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When it comes to evaluating the "maturity" of video games as an art form, what should we be thinking about? Some recent online discussions have prompted me to write a little something on this sometimes frustrating topic.

Derek Yu, Blogger

May 22, 2013

4 Min Read

(This was originally posted on my game-making blog, Make Games.)

Some recent online discussions have prompted me to write something short on the above ideas. The first discussion erupted when a Kotaku writer called George Kamitani a “14-year-old boy” for including hypersexualized women in the character line-up for Dragon’s Crown. The second discussion had to do with a video I did with Anthony Carboni and Doug Wilsson where we played Spelunky and talked about games a little bit in general. Perhaps “discussion” is too strong a word for a few YouTube comments about maturity and challenging games, but nonetheless, it made me want to develop and clarify my feelings on the topic further.

First of all, I personally separate theme from craft to a degree when evaluating art - one has to do that in order to understand how a “children’s movie” like The Incredibles is also a sophisticated piece of storytelling and cartooning. There's a reason why Pixar attracts some of the most talented animators in the world. There’s a reason why, at least in Asia and Europe, even 2d cartoons are treated with seriousness when it comes to the continuing evolution of cinema. Whereas a gritty, realistic drama about race, sexuality, and politics can easily be a hackneyed piece of trash unfit for either adults or children because it is poorly made.

It seems many people have trouble separating theme from craft in the game industry. One of the most obvious examples of this is the internet’s ongoing debate with Roger Ebert about games and art. Time and time again, I notice a few specific games are brought up as an example of games “as art”: Braid, Journey, and Shadow of the Colossus. Don’t get me wrong - I think these are all wonderful and artistic games. But I would feel better if alongside these examples there were more shouts of, say, Metal Slug or Doom 2 - immersive and ground-breaking games of terrific craftsmanship ostensibly left out of the discussion because of their cartoony, masculine themes and gun-violence. The tendency of the games as art argument to veer toward certain types of games highlights our prejudice toward theme over craft when evaluating artistic merit and maturity. And not just theme, but certain kinds of themes. In the end, there was never really any hope of convincing Ebert, who once said "A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it" [1]. When it comes to art, today's video game community seems to care entirely too much about the "what" and not the "how".

What I was trying to touch on in the video with Doug and Anthony is that many games that try to tackle more mature themes and storytelling are nevertheless extremely immature video games that condescend players by constantly nagging them and directing them about like overprotective parents. It’s not that these titles aren’t challenging enough, it’s that they are just challenging enough to be recognized as a game - an FPS or something - and that’s it; the playing of them often feels like a distraction as opposed to the vehicle for immersion. These games are like Easter egg hunts themed after a great novel - they lack both the sophistication of the novel and the wild, abandoned fun of a simple Easter egg hunt. It’d be better if they dropped one pretense or the other, in my opinion, whether that meant creating better challenges or removing them altogether.

Peruse Roger Ebert's reviews and you will find that he loved many different kinds of movies: Spirited Away and Superman and Pulp Fiction are rated as highly as Metropolis or Fitzcarraldo. That one was an animated cartoon and another starred a superhero in spandex tights did nothing to embarrass him or otherwise diminish his understanding (through watching a great many movies) that all of them were exceptional films that did what they set out to do well and treated their audiences with respect. He challenged us on our understanding of our own hobby and by and large we failed. It was probably the best thing he could have done for us.

[1] Full quote, from his review of Freeway: "Occasionally an unsuspecting innocent will stumble into a movie like this and send me an anguished postcard, asking how I could possibly give a favorable review to such trash. My stock response is Ebert's Law, which reads: A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it."

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