If I grew up with a passion for anything, you could argue that it was video games. Not only did I enjoy the entertainment that button-mashing and flashing lights inevitably produces, but I became enamored with the characters and the worlds that these games presented. They inhabited my imagination and took root there. I would dream about video game characters and their adventures. I would draw pictures of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sub-Zero. I told other kids that Mario was my imaginary friend, and that he had a secret portrait hidden in Peach’s Castle (à la Super Mario 64) that he could use to travel between the real world and the video game world.
“Where is he then, Andy?” my skeptical compadres would ask.
“He’s wearing one of his blue invisible caps because he’s shy around other people,” I’d reply confidently.
“Prove it! Make him say ‘hi’, at least!” they’d say.
“No,” I’d respond, eyes narrowing. “Mario doesn’t like you. And neither do I. We’re leaving!”
The point I’m trying to illustrate is that games played a significant part in my life, both as forms of entertainment and as forms of art.
When I say “art,” it’s not just because of how LoZ: Ocarina of Time made me feel like I was really that boy from Kokiri forest. It’s not just the way that Halo simultaneously set the standard for FPS mechanics and presented an enormous, vibrant ringworld environment that nobody had seen the likes of before. It’s not just how Metal Gear Solid pulled quirky, innovative stunts like that insane Psycho Mantis memory card trick without taking away from Kojima’s intensely engaging narrative. It’s not even Silent’s Hill’s unique, unsettling atmosphere, or the iconic Akira Yamaoka-composed OST. Honestly, it’s much more simple than that.
I say “art” because I wasn’t investing my childhood in games where you compete against others. Sure, I played plenty of GoldenEye and Halo deathmatch games both split-screen and online, and I used to wreck my brothers playing Tekken 3 and all of the Mortal Kombat games. The memories I have of those times are entertaining — however, the creative fabric of my childhood wasn’t woven by a desire to attain a high score or to “win.”
Instead, I “played games for the story” (a term my more machismo friends used to make fun of me for, while they skipped cutscenes in order to return to the digital slaughter more quickly). More accurately put, I would tend to focus on a game’s narrative and human elements just as much as I would — and sometimes even more than — the gameplay itself.
“Art” is when a game offers an experience that is mentally or emotionally challenging, or, at the very least, motivates the player with more than just loot, bragging rights, or good ‘ol competition between players.
I’m not saying that competitive, skill-based games aren’t artistic, or even that competitive activities like chess, soccer, or even drag racing aren’t forms of art in their own right — but it must be recognized that these activities by themselves provide no inherent narrative, no “human element” to anchor to. It’s the participants and their relationships — the players, the teams, the coaches, the fans — that the “art of the game” is usually through.
While creating a binary distinction between all video games and the reasons people play them may seem too simplistic, I’m going to ignore the flaws that might come with mutually exclusive labeling, and say that I think people play video games and invest in their experiences for two primary reasons: their artistic narrative and their ability to provide competitive entertainment. Unfortunately, I believe that the former is going by the wayside, and that as our world becomes more connected, we could see fewer and fewer titles geared at introducing creative new IP, and more games built to “facilitate” entertainment, rather than provide it.
Despite a serious decline in new and original IP over past couple years, gaming is doing good. Mobile games in particular are doing well in China, because of the buying power of the millennial generation. These games are easy to make, and you can play them anywhere. Not only that, but they stimulate virtual social interaction. Many mobile games integrate with social apps, which encourages players to recruit their friends.
PC and console games are beginning to adopt that same motif, however, instead of integrating themselves with social media platforms to garner more players, games themselves are becoming their own miniature social platforms. That’s why people buy purely cosmetic items in-game — to express themselves, and their avatar, socially. To show that they’re serious about the game that they’re playing. It’s why Steve Benjamins lists “charging members” as an effective way to cultivate culture in an online community.
“People get invested once they pay for something. It's why those who pay cover typically stay at a bar longer,” he writes.
This is different, of course. The members of these new gaming communities aren’t forced to buy anything additional, especially if we’re talking about purely cosmetic add-ons, but they’re (some would say) coerced to buy in to the social competition. You can be really good at the game, but somebody might still look better than you while they play.
This is where the money is at, and represents precisely why devs and publishers are skimping on, if not straight up ditching, artistic or original narratives. It’s because entertainment without art and narrative provides easier opportunities for advertising and microtransactions.
The problem with this is that kids aren’t being given the choice between art and entertainment anymore because publishers don’t care about anything but profit. Battlefront II is a perfect example: EA knows that with the Star Wars brand behind the game, plenty of children and their ill-informed parents will be coerced into purchasing loot boxes — which is precisely why Germany is considering banning them altogether.
I’m not going to be the old “get off my lawn” kind of of guy. Things change, and this is a direct result of capitalism as well as growth of technology our increasingly connected world. Plus, I love games like Fortnite and LoL.
So, while narratives seem to have gone by the wayside, perhaps the pendulum will swing back toward the arts as VR and AR hit the public en masse. AR itself is slated to make a comeback in 2018 in social media marketing, gaming will likely show up right alongside it. On the other hand, perhaps gaming as an immersive narrative experience is going to go the way of the book and will cede its position as a popular narrative vessel to new, advanced media.
Nevertheless, it’s my opinion that both the artistic and entertainment qualities in video games are best when balanced. I wouldn’t be the creative person I am today if I didn’t have the option to lose myself in those artistic narratives as a child. I likely wouldn’t have as much empathy if I hadn’t played RPG games that made me feel guilty about my actions as a player.
Sure, the gaming industry can keep chasing money, and I know that they will. However, games have an even greater power than to make money; games have the power to change people — and if you change enough people, they’ll start changing the world. For better or worse.