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Junk: the difference between videogames…

Alex Hutchinson

Possibility: Videogames are not yet art, but they could eventually become art. Possibility: Videogames are art already but we don’t have the right terms of reference yet to define them as art. Possibility: Videogames are a mindless diversion best left to children and backward 20-somethings without girlfriends or things to do on a Saturday night. Probability: No matter what I say in this little article most people will lean much harder toward the third option than either of the first two.

The first step in convincing anybody would be to throw away the term ‘videogame.’ There’s too much baggage attached. It gives the wrong impression of the medium in the same way that ‘comic book’ hangs like a stone around the neck of graphic art. If you want people to take you seriously, ditching the whole ‘game’ scenario is probably a good place to start. But what alternatives do we have? ‘Entertainment software’ is fine as a stop gap but is unwieldy in the long term and ‘interactive art’ (although a pretty useful definition of modern games) sounds far too much like a header in an undergrad essay. Which leaves us with nothing, nought, zero and nowhere to go without confusing most people or keeping the whole ‘game’ mess which is what we’re trying to avoid in the first place.

I am not about to invent a new term. People have been trying it for years and they rarely succeed. Harlan Ellison tried to turn science fiction into ‘speculative fiction’ and while the term is still popular in the SF scene, the mainstream will give you nothing but a blank stare. Comic books on the other hand have been trying for years to be called graphic novels but the term has been poisoned by literary critics who wish to separate the comics they read and review from the mindless crap they mistakenly assume is the comic industry’s staple diet.

We are, unfortunately, stuck with videogames for the forseeable future. I just want you to be aware of my misgivings and the idea that neither ‘video’ nor ‘game’ necessarily apply. Whenever you read the term in this piece please replace it with a term of your own devising with a version of the following definition: an interactive amalgamation of animation and/or 3D modelling and/or text and/or live acting and/or music and so on and on, all of which conspires to make videogames very difficult to pin down, explain or illustrate as art. It might be made up of artistic media but is the result itself art?

It’s probably best to look at the problem from a different angle. The one concept which both binds all these different styles of games together and sets videogames out as a different art form is interactivity. Hypermedia has already clearly demonstrated that interactivity is not an obstacle to artistic acceptance, although many people will tell you it is right out of the gate. The difference of course is that hypermedia offers you passages from one clump of traditional art to another, whereas a game offers you the ability to choose how you get there, when you get there and sometimes even why you get there as well as where you’re going.

The problems this poses in creating a traditional artistic scenario are immense. How do you create an emotive storyline or moment when you can’t even be certain players will choose to follow the path you’ve laid out for them? How can you communicate a specific idea or message when you are not certain of how much the player already knows? These are problems all evident in hypermedia, but they are magnified in videogames. Think of it as a novel where the reader doesn’t just believe s/he’s the lead character, s/he can walk the protagonist off a cliff if s/he feels like it. Whatever your intent as the creator or author, it can always be subverted by the player.

Which brings us tidily to the question of whether the creators intend to make art or simply entertainment. It’s the rather tedious art vs craft argument again and most people are ready to toss videogames in with needlecraft and be done with it, but what they don’t realise is that in an idealised sense videogames are all about creating scenarios, not describing a finished product. They are not about showing the player a scene with the aim of dictating a mood, rather they immerse the player in it and allow the process of making that choice create the mood.

Videogames are not a passive medium like novels or films. They require a fresh set of critical tools if they are to be properly understood. We cannot look at videogames and say they aren’t art under our current definitions because the honest truth of it is that they never wanted to be. Are videogames art as we know it? No. Not at all. Should they be seen as an art in their own right? I honestly believe they should. I also believe that with the evolution of better technology and an eternally growing user base, the whole concept of games-as-art will eventually become a non-issue. And it’s worth remembering that most everything which is art today wasn’t yesterday either.

RealTime issue #36 April-May 2000 pg. 32

© Alex Hutchinson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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