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Are Games Art (for Art’s Sake)?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened but here, at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, the reactionary hot issue of games for reactionary moral-panickers has changed. The ‘violent games are turning our kids into killers’ panic that accompanied the Grand Theft Autos of the last ten years has been dethroned.
But now it’s the World of Warcrafts that are pushing to the fore of the public consciousness re: gaming. Parents, politicians and Daily Mail readers are more likely to rally around the rather more mundane ‘game addiction is turning our kids into malnourished couch potatoes’. Which we’ve all heard, right? It’s a simple, common observation. Tie it to the terrible stories of Korean kids dying while they play MMOs, and you’ve got a controversy.
And, so the year’s previous hot topic for people who actually play games is starting to shift: from ‘Why Aren’t Games Art?’ (they are, get over it, we’re here now) to ‘Can Games Be Immoral?’. Because, really, it’s quite obvious to anyone who’s touched one that a videogame couldn’t be an addictive substance, but who hasn’t experienced someone shutting off to everything but this one game. Look at Farmville and its host of cheap tricks, or download pretty much any ‘casual’ iPhone game. There are some pretty dirty tactics going on.
And, then, on the other hand:

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

That’s Oscar Wilde, there. (Yes, this is going to be one of those posts. Sorry.) He’s a guy who knew a little something about controversy and moral panic. And I’ve always tended to agree: when the ‘games are too violent’ arguments surfaced, I shrugged and held that quotation close.


The content of any artform cannot be immoral, really. Because that’s life, right? Things can be nasty, in a good way or a bad way. But the value judgement there isn’t that they are wrong, just handled well (to a good end, perhaps, or used cathartically) or handled badly. The infamous ‘No Russian’ level in Modern Warfare 2, where you played a terrorist shooting up an airport? That’s not evil, it’s just a bit of a clumsy attempt to deal with something out of that game’s depth.
(Unless you think that level was handled well/sensitively/entirely in keeping with the rest of Call of Duty, in which case, good on you. It’s all just opinions.)
But the thing with games is that it isn’t just about the content. It’s how about games play, what is built into their rules and mechanics. The addictive slow uptick of numbers that has helped along consumerist society for centuries, for example. Or a (potentially false) sense of reward and achievement.
The classic question is always: why is it okay for paintings/films/books to depict horrible atrocities/the Taliban/rape but not for games? And the answer that tends to be trotted out by the people who think that’s the case is because games are interactive. You’re directly involved in these horrors and, in their favourite examples, the one perpetrating them.
But it’s not about interactivity, as such. It’s about what interactivity means.
Because interactivity can take anything and lay an addictive method of play over it. Because that’s what you have to do, in a game. Where other artforms have carefully built a monument to beauty or elegance or the artist’s skill, ours is a towering Ozymandias-like colossus hailing the one true virtue: Fun.

Intensive Farmville

People will spend a difficult two hours with Schindler’s List or Irreversible. They’ll pick up The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or a Jodi Picoult about child abuse, and wince, and safely put it down. But why would anyone in their right mind want to play with something that isn’t fun?
Want to make a game about the Holocaust? Better add some Achievements. Maybe ‘YOU’RE ON FIRE (100G) – take the most efficient route to the ovens’. This is the power games have – to reduce anything to set of rules, and make them compelling – and their duty – to keep people playing. But to quote another great writer: with great power, comes etc etc.

This isn’t true across the board. It’s the reason people like me champion every ‘pretentious’ indie game that comes along doing something brave or intelligent or plain over-ambitious. What’s more, you can use those mechanics and the traditions of competition and fun to communicate big ideas. Of which there is no better example than Brenda Brathwaite’s aptly-named ‘The Mechanic is The Message‘ series. Okay, they’re boardgames rather than our electronic friends, but Brathwaite ditched videogame development to make games like Train.

Train actually subverts the need-to-win that is trained into gamers. It encourages you to get as many small yellow pieces, which represent people, across the board to win. Except, when you do win, it’s revealed that those pieces stands for Jews, who you’ve been trotting towards the concentration camp that lies on the other side of the board. It sounds inconsequential, maybe even implausible that people cried whilst playing Train. But that’s exactly the power that simple rules and game mechanics have.
So, are games immoral? Of course not. They are merely well designed, or badly designed. It’s just that a large fraction of blockbuster game developers want to be Michael Bay rather than Alan Pakula, and that few people seemed to have realised what the stakes are. But, hey, that’ll probably be the hot topic of 2011.

About The Author: Alex
About the author:

Alex Spencer likes games. And
isn’t that just so damn complicated?

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