I have said over and over on this blog that I believe video games are art, and I have posted examples to back up my case. I am quite adamant about this, and I believe that anyone who examines my arguments will find I am right.

However, I will say that I can understand how the non-gamer, and even perhaps some gamers who have never happened upon artistically ambitious games, would not immediately see this. That’s not their fault.

For instance, the revolutionary and widely acclaimed First-Person Shooter (it’s easy for a gamer to forget, but that term alone must appall the layman) Doom was made by id Software in 1993. It is one of the most famous games ever. And what is its plot like? It is as follows: demons teleport into a military base and kill everyone except the player’s character, who must fight through legions of demons and use the teleporter to get back to the demons’ own world and defeat them.

In 1996, id Software released Quake, another step forward in the FPS genre. Its plot is as follows: monsters teleport into a military base and kill everyone except the player’s character, who must fight through legions of monsters and use the teleporter to get back to the monsters’ own world and defeat them.

In 1998, Valve released Half-Life, another game hailed as a massive advancement for the genre, and widely considered one of the greatest games ever made. Its plot is as follows: aliens teleport into a research facility and kill almost everyone, but the player’s character must fight his way through legions of aliens and soldiers and use the teleporter to get back to the aliens’ own world and defeat them.

Based on this evidence, the non-gamer would be quite justified in concluding that video games are nothing more than an absurd diversion for people with little imagination who like to pretend to run around and shoot stuff. And the natural reaction to this could be anything from disinterest to outright horror, but definitely not “this is the stuff of great Art.” And this hypothesis would be further justified on finding out that Doom, Quake and Half-Life all spawned many sequels. And wait till the non-gamer got word of Halo or, God forbid, Duke Nukem!

Of course, this assessment is incorrect, but so many games, especially the really popular ones, are like this that it’s easy to see why someone couldn’t be blamed for coming to the “video games are not art” conclusion. They can be dissuaded by either showing them one of the few artistically meaningful games or by pointing out that the vast majority of movies, books, songs, paintings and so on are also nothing to write home about. Only the best of the best make any medium worthwhile.

William Bennett argues that “men are in trouble”.   He argues that young men are not achieving like women are, and he places a great deal of emphasis on the need for young men to spend less time playing video games. His closing statement:

 “The Founding Fathers believed, and the evidence still shows, that industriousness, marriage and religion are a very important basis for male empowerment and achievement. We may need to say to a number of our twenty-something men, ‘Get off the video games five hours a day, get yourself together, get a challenging job and get married.” It’s time for men to man up.'” 

Of course, there is such a thing as too many video games. Is five hours a day too much time? Well, I suppose it depends on the person, and on the games. And I will say that I don’t think my playing Fallout: New Vegas has hurt my career so far, unlike the fallout from his playing in old Vegas hurt Bennett’s.

As for “getting a challenging job”, getting any job is easier said then done in this period of low aggregate demand. And why “challenging”? I would have said “lucrative” or “rewarding”, but that’s just me.

But my real problem with this article is his command to “get married”. I have no problem with marriage. In fact, I think marriage is a fine and wonderful thing. But I don’t think you should flatly order people to go “get married” just on principle. At least he ought to say something like “find a nice girl and” first. Otherwise, it sounds like getting married, no matter to whom, is good enough for Bennett.

It seems to me that people shouldn’t treat “getting married” like a goal, except in the sense of getting married to some particular person. If you treat it like getting an achievement in a video game, you–and your spouse–are probably in for a bad time of it.

According to this article by Peter Nowak, mainstream media outlets do not treat video games the same as they do television and film.

I can believe it, although I think it is changing now. I remember when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 broke all kinds of sales records in its debut, one could see the press realizing this was a serious medium.

The bad thing is that the sorts of games that set these records are generally not the sort that show the medium at its artistic best. But it is a start.

Peter Hitchens (brother of Christopher) writes:

“We now have proof that computer games stop children reading, withering their imaginations and filling their minds with grubby rubbish. Parents have a right and a duty to protect their young from this sort of thing. You wouldn’t give your children neat gin. Why leave them alone at the screen?”

He does not explain what this proof is, although it is trivially true that when someone is playing a computer game he is not reading–unless he is playing a text-based game–but at any rate, what significance that holds, I cannot guess. As to his other complaints; it is true that some games fill the mind with “rubbish”, but others do not. Some games are intelligent and thought-provoking.

Hitchens’ critiques seem to me to apply equally well to television, film, music and theatrical performances. Should children be forbidden from all these as well?

Via Andrew Sullivan, a very interesting interview with Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. He’s arguing for why video games should be seen as an art form. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s clearly a very smart guy, and he’s doing good work to combat anti-video game bigotry.

There’s just one problem: he doesn’t realize just how right he is about games. For example, he says:

“A lot of video game storytelling is phenomenally good: BioShock, Portal, Left 4 Dead, Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect.”  

I can’t vouch for Bioshock, Left 4 Dead or RDR. ME and Portal are both better than average game stories, for sure. But why the hell isn’t Planescape: Torment in there? That game towers over those other titles.

At the end of the interview, Bissell describes his ideal, not yet in existence, video game:

“I’d love to see a game in which problems were spread out before the gamer that did not have easy or even obvious solutions. A game in which decisions were largely irrevocable, and made you commit to the choices you make. A game in which characters seemed something more than nth-generation Xeroxes of action-movie heroes. A game that offered a world with no good guys and bad guys, but people with equally intricate and complicated belief systems. A game that left people stunned by the variety of human experience, in other words. A game in which not every obstacle was a puzzle or an enemy, but something spiritual, maybe, or moral, or personal.”

Then get thee to the work of Chris Avellone, posthaste! He has made several such games. In fact, basically every game Obsidian Entertainment has ever made fulfills at least some of those requirements.

Brent Bozell, discussing EA‘s controversial video game Medal of Honor in which you can play as a Taliban fighter, writes:

 “Video games are amazing technological products, but they are not “stories” like a book or a movie… In a video game, every player is the author and the movie director. The game maker only sets the parameters, and lets the player finish the story. ” 

Well, he’s wrong. Some games–maybe most games–really do “railroad” the player. I mean, there’s only one way to play through Doomyou go around shooting monsters and collecting keys. Any other way would result in losing the game.

This may be even more true of the really good narrative-based games. Metal Gear Solid springs to mind as an example of a game where you didn’t feel like you were making your own story, you were playing/watching Hideo Kojima’s story.

Even in a game with multiple endings and branching paths, Bozell’s criticism need not always hold true. No matter what path the player chooses in the great Black Isle RPG Planescape: Torment, the underlying theme of the story is still of the game designer’s choosing. No matter what you do, you’re still probably going to see the motifs, ideas and themes that Chris Avellone wants you to. (This, by the way, is a very good thing.)

Now, it is true there are some games you could make this criticism–if it can really be called a criticism–of. Everything is so morally ambiguous in Obsidian‘s Alpha Protocol that there is no “theme” or “moral”; you really are directing your own spy-thriller story.

All of this is an aside to the main point, which is that, in this Medal of Honor game, you can only play as the Taliban in the multiplayer game, which probably has no plot at all. As the EA spokesperson said: “Most of us have been doing this since we were seven: someone plays cop, someone must be robber.” Bozell does not seem to be aware that this is the case.

Personally, I think multiplayer modes are boring, and a serious threat to games as a storytelling medium. And I wouldn’t mind a bit if they removed the Taliban fighter option and replaced it with, for example, a Nazi, which would almost certainly be less offensive, although I don’t know why.

I also agree with Bozell on the infamous airport level from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It was disturbing without being thought-provoking and ought to have been removed. But Bozell’s criticism of the Medal of Honor game is so badly informed that it makes it impossible to take him seriously.

He writes:

“My error in the first place was to think I could make a convincing argument on purely theoretical grounds. What I was saying is that video games could not in principle be Art. That was a foolish position to take, particularly as it seemed to apply to the entire unseen future of games. This was pointed out to me maybe hundreds of times. How could I disagree? It is quite possible a game could someday be great Art.”

Well, when you say something like that “Time is not your enemy, forever is.”  But, while Ebert is correct that he ought not to have said that because there will be games that are Art in the future, he fails to realize that there are already games that are Art, which I listed here.

He goes on to say: “If I could save the works of Shakespeare by sacrificing all the video games in existence, I would do it without a moment’s hesitation.”

Well, I suppose there’s no accounting for taste. But personally, I would gladly sacrifice the works of Shakespeare to save the works of Chris Avellone.

But never mind. You’ve made a good start, Ebert.

“Be eloquent in praise of the very dull old days
   which have long since passed away,
And convince ’em, if you can, that the reign of good Queen Anne was Culture’s palmiest day.
Of course you will pooh-pooh whatever’s fresh and new,
   and declare it’s crude and mean,
For Art stopped short in the cultivated court 

Roger Ebert was named the “Webby Person of the Year” for his “contributions to the craft of online writing and journalism. In addition to his film criticism, which remains as eloquent as ever, his online journal has raised the bar for the level of poignancy, thoughtfulness and critique one can achieve on the Web.”

“Film criticism”? “Eloquent”? Give me a break. This guy gave Avatar four stars, and then has the guts to say that video games aren’t art. One can almost hear the Roger Eberts of a century ago complaining that “it’s not art if it’s captured on film!” The arrogance is appalling… which is probably why he liked Avatar so much.

As for “raising the bar for thoughtfulness one can achieve on the web”, well… over to you, John Nolte!

Okay, it’s a little thing, but it irritated me. In his review of the video game-based movie “Prince of Persia”, Darin Miller writes: “Given that the film’s underlying premise is a video game, it’s no surprise that the story is a little weak.”

It is true that most video game-inspired movies are pretty awful. And yes, from what I can tell, the story of “Prince of Persia” the game wasn’t exactly a brilliant one. Heck, it’s even true that most video game plots really do suck. But there’s something about the way he phrases it that suggests to me that he thinks all video games are like that.

And, after all, can anyone claim that most movie plots nowadays aren’t “a little weak”?