State of the Art – “Teenage Wannabe”


A while back, I had an argument with a video game scholar who had a background in the study of cinema. He advocated that if film achieved its pinnacle with “Citizen Kane” 40 years down the mediums’ lifetime, then by juxtaposition, it would mean that by now, the video game medium’s language would be completely firmed. Then he went on to call “Ocarina of Time” the “Citizen Kane” of video games. Punch-lines aside, his argument wasn’t that illogical – if cinema allegedly grew up so fast, why shouldn’t video games? There are many flaws in this reasoning, most of which you can probably spot in a mile – video games are not film and they originated in a different social, cultural and economical environment. However, his argument, like that of others who stand by similar principals, was not naive. He seemed to be using it as a rationalization for the fact that he could not justify the immature content present in contemporary video games. By stating that video games had to be mature by now, he could find comfort in his mind while stating that “Half Life 2” had to be video game’s “1984”, that “Grand Theft Auto” had to be video game’s “The Godfather” and so forth. Video games have to be mature. Comparisons aside, are video games a mature art form? Should we even expect them to be by now?

Film can represent practically all objects without a need to craft them in a specific medium. You can shoot an entire film with a few actors, real-life locations and objects, and knowledge of cinematography. The processes of lighting a scene, choosing the proper POV, the right lens aperture, editing footage, etc, were speedily improved so that 40 years down the line you had what this particular scholar called “the pinnacle of film”. And in terms of cinematography he was probably right. But cinema may also involve sets and props and virtual characters – art design, costume design, make up, sound mixing and editing and special effects are also part of the cinematic language and have not evolved at such a brisk pace. CGI for instance, practically started a new cinematic language that has little in common with the film concept associated with an object such as “Kane” (some may even call it a new art form within film itself). More so, art forms are the product of human creativity and therefore reflect human’s cultural, ideologic and social evolution. Can we really say when an art form has matured?

Cinema may not have been in its “pinnacle of maturity” in the 1950’s, but it is true you could already feel that its basic narrative pillars were sound. But it did manage to keep evolving, continuing to grow as both medium and language. A distant parallel exists for other art forms. For example, by the nineteenth century, paintings were at their representational apex; painters could already represent with surprising detail practically every object, character or scene, and yet painting continued to change – impressionism, expressionism, cubism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, etc, etc, etc, etc. Who’s to tell, when painting had ‘matured’? It’ll take many, many, many decades for video games to even achieve the meccha of photorealistic representational power. Crude polygons and animation techniques can get you this far, but are still miles away from tricking our senses into believing that those are real characters and locations. Even after that representational peak is achieved we can only dream what will lie ahead. Not to mention what new means for interaction with video games might exist in the future – VR controllers, Natal-like direct input, “Matrix” plugs? Will these not dramatically change and deepen the semiotics of video games?

What I am sure of, is that the content in video games, not its form, is usually infantile and not at all directed at an adult and critical audience. Debate all we want about technique, this is a fact hard not to acknowledge. It’s fine to try and elevate the medium to “a mature art form”, but where is the basis to support such an argument? Video games are commercially oriented, products in a vast mass market which is geared towards an audience that isn’t interested in games as a cultural vehicle or a means of human expression: we are happy with our little “Facebook-apps” and “Wii-Gimmicks” and “FPS’s”. So there’s no point in telling ourselves that if cinema had Welles, then by necessity we should have one too. Because nobody seems to know who he might be, and that assures me that video games, at the very least, are still not understood, criticized and studied as a mature art form. So whether or not they are ‘art’, nobody could care less. Ergo, they aren’t art.

P.S. If anybody knows the scholar who I address in the text, please don’t view this as an attack on his opinions or any form of insult. I only mean to diggress on a particular reasoning which I feel many people defend.

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  • Comments (14)
  1. The pivotal subject of this article evades my zone of interest. Still I’d like to note how videogames have been singular and exceptional in exploring different visual representations since the very beginning of their age. Although this aspect is rarely discussed, the art of painting suffered a significant throwback with the emergence of photography. All efforts done by a wide majority of painters (and artists in general) up until the early 20th century consisted of a search for a depiction of reality in the utmost exactitude – formal, mathematical, etc. Since film and photography invaded permeated the artistic and common society, vanguardist painters were compelled to find what the lenses of reality were incapable of perceiving and to dive deeper towards the true meaning of basic visual units such as shape and color.

    In the case of videogames, it would be fair to argue that the quest for realism is entirely valid as that is the reflection of one of Man’s deepest desires; and, given their interactive qualities, it is also valid that a portion of videogame research and development points towards the erection of a virtual landscape that can overlap our own until no trace of our reality’s can be sensed by simply looking away from a screen. These are experiments that engage both commercial and scientific purposes.

    Yet the number of abstract motives in games is just as abundant; and thousands of representations exist still in the form of puzzle games or in the form of games whose conception is deliberately unreal. This, however, supports the notion that videogames appear in a time of creative decline where the comfort and relative stability of our global society fails to motivate art to advance beyond its current situations. Not to excuse videogames, but other forms of expression and media have regressed just as much to the comfort of their commercial status: “products” are “produced”, where works of art were required for true developments to take place.

    Indeed, all aspects must be taken into consideration before addressing such subjects, which makes them the more complex and the structural problems harder to precise. That videogames are not an art form, and why… that is a conclusion few have ever achieved. Personally, I’m glad to see you followed that one road. And I’m sorry if my comment was without meaning.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • April 8th, 2010

    Your comment was, as always, enlightening and welcome 😉

    I was aware that photography was one of the main propellers of painting’s refuge away from objectifying realism into the search for different forms of aesthetic expression. Which makes me wonder, do you think games should do as well in oposition to film? This is, deepen their abstract and unreal nature? Do you prefer that side of their nature, or do you relish on the existence of both sides of the coin?

    Cheers, sensei!

  2. I think that more than half of the games I can remember are not realistic at all – although many of those were intended to be as realistic as they could be, albeit the limited means available in their time. Still I’m very certain that the quest for (photo) realism and simulation, for instance, is not that large a portion of the entire videogame design process in general. Modern films’ handles rotate very much on a counter clock-wise movement when compared to games and their quest for realism. I find it suggestive that the industry invests millions in order to apply artificial effects to real footage, thus presenting all the ultra-realistic or surrealistic imagery we’ve come to expect when we’re at the theaters.

    Even when you don’t expect effects to appear, as you’re no doubt aware, these tend to retouch and disguise the part of visible and audible reality cameras and microphones can capture, as movie makers see fit. And one could even argue that camera movement, cinematography and edition – root properties of Cinema – are in fact tools of illusion more than they are tools of realism. That is clearly demonstrated in the work of pioneer authors from the past such as the likes of Georges Méliès or Buster Keaton – let alone the movie-making of the last 30 years.

    But, once more, I realize that I come to your blog to talk about cinema. Cheers Ryu-San! 😉

    • ruicraveirinha
    • April 8th, 2010

    Haha, you never let up, do you?


  3. Just passin by to say hi, 🙂

    I like my games surreal.

    And Zelda like…. *ashamed*

    • ruicraveirinha
    • April 19th, 2010

    Cruz, I’m not debating against “Zelda” or surreal games. Not even abstract games, which I loathe, even though, irony of ironies, I designed one myself 😀
    I love surreal games (my personal greatest games of all time has a few in it), and… I wanted to love Zelda… but never could. Guess I was just too late to that party 😉

    Cheers, Cruz! Keep saying hi!

    • Jeremy
    • April 20th, 2010

    I never understand the need for gamers to want their respective hobby to be referred to as “art”. What possible benefit would we get from that? There’s lots of fantastic, fun games that come out every year, so what’s the problem?

    • Cruzifixio
    • April 21st, 2010

    Well, Zelda is a hit and miss for me.
    It’s more about the charm and the “exploration” for me (really, all Zelda games are either Isometric or 3d, Metroidvanias).
    I recommend the GBA Zelda game (cant remember name) or the gorgeous Wind Waker.

  4. @Cruzifixio: I’m sure you’ll find out that it’s Metroid and Castlevania that are “Zeldas”, as Zelda preceded those two games in offering a free-roaming and non-linear spatial exploration. Just to let you know 😉

    • Cruzifixio
    • April 22nd, 2010

    Oh yeah, I know!… But isn’t “Metroidvania” and awesome word?

    Also (now that I have time to actually comment) would like to point that I totally get your point now “Rui”. It’s a concept hard to grasp but in reality for games to be art they need to stop being all about the “fun”.
    Experimentation is the word games need now.

    Imagine a videogame like Call of Duty, full of drama and no fun at all.

    I value those emotions more than having “fun”.

    • Allan
    • June 16th, 2010

    Game is an interesting word. I think it denotes some meaning of play or fun. I will admit that I like some Zelda games (I think the Metrovania one might be my favorite…), but Ocarina wasn’t what I wanted it to be at the time, so it never stuck for me.

    Instead, I would like to put forth Matsuno’s Vagrant Story as the Citizen game. It is a very different game, but still borrows from a wide variety of video game media affordances, yes? Having recently found [a] copy and (finally) finishing it, I can’t help but think of it as one of the best narratives in a video game. However, it is not a lighthearted tale, and the game itself is supposedly not even half of what Matsuno wanted in there, if the rumours are true. His games seem to push the boundary on enjoyable complexity of interaction and narrative satisfaction.

    This does not address the fallacy of assuming that video game as a narrative medium is fully matured. Film, rather early on, was discovered to have its atomic unit as the shot (assuming Formalist theory as explained by Eisenstein). I’m uncertain if anyone can say a single definitive way a video game effectively transmits narrative. I think Michael Nitsche proposed that games’ narratives are derived predominitely through space (unlike other media), and so their narratives should not be treated like other media. I’m not sure if I buy that entirely…

    But, consider early films that were treated like books or plays or moving photographs or illusions/magic tricks (such as Melias’ mentioned above). None of those early films treated cinema as if [those films] knew what [the filmic medium’s] affordances were. Similarly, I’m uncertain if games will ever stop trying to be movies, books, or theatre (but, still borrow elements from them) and instead try to be just interesting interactions that yield satisfying situations (which I guess is what I would call a game. How about you?).

    Essentially, I am arguing that video games do not know how to be video games, yet, because they can so easily be like films, books, or other classic art forms. How do they learn to be a different art form?

    • Allan
    • June 16th, 2010

    Oh dear, that was far longer than anticipated. Apologies for avoiding brevity. It was unintentional. Also, I don’t always talk like this. XD?

  5. “It’ll take many, many, many decades for video games to even achieve the meccha of photorealistic representational power”

    I’m getting tired of listening to people mistaking visual quality with detail and realism. Getting someone immersed into a world, isn’t just cognitive input. Mechanical input as well as logical placement of objects to seem realistic.

    Mechanical input:

    Logical Placement:

    I’m also surprised you used Modern Warfare 2 as the example for a dumb action game. Sure, most of the time you are just shooting your way through cannon-fodder to progress, but this is used to help emphasize the “No Russian” level. It gives a lot of emotive impact to the scene, because it is in contrast to the other pointless gunfights.

  6. What is most annoying is that many developers and gamers don’t know what art actually is. They believe that it is art already, merely because it can convey narrative.

    “Video games are commercially oriented, products in a vast mass market which is geared towards an audience that isn’t interested in games as a cultural vehicle or a means of human expression: we are happy with our little “Facebook-apps” and “Wii-Gimmicks” and “FPS’s”.”

    But those commercial companies would be nothing without the small independent companies that are actually trying for artistic expression. What I’m excited about, is that independent games are becoming much more popular. A lot of people I know who have been playing games for several years, having gotten sick of this same garbage we have been fed.

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