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.