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Art and Death
June 6, 2003

I’m certainly glad to be back on track in terms of update frequency. While I’m still not being inundated by e-mails, I’ve been managing to produce something for you all, thanks to some dedicated readers. Today we have two compelling editorials ripe for the rebuttal. "Video Games: A Museum Piece?" by Brandon Cruz lays out the arguments against considering video games an art form, while Midnight Merchant's "Signs," concerns the rumors of the GameCube’s death and the Big N going the way of Sega. This is some hot stuff, readers, eat it up and send me editorials.

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Video Games: A Museum Piece?

Should videogames be considered a legitimate art form? This question has pervaded the game industry ever since Electronic Arts marketed their game designers as artists in the 1980s, and it has continued to be debated with the present-day introductions of Hollywood caliber dialogue and graphics cards that can render dazzling, almost cinematic visuals. The debate has also become increasingly hard to ignore due to the art world beginning to take notice of videogames and their designers. Last year, Game On, an exhibition based on the history and culture of videogames was exhibited in several well-respected museums such as the Barbican Gallery and the Royal Museum of Scotland. Earlier this year, Rockstar Games was nominated to be the Design Museum's Designer of the Year for their work on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a game that "bordered on art". Given all this information, one might ask themselves whether videogames really have reached the point where they are equal to a superbly-crafted painting or a symphony. If this is so, then will we see Mario and Luigi at the Guggenheim next year? Will the next generation of Will Wrights and Shigeru Miyamotos simultaneously be regarded as the next Rembrandts and Beethovens?

Hopefully no, and here's why.

There are two dangers to bringing videogames to the level of art. The first and probably more obvious danger is that by labeling their games as art, game designers run a high risk of alienating their audience. Consider why an artist creates art in the first place. The artist might want to convey an idea or an emotion, or they might seek to persuade the viewer to think about or to see something a certain way through their medium. Either way, the foundation of all great art lies in expression, and because of this most art tends to be introspective and generally revolves around the artist's whims. Now, I'm sure that a lot of game designers would like to be seen as artists. I myself, as an artist seeking to break into the game industry, was once attracted by that prospect, but it's a dangerous one. The danger lies in the emergence of artistes that are so caught up in their own individualized expression while designing a game that the game itself gets lost underneath it all. No matter how many dramatic monologues or flashy artistic techniques are thrown into a game, it is still centered on the player and must therefore be fun to play. This doesn't mean that a game must be based on fun, light-hearted material to be successful; we've seen enough WWII blockbusters to prove that wrong. It just means that gamers aren't masochists. They want something that they will enjoy playing because games are and always have been made for the player's enjoyment. By bringing videogames to the level of art, the focus shifts from the player to the designer, or "artist", in this case. The result is a game without a player in mind, which really isn't a game at all.

The second danger is that videogames are not yet technologically capable of being art. I know that this sounds somewhat outlandish, given that great art has almost never been considered to be dependant upon technology (many great artists that I've met don't even own a computer), but it makes sense when you consider other forms of art such as fine art, music, and poetry. All of these mediums are universally accepted and appreciated as art. However, this is not the only thing that they have in common. A painting can be observed in a museum, musicians can be heard playing on a street corner, and a poem can be read on one sheet of paper. In all of these instances, there is no mediator between the viewer and the art. All the viewer needs to experience and appreciate these mediums is at least one or more of his or her five senses. This can even be said about film, another art form that industry analysts have frequently compared to videogames. However, videogames do not share this characteristic because of the interactive component. To get absorbed into a game's environment, a viewer must know how to operate and be fairly proficient with a game controller such as a keyboard or a gamepad. Add the fact that one game can have a completely different interface and button layout from another, and you have a more limited audience. What makes art so universal and unique is its ability to appeal directly to the mind and the senses. By forcing the viewer to use a game controller that can require varying amounts of time in order to become acclimated, videogames lack this characteristic, which prevents them from becoming a full-fledged, universally appreciated art form. Perhaps they will be when true virtual reality environments that lack such a mediator (a la Star Trek's Holodecks) are made possible, but I doubt that even the youngest living generation will live long enough to experience that.

These are just a couple problems I see with labeling videogames as art. This is not to say that videogames are worthless or undeserving of attention from various mainstream institutions. I'm just saying that making this distinction will do more harm than good for the game industry. Certainly, gamers would not want to see the industry plagued with the smug egotism and lunatic fringes that now characterize the world of fine art. And to those clamoring for videogames to be treated like Monets, I say, "Relax. It's just a game."

- Brandon Cruz

Damian:

This is an excellent topic, one I was planning to write on eventually. Mr. Cruz makes a great point about how video games would be changed if suddenly considered art. I’ve read ludology and game studies articles proposing games that are specifically made with a purpose other than entertainment in mind. While I could make jokes about this not being a new idea, considering some of the stinkers I’ve played, they were not considered art. Often gamers feel that they must legitimize their hobby by calling it art, or defend it as such against the boogey-men trying to censor and take away games, most of which are mindless drivel anyway.

As for art not requiring a medium between it and the observer, I disagree. There is a field called interactive art, which requires the user to interact with the art in order to understand it better. And nowhere does Merriam-Webster include interaction in its definition of the term. Still, this is an interesting take on a developing point of view.

 
Signs

For the last several weeks many rumors have filled the airwaves of gaming gossip. Some examples would be Sony’s new PS3 with CELL (now known as grid) technology, Xbox2’s supposed quad processor might, mergers between massive publishers, sequels returning from the grave, and much more. But when it all comes down to the cream, a rumor is a rumor to say the least. Yet, deep inside one rumor scares us all. Because we all know out of all the rumors in the gaming world this one has the most likeness of coming true: Will GameCube be Nintendo’s last child? Nintendo fans may argue no and anti-Nintendo fans may joyously argue yes, but those of who can see dead hardware “Signs” know better. After years of gaming experience and inside scoops, some of us have the ability to see “Signs”. The signs have appeared before and apply to all companies that eventually pull from the hardware business: Atari, 3DO, SNK, and of course our friends at Sega just to name a few (may they rest in peace). Some of these companies still thrive and conquer but not in hardware; and even if in hardware, no longer in the scale of the three titans. Still, up in the heavenly Olympus of gaming all is not well. One of the gaming titans grows weak and not until recently it is showing signs of fatigue in the war that never ends. These are the signs of a doomed hardware titan.

Hype: Everyone is talking about PS3 with GRID (CELL) technology, Xbox is rumored to have dual or maybe even quad processors in its Xbox 2. Who knows if they’re just rumors, but even rumors are healthy in the game of selling games. Creating hype for next generation consoles and games itself is a massive undertaking. But why isn’t anyone talking about Nintendo’s new system? What does it have to offer? What makes it technological advanced? Is it affordable? Does it integrate old with the new and maybe even something blue? (joke) The lack of hype around Nintendo’s next generation console is grim but even worst it’s a predictable sign.

Games: When the PlayStation first came out the industry criticized it for one main reason: Sony threw almost any game on the shelf no matter the quality, price or life of the game. Why? Not because they were desperate, not because they thought more games means better sales but because they harnessed a massive developer community for Sony in general and they knew when PS2 would go public it would have that developer support with it. Sony announced to the developer community, “I have supported you, you developers that were rejected by Sega and Nintendo (at that time), and now you must support me (upon release of PS2).” So, what did the developers do? Developers that were now much more experienced with Sony and its technology developed like they had never developed before. Games a bundle came to the PS2 with ease. Some of you will notice this is a similar tactical style to what the Xbox is playing. Support the developers and they will support you. Indeed it works, but if it works, why isn’t Nintendo doing so? Is Nintendo really shooing off young, talented developers? So what if their first game is crappy, will not their second be better? The underlining rule is no Risk no Reward. New titles and new developers are risky but they also have their rewards. The lack of dynamic developer support for Nintendo is grim but even worse, it’s a predictable sign.

No one knows the true fate of Nintendo; we can only picture Mario Kart for Xbox or Zelda for PS3. But when logic in our brains begins to calculate similar signs and trends we tend to assume the rest. If our assumptions are correct (let’s hope not) Nintendo has a long and shaky road ahead of them. Now with Sony going handheld into Nintendo’s home turf, things are about to get messy. The golden rule is “Who ever has the gold makes the rules,” and Nintendo is running out of gold …

- Midnight Merchant

Damian:

Hold the phone there, midnight cowboy. I did a little checking with RPGFan’s resident industry expert, Chris Winkler, and it turns out that Nintendo isn’t as ill as you think. Although its share price has gone down and sales of its console system have languished, it is still the number one software publisher in Japan, with Pokemon still going strong and 3rd party support up from the N64 days. Add to that the remark made by Iwata that by the time Nintendo is out of the hardware business, they’d also stop making games, and it doesn’t look like the big N is going anywhere anytime soon. Sure, they could stand to have a few more titles out but so could Xbox. As a poofy-haired president always says, don’t believe the hype.



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