Defend video games as art, not as a threat

by John Anderson

In a recent controversial Supreme Court decision striking down a preexisting California law, video game vendors are now able to sell “violent” video games to minors.  / MCT Campus
In a recent controversial Supreme Court decision striking down a preexisting California law, video game vendors are now able to sell “violent” video games to minors. / MCT Campus

I would love to justify pouring — truly — countless hours of my life into video games as exploring artistic expression. I firmly believe some of the experiences I’ve had in virtual reality are extremely arty; these stories and characters have moved me to an extent bordering embarrassing.

So, are video games art?

Defining art is an amusing – and occasionally heated – debate subject, especially during a drink, yet slapping a firm definition on art with any semblance of consensus is an exercise in folly. One could easily wallpaper Qualcomm Stadium with all the definitions and personally held qualifications for calling something “art.” Ultimately, it comes down to personal taste and preference.

Most who are familiar with the medium would say video games are absolutely a work of art. Consider how much is created by skilled individuals in order to produce a video game: Stories need to be written, characters developed, entire worlds – often complete with unbelievably extensive histories and folklore – need to be dreamed up. Then comes the nitty-gritty design aspect: 3-D models, textures, backgrounds, graphic design, voice acting and musical scores all need to be imagined and created.

Game studios employ graphic designers, visual artists, musicians, actors, animators and designers, all creating art and working together to tell a story and create an immersive experience for the audience. Before all these aspects are integrated, they can each stand as art individually. It is ridiculous to annul the artistic expression of these artists simply because their pieces appear together in an interactive, virtual form. On a macroscopic level, the game is not just a gallery for displaying their work, it is a work of art itself.

Roger Ebert is one of the prominent figures against classifying video games as art. He argues that because video games are inherently “games” with “rules, points, objectives and an outcome,” they are more akin to sports or board games than art. Admittedly, there is some legitimacy in this. As much as I love FIFA 11, the soccer simulation game, calling it art is a bit of a stretch. If someone were to ask me if I consider FarmVille art, my knee-jerk response would be, “Hell no.” Yet sports simulators and FarmVille do not invalidate the entire medium for the same reason adventure books and interactive journals do not negate books as an art form.

Simplistic time-wasters such as Mafia Wars or Angry Birds do not detract from the artistic value of a game such as Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which promises 60,000 unique lines of dialogue and hours upon hours of immersive storytelling. Though they remain interactive, many modern games are more similar to animated movies than they are to sports or board games. Like movies and books, games can tell a story, explore the inner feelings and relationships of characters and make the audience experience tension, excitement, comedy, fear and loss. Additionally, games are frequently used to make political or social statements about the world, which is where the debate turns from amusingly and intellectually nebulous to a legal and moral imperative.

By excluding video games from artistic expression, we leave it unprotected by the First Amendment. California began censoring video game violence from minors when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill prohibiting the sale of mature-rated games to minors. The difference between this law and the movie industry preventing minors from watching R-rated movies is government involvement.

In theaters, the rule is a near-universally accepted company policy, not law. Having such a law would constitute government censorship of freedom of expression, which is exactly what the Entertainment Merchants Association argued when it took Schwarzenegger and California to court. Call of Duty-playing minors rejoice: On June 27 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the EMA, striking down the law prohibiting the sale of M-rated games to people younger than 18 years old, and cementing video games’ First Amendment rights of artistic expression.

Now that the legal battle is out of the way and the moral and ethical debate secure, intellectuals and drunks can return to defining artistic expression. We may never be able to convince Roger Ebert, but hopefully as the medium continues to evolve it will win even more supporters.

—John Anderson is an ISCOR senior.

— The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.

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