Last year, a lot was made of Roger Ebert’s statement that video games can never be art. This raised the ire of many gamers who rushed to defend their medium with offerings of their favorite video game titles. I wonder how many of those gamers are artists, or art historians, or otherwise give a shit about the world of accepted, mainstream art. I took Ebert’s comments to have been made by a person who, watching their familiar world become relegated to a musty corner in favor of newer digital media, railed against something that he barely understood. But the angry gamers who attempted to change Ebert’s mind wound up looking more ridiculous. When an older person tells you to “turn down that racket,” you tell them to mind their business and turn it up another notch. You don’t sit them down and detail the inherently good qualities of whatever misogynistic, violent noise you happen to be pumping.
My introduction to video games happened when I was about six years old. My brother was lectured by my parents for about an hour as punishment for hanging out and playing Pac-Man for too long. I guess my brother probably issued a defiant, and therefore meaningless concession, then trudged up the creaky, wooden stairs to our shared bedroom in the attic. I had been listening in on his conversation with my parents, and when he walked in the room I asked my brother what Pac-Man was. He scoffed and said I was a fucking idiot if I didn’t know what Pac-Man was.
And a fucking idiot I was, because it seemed like every day after that, Pac-Man became more and more a part of my life. And not just Pac-Man, but Centipede, Donkey Kong, Arkanoid, and Defender. At the time, I thought I was only noticing these games and their merchandise because I had become aware of their existence, like how you can learn a new word and then it seems like you hear it on every news broadcast and while casually chatting with friends. Looking back, I see that my learning about video games happened on the cusp of an arcade game explosion that would dominate the U.S. through much of the 1980s. One day, there was nothing to do at the pizza place but eat pizza. The next, you could crowd into the tiny parlor with a dozen like-minded youths and pump quarters into Dig Dug. Which, incidentally, left precious little money for pizza.
I was never crazy about video games, but I certainly played the shit out of some. Arcade games began falling out of favor as I reached pubescence (though they would see a short resurgence thanks to Street Fighter II) but that coincided neatly with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the first video game system that was undeniably awesome. I saved one-hundred and twenty dollars of my own money to purchase a NES from the Consumers electronics store in the Rockbottom shopping mall on Northern Boulevard. One of my brother’s friends worked there, and I made a deal with him to purchase stolen games for significantly less than retail value. I bought other video game systems along the way, but frankly none were as emotionally rewarding as the first.
I try to keep abreast of current video games because, whether they’re art or not, video games are certainly a major force in media. Since media is within my sphere of interest, so are these games. It’s not a chore because I am routinely astounded by the depth and scope of the technology pushing this industry. Where we once had to use our imaginations to picture Link from The Legend of Zelda wearing a green tunic, today you can practically feel a breeze caress Link’s ass as his finely-woven tunic flaps in high-definition wind. Games used to take a couple of hours to beat, now you can log in eighty and a hundred hours just wandering around some meticulously-rendered battlefield, popping your gun blithely at whatever enters your field of vision or specifically targeting enemy players’ internal organs. It is truly mind-boggling, and I suspect that certain esteemed elders’ words on video games are a reflection of how boggled their minds are when considering them. Many films are beloved because we can project ourselves into a character as portrayed by an actor. Video games take that to the next step where we become the actor.
Which is, I think, where we can cease considering many of these video games to be “games” at all. Pac-Man is a game where you run around mazes of increasing difficulty, chomping pellets and racking up as many points as possible. The next person to play, if they’ve put their quarter up at the edge of the screen, will implicitly try to beat the highest score. The game is one of repetition, requiring the player make many mistakes (at the cost of about ten cents an error) until they figure out the best patterns. A lot of games today are just stories with set conclusions where the player makes a series of decisions in order to eventually arrive at one of them. You can never actually lose these games, you keep on playing and playing until you get past the difficult parts and advance the story to a new act. Right now, I am playing a game called Fallout 3, which is a massive, open-ended game where you can interact with practically every person and every thing you come across. Most of my game play thus far has consisted of me having long, text-based conversations with computer characters, and choosing between three or five dialogue options in hopes that I don’t come off like an asshole. I have enough trouble with real world personal interactions, I don’t want to start getting anxious about whether a fictional super mutant likes my hat or not.
I am not prepared to say whether video games are art, or if they ever will be art, or if they ever were art. That kind of a question seems so loaded that there can be no right or wrong answer. But it does occur to me that a lot of the actual playing part of video games has been excised from some of the most heady and popular titles. These games guide the player along a series of pre-set routes, reaching one or more inevitable conclusions which are effected depending on a sequence of pressed buttons. Playing these specific games is an almost passive experience, the only aim being to wait out the game until you reach the story’s conclusion. However, movies still have the edge on video games because when watching a movie, your hands are free for snacking or masturbation.