What are video games?

While making my morning and afternoon commutes to work, I listened to The Indoor Kids’ podcast #27, Are Video Games Art?  You can get to that particular podcast on iTunes or by clicking on the link and going to page 2.  Film Crit Hulk was the guest.  This particular podcast got me fired up for all the right reasons.  The conversation ranged from sexism, definitions of art, the recklessness of war games, and how playing a first-person game is necessarily so different than a third-person game.  (The podcast is Rated R for language – heads up.)

I don’t much about Film Crit Hulk, except that his comments on the sexism in Arkham City resonated with me.  It’s hard to talk about how video games are evolving when even the best games involve women in skin-tight clothes with breasts the size of overripe melons.

Anyway, I recommend the podcast and the Hulk link if you’re interested in the topic.

The discussion itself takes me back to what Nathan and I have been talking about on and off for a few weeks – Should we be calling things like Braid, Mass Effect, and Shadow of the Colossus “games”?  Are they something else?

When I think of a game, I think of checkers or football.  When I think of a video game,   I think about Pong or Madden or Halo multiplayer.  What’s in common with all of these?  There are set rules, players have to play within the rules, and ultimately a winner is decided based on the rules.

Mass Effect isn’t necessarily like those things.  People call it a “space opera”.  It’s a narrative about, amongst other things, genocide, ultimate reality, man’s place in the universe, the right to survive, decency in hard times.  Like written science fiction, it’s a commentary on our world and a suggestion on how we could live.

Mass Effect is different than a game.  In a game, like football, we watch because we know we have a set of rules and the drama will unfold within that set of rules.  What will happen on 4th and 2 with 47 seconds left?  The drama and excitement comes because we know, in roughly 47 seconds, a winner will emerge.  In Mass Effect, there is drama because there aren’t rules.  The future is uncertain; the morality of the protagonist is uncertain.  This is more like things that we often consider art, like literature.

Maybe “video games” aren’t “art”, but they have certainly developed the ability to evolve beyond “video games”.

I’m not saying that all “video games” aren’t games, or that they are all art, or that they all should be art.  What I’m saying is that technology has developed to the point that I can use my Xbox 360 to engage in an experience that makes me think about important things.  I like that, and I hope more people realize it, and I hope parents think about what their kids are playing, and I hope adults think about what they’re playing, and I hope the Mass Effect 3 DLC comes out before July.


One thought on “What are video games?

  1. I appreciated this because it helped clarify for me the video games/art conversation. I adamantly propose that video game ARE art, but this made me realize that actually SOME video games CAN BE art. I think video games are unique because they combine what we commonly think of as a game and what is largely regarded as art. A football game is not art, just like a play is not a game. But some video games manage to combine the two. Games like Pong or Madden, as you mentioned, are definitely just games, but a rich experience like Mass Effect, Bioshock, or Assassin’s Creed goes beyond that to a category that should be used more often- interactive storytelling. This description puts games on a more even playing field with other mediums like movies and novels in terms of being able to convey meaningful ideas about the human experience.

    I’m biased as a gamer, but what about you non-gamer Boothers and readers? What’s your take on this subject?

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