are different. Great art explores profound questions about the state of the world, who we are and what it means to be human, through an art form that has developed its own rules. It explores the human condition.
The conservative critic Matthew Arnold once described literature as “a criticism of life”. Referring to poetry and more generally high culture, he suggested that it should civilise and spiritually enrich, replacing functions that religion had provided. Videogames do not do this. They may be set in particular social contexts and operate as social commentary, but they are not, as yet, morally complex.
It should be pointed out that many other cultural creations aren’t either, especially film and literature, but they have achieved this on occasion. Compare, for example, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with the current science fiction action thriller Elysium. One is timeless, the other is of its time. I have happily watched both, but I know I will return to the Bergman over the course of my life because it reaches an inexhaustible profundity, whereas Elysium is forgettable.
Although most TV is entertainment, Breaking Bad, entering the final episodes of the groundbreaking series, reaches the level of high art on occasion because it deftly deals with ideas about freedom, autonomy, and good and evil.
What’s more, each art form that has created great art develops it’s own rules and accompanying criticism. Film, literature, sculpture and painting all have rules and a body of critical writing that engages with them. Literature even reflects on literature.
Videogames have not reached that stage, although I suppose it is conceivable that they could, one day. And there is a bit of that about computer games. They might become all sorts of things, but they haven’t thus far.
The important, distinctive quality of videogames is that the player influences what happens, although the parameters are still set by the creators. This is the unique feature of games, but this interactive quality also means it is unlikely to achieve what great art does: because there isn’t a central author.
When artists have removed themselves, such as the composer John Cage, they have created something that sounds better on paper – that is, it works better as a concept than as an artwork. Great art needs an artist. One again, it is possible that we could see the development of a game that addresses serious questions of morality, and which uses the interactive qualities of gaming to explore this well, but that is as far as this goes: it is possible – I would be surprised if it succeeded.
The hushed reverence and desperate attempt to bestow on videogames the title of art manages to insult both high art and computer games.
Do the latter really need to chase the crumbling respectability of high art? Equally, cultural institutions (such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and similar games exhibitions) and cultural commentators should refrain from trying to be hip and happening in venerating and chasing the coattails of the games industry.
Let them get on with the game.