All the talk around whether or not video games are art, or whether “gamers” are a culture, hinges around an understanding of what video games are that I don’t believe has ever been hammered out. Video games share many qualities with all the things we’d consider “art,” or “games,” or “hobbies,” but don’t fit neatly into any of those categories. I’d like to use some anecdotes and observations to explain why.
VIDEO GAMES AS HOBBY
I like video games. I spend enough time playing them that my wife and I occasionally have to negotiate TV time. I have the current-gen Playstation console and several recent critically acclaimed titles for it (Fallout 4, Just Cause 3, The Witcher 3). I have a Steam account, a GOG account, and a pile of games from each that I haven’t even touched yet.
And yet no hardcore gamer would count me among their number. “250 hours on Civ V? Call me when you hit 1000, n00b.” “Oh, you’re only on your fifth Fallout 4 playthrough? I’ll bet it’s nice having diverse interests, you filthy casual.”
When entertainment journalists talk about casual gamers, they typically mean non-(white males 18-34) who play Candy Crush, Angry Birds, or Bejeweled. I don’t think I fit into that set. I play major titles that other gamers would recognize and enjoy regularly. I’ve sunk over 250 hours into Civilization V. There’s nothing casual about the amount of time I’ve devoted to rebuilding the Commonwealth, or exploring Velen.
This may be more of a semantics problem than an attitude problem. Draw a bell curve and focus on the narrowest wedge on the farthest right. The population of that wedge probably has a few attributes in common. It’s easy to identify them. It’s easy to write a trend piece about them. But that vast, bell-shaped middle that comprises 68% of the population? That’s, well, 68% of the population. What do they truly have in common?
To an extent, this is true of any hobby. Lots of people like watching model railroads chug along. But model railroad enthusiasts have a subculture, a private language, and factions all their own. In the traditional crafts such as needlepoint and cross-stitch, accusations of stolen patterns can shake up a tightly bound community. These are the concerns of a devoted few, but hundreds of thousands can participate in this hobby without getting embroiled.
In the era of social media, it’s easy for a hobby to turn into a subculture. And it’s easy for the most passionate members of a subculture to set the mores and boundaries. Defining the “hardcore” isn’t a challenge. It’s defining the “casuals” that requires the most thought and care.
VIDEO GAMES AS ART
I wrote recently about the different demands of a video game’s “story” compared to other narrative forms of art. We don’t hold Far Cry 4 to the same standards as Atonement, or even The Girl on the Train. But then, we don’t hold sculpture to the same standards as portraiture either. Rodin’s Thinker exists on a pedestal, independent of any context, but that’s never been a critique.
We all have different definitions of “art”. The one I’ve found most useful: “art” is anything human made that derives most of its value from contemplation. A set of bathroom fixtures can be beautiful, and even be designed along explicit aesthetic principles, but their primary function is to run hot and cold water. But a Campbell’s soup can, hung on the wall of MoMA, can be art: you’re not meant to check its price, or add it to your grocery cart, or heat it on the stove on a cold day. You’re meant to contemplate the aesthetic elements of the Campbell’s soup can design.
(The smart-alecks in the audience should be asking: “what about Duchamp, who took a bathroom fixture and entered it in an art exhibition?” Sadly, I don’t believe the art world has a good answer yet to Duchamp’s challenge – whether it’s possible to create an art submission process that’s free enough from taboos and prior conceptions of taste that it would accept a urinal if a member submitted one – and they’ve had a century to try. So maybe this isn’t the best example! Hard cases make bad law, etc)
Are there elements of video games that impart most of their value through contemplation? I’d say so. A fight against any “boss” in a video game is really just a function of pattern recognition and random number generation. There’s no reason it has to look as nightmarish as this:
Or as awe-inspiring as this:
Or as weird as this:
To put it another way: why are the boss fight sequences in games so richly designed, but the item shop sequences usually no more than a menu of items and the automatic deduction of currency? Because gamers play video games for, among other things, the excitement of bypassing a challenging enemy, not for the exactitude of inventory management (EVE Online notwithstanding).
I gave a formal, textbook-sounding definition of “art” above, but there’s another element that, while not necessary, is often contained: a feeling of transport or escape. Contemplating well-made art should transport you to another place, certain postmodern or experimental forms aside. Transport is a subjective sensation, which makes it hard to talk about academically, but it’s why humans try art at all.
To the extent a video game can transport you off your couch and into another world, I feel safe saying it’s art. The elements of a video game beyond random number generation and pattern recognition, meant to be contemplated rather than overcome, aid in that end. If we’re going to judge video games as art, it should be by those standards.
VIDEO GAMES AS PRODUCT
Imagine buying a new car, driving it home, and then learning that you needed to take it back to the dealer for some essential repairs and upgrades. They’d do it for free (they promised), and the nicer dealerships would even do it while you were at work. But you’d still feel cheated.
Yet somehow, with software in general and video games in particular, we’ve grown accustomed to a continuing stream of required patches. If the developer lets us know, ninety days after purchase or thirty days or three, that there’s just a tiny fix they’d like to make, we’re expected to (digitally, metaphorically) hand the game over for as long as it takes to update. Hell, patches can now be released on the first day, a tacit admission that the game was released incomplete. No Man’s Sky released a day one patch that added three new storylines and revamped several key mechanics.
I don’t think there’s any laziness or corruption involved in this. The creative team doesn’t set the release schedule – that’s determined by a combination of marketing, the platform the game will be published on, and other economic factors. And it’s in a company’s interest to get the game on shelves as soon as possible (where it can generate revenue) while making sure they haven’t released an inviable product (which won’t generate revenue). The tension between quality and quantity often forces a game out the door just a little early. If Nintendo could have patched Zelda II, they would have.
So, you’ve bought the disc or downloaded the software. You’ve got the product, 99% or 89% finished, in your home. What do you do with it?
Movie studios added extra features to DVDs, when the glossy new format debuted, for several reasons. They had the space, for one. But – and it’s an open question of chicken-and-egg here – part of the reason why DVDs came packed with director’s commentary tracks, trailers, deleted scenes, and making-of features was to justify the price. It cost very little to throw in a TV spot, especially if zero effort was made to compress it into the movie’s resolution, but it made the home movie buyer feel like they were getting added value.
When you dropped $29.99 for a new DVD, you could get more than 2 or 3 hours use out of it. Of course, the studios didn’t care if you spent $29.99 on a DVD and never watched it once, so long as your credit card went through. But there was perhaps a nagging fear that, if the home movie experience wasn’t robust and economical, people might prefer to watch movies in some other format. Like pirated, for instance. Or, once it became feasible, streaming.
The price of a console video game hasn’t changed much, in nominal terms, in twenty years. The eager Super Nintendo player of 1996 and the PS4 owner of 2016 can each expect to drop about $60 for a well-marketed new title. Since I’m paying 2x to 3x for this game what I would for a movie, I think it’s reasonable that I get at least 2x to 3x the enjoyment out of it. (I don’t know why “video games” and “DVDs” are the comparison I’m jumping to, save insofar as they’re both discs that I put in machines and they’re both produced by hugely profitable industries dominated by global studios, but it fits)
Of course, when entertainment fails to live up to investment, consumers get cranky. Watch Dogs, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Beyond: Two Souls are a few recent examples: games where the hype outlived the experience in play. Failures like this have to nag at video game studios. Every time someone gets discouraged from dropping $69.99 for a title on day one, they’re one step closer to renting the title through Gamefly. Or picking up a mobile game instead. Tell me Hearthstone isn’t as engaging as the latest big budget AAA release.
Video games are becoming more like the movie industry than they might want to: everything hinging on a big opening weekend, pouring millions of dollars into a few tentpole titles in order to keep the studio afloat, opting for splashy visuals over original material. But the ability to constantly patch, upgrade, and rerelease their output absolves them of the obligation to get it right on Day One. I don’t think there’s any other product quite like video games, so I don’t know that there are useful parallels.
What I do know is that the market has taught me never to buy a title within the first month of its release. I came perilously close to buying No Man’s Sky a month ago before the consensus emerged: an infinitely generated experience can get boring awfully fast. I may still pick it up, but I’ll wait until it’s been discounted steeply. Besides, I’m still logging hours on The Witcher 3, last year’s critically acclaimed action RPG, which I just acquired this past spring. I’ve never even cracked open Far Cry 4 or GTA V.
What’s my hurry? If a game turns out to be good, that consensus will take months to emerge, and then I can pick it up for 30% off.
GAMES AND THE MODERN GAMER
This sort of buying behavior is largely self-taught. If you follow the industry press, you’d believe that every new title, from Titanfall to Battlefield: Hardline, is a must buy. But yesterday’s multiplayer darling is tomorrow’s remaindered title. Why revisit Halo 4 when Destiny is available? Why play Destiny when Overwatch beckons?
I don’t think the paradigm has emerged to “buy video games a year later” yet, the same way it has for cars (“buy used, four to five years old”). That’s not to say people who buy brand new are suckers. They get the one thing I miss out on the most from video games: the cameraderie of playing with tons of eager friends. I know people are still playing Destiny, or still tooling around GTA V Online, but they’re largely strangers to me.
But part of the reason I wait is because, when it comes to video games, I’m looking for a particular experience. I wouldn’t say a better experience; I don’t want to pass myself off as a connoisseur. But The Witcher speaks to me in a way that Dragon Age: Origins didn’t; Just Cause 3 excites me in a way that Call of Duty never will. My taste isn’t superior to other gamers, but it’s my taste, not theirs.
Because video games are still figuring out what kind of art they are, though, there’s not yet a critical language to distinguish the different types of experience. When I say that I like “the writing” and “the characters” in Witcher 3 much better than in Dragon Age: Origins, I’d be hard-pressed to elaborate on why. The fantasy settings of both games have a lot in common: oppressive religions, expansionist empires, D&D monsters sampled from European mythology, councils of WIZARDS!, elves, dwarves. But they’re both high-fantasy action RPGs. The Witcher 3’s graphics are certainly better, but that will be true of every game released from now until the future.
These two factors – the weird economics and the incomplete aesthetics of video games – put me in that 80% in the middle of the bell curve. I like video games. I spend plenty of time playing them. I find the experience rewarding and diverting. But so much of the industry hype completely fails to address what I’m looking for. The market caters to a certain flavor of hardcore, and I ain’t it.
I know, I know: there are worse fates in the 21st century than not being able to consume products articulately. This isn’t a challenge for me – like I said, I’ve probably got another 50 hours worth of Witcher 3 to explore; my evenings and weekends are set. If anything, it’s a challenge for the video game industry, all twenty-three billion dollars of it. I’m here! I’m ready to spend money. There have to be other people like me. Show us something.