So you might think that this statement is very definitive and absolute and you would be kind of right. You might also wonder if I’m actually serious, because damn, look at all those lovely games out there, with their graphics and their narrative and… yes. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I know I’m right about one thing: If the people behind a game can’t stand up and say – “yes, we intentionally made this game, and yes, the emotional, artistic, and narrative statements we are making, the political and social statements we are making – in fact the content of this game is intentional and we take responsibility for that expression” – I won’t classify it as art.
Don’t get me wrong. I do believe games can’t be art. But for me to even consider it, we have to stop the notion that any time we criticize the content of a game it is waved aside with “eh, it’s just a game”. That’s like looking at a painting, let’s say Guernica, because Guernica happens to be very political, and making a statement saying to the critics “eh, it’s just a painting”.
If you’ve followed my scribbling for a while, you’ll know that accountability is pretty big with me. You also know that you can’t have it both ways according to me. You can’t have your cookie (“games are art!”) and eat it too (“who cares, it’s just a game, it doesn’t mean anything”).
I can agree that games and making games is a craft, and that you need a skilled craftsperson or craftspersons to do it. I can also agree that certain games have reached the level of being art, but those games usually come out of an indie studio or one person team. Games like “Thomas was Alone” and “Journey” have something to say, and that message at least tries to be intentional. But GTA V? No. I don’t care how much of a “commentary” it is, Rockstar themselves waved away any criticism of the game by stating “it’s just a game”.
There’s this whole holistic aspect to all of this that I think maybe not everyone is seeing. We – as a culture – desperately want to matter, but equally desperately do not want to take responsibility if things go south. Now an artwork doesn’t have to mean anything. Mona Lisa ultimately doesn’t mean anything, neither does Monet’s Water Lilies. However, anyone saying that Guernica doesn’t carry a political message are just plain wrong.
Games, because they can’t not make some sort of statement, are also political. It may not be intentional, but let’s say it is a game about killing people in war. That’s just about every Call of Duty or Battlefield out there. Players may not engage more than to think it is fun to play, but peeling back the layers of the game, looking at the conflict depicted, it says something about present day and about the way the developers view the world. What is good, what is evil. And that position, the position they have chosen – consciously or unconsciously – is in some way political.
It doesn’t have to be serious, to have that aspect embedded, look at Starship Troopers. It is not a very serious movie, but it is a pretty pointed criticism of fascism. The difference, I think, is that Verhoeven set out to be critical, and had intentions with what he created.
A game can be just beautiful, like Monet’s Water Lilies, but most of the time, games do have a narrative of some kind. I think this is where things usually go wrong.
As an industry we are all about graphics, engines, physics. How that interacts with each other and how realistic it turns out to be. But when it comes to narrative, to story, we still don’t want to acknowledge it has an impact. It’s like we’re looking at the canvas, the brush strokes, the paint, but never the motif.
We even had this conflict between ludology and narratology, where the story of a game and the mechanics were pitched against each other and on the academic side, my feeling is that ludology won. Not because it was right, but in part because of fear of responsibility.
We can’t have it both ways. We can’t say games are an incredible way to teach players about various topics and at the same time discount game critique by pushing the fact that games do teach us about society away. By saying “It is just a game” as creators of that game, in effect what we’re doing is admitting that this game isn’t art, because there’s no intent behind it.