So one of the great things about liking different forms of art and entertainment over the past 30+ years is that I have been privileged to see the rise of video games as a major part of popular culture. To be sure I suppose that video games are not really on the level of high culture like opera or painting, after all video games are highly commercialized. I mean even the fact that I call them video games probably dates me as coming from a simpler time when games cost 25 cents…at the arcade.
But seriously, I have been playing video games, of varying genres, complexities, and graphics engines since I was a kid. Yes I played arcade games but I also grew up in the 90’s and I was there for the explosion of video game culture through the home video game system. These days we call them consoles, and they have names like Xbox One and PS4. Back in the 90’s they had names like Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, and before that there was simply the Nintendo Entertainment System, NES for short.
Now I want to start a new blog series here, and the theme of that series will be the various video games I have played that made a profound artistic and cultural impact on me. Some of those games are old, and some are newer, but they all changed my life in some way. So let me explain my criteria for choosing the games that I have chosen.
- I had a unique and memorable experience playing it
- It has a broad cultural and artistic merit and ties in to other aspects of culture and art
- It connects to one of the areas of philosophical interest which form the basis for this blog
One of the great difficulties I had growing up and playing video games was that they were not always welcome in my Christian culture. The reasons for this ranged from concerns about the violence in these games all the way to concerns about the indolence such games encouraged. Needless to say, though I will say it anyway, I had to contrive various justifications for playing video games.
My first line of defense was always to insinuate that the game I was playing was innocuous and non-threatening. This was easy enough to do with games like Super Mario Brothers, since the adults in my life did not know what to make of an Italian plumber who battled giant turtles. This was harder to do with games like Goldeneye (the video game based on the Bond film of the same name) where you were essentially killing people.
Failing my first line of defense my second was to invoke the logic of cowboy movies and try to explain that the people I was fictitiously slaughtering were the bad guys. This met with mixed success. Some of my adult authority figures saw this as a chance to lecture me on the moral dangers inherent in participating in fictionalized violence. While others approved of my work, so long as the bad guys were the ones I was killing. Yet if I was playing a video game with even the slightest hint of anything sexual I was forced to fall back on my last resort.
If my adults objected to the apparent sexual content of a video game (which, let’s face it this wasn’t an issue till I was already in late high school) then all I could do was awkwardly turn it off and admit defeat. One of the strange consequences of being raised in an extremely moral environment was that violence was occasionally commendable, but sex was always wrong.
Yet as I moved away from that environment and off into the life of a college bound thinker I encountered even more sex and violence in other forms of art. Ultimately what I came to realize is that art can, and must be, evaluated in terms of its aesthetic value rather than its ethical value.
Rather than asking myself whether or not it was right for my fictional character to kill other fictional characters I tried asking myself about my fictional character’s motivation. I tried to determine whether or not the game I was playing was original or derivative. I started analyzing graphics and the technical aspects of what made a game look great and play smooth. Above all I made the most delightful discovery that tends to draw us in based on where we are. If we approach art from an extreme moral position, then we will be alarmed, repulsed, moved to censorship, and in so doing we will miss out on the sheer pleasure which artistic work has to offer.
One of the reasons I really like video games as a form of art, is because a game is performance art. It is an artwork which the game designers and the players create together. The story, the cinema, the action, the beauty, the tragedy, the agony, and even the frustration are all elements of the art. A game without players is as boring as players without a game.
If you want proof, try going to youtube and watch people who are really, really good play a video game. You might not even completely understand what you are seeing. Stick with it, and what you will see is that there is an excellence of form and a passion for life which creates a gamer. I have been playing video games for years, and I have even found myself becoming quite skilled in certain games. Yet it never ceases to amaze me when I come up against someone who is simply, flat out, good. It must be what it’s like for a world class musician to hear a new and brilliant virtuoso playing for the first time. That is what I want to convey, the sense of transcendence and beauty that can be found in the gaming experience. It truly is a remarkable art form.