One of my earliest vivid memories is playing Duck Hunt with my dad on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. I remember playing in the darkened living room just off the small den that also served as my bedroom—but just until we could move to a larger home.
I took the orange and gray light gun and walked a foot away from the TV screen, blasting ducks left and right. My dad insisted it would be more fun to play from farther away, but I remained skeptical.
I’ve never asked why my parents felt the urge to buy that Nintendo, nor do I much care. I’m just happy they did because it started a lifelong obsession for my younger brother and me.
Every year, our Christmas lists consisted mostly of video games, the names of which my parents could hardly comprehend. We spent any spare change or birthday money adding to a growing collection of cartridges and discs. We subscribed to Playstation Magazine for about five years, which to date, is still the longest relationship I’ve ever had.
Now here I am 20 years later—still playing. Video games have changed over the years, though. Even the technologically challenged can see that. Two-dimensional side scrollers such as Super Mario Bros. have made way for games with incredibly detailed virtual worlds and stories. But one thing hasn’t changed: As Rodney Dangerfield put it, video games still “get no respect.”
In fact, some of you might even be acutely aware that legendary film critic Roger Ebert has written several pieces on why video games cannot be art or even have a shred of artistic merit. And you might be inclined to agree with him. My editor probably will.
Ebert argues that interactivity and working to accomplish goals, reaching a finish line violate what it means to be “art.” By his standard, art is something that must be enjoyed passively. He has conceded begrudgingly that video games may one day approach what an average person would consider art, but no one living today will see that day. That’s a pretty bold, if not misguided, prediction.
I’ve never agreed with broad generalizations of video games or gamers, which he is most certainly making. I’ve found games are just as capable of evoking emotion and feeling as books, songs or movies. Except instead of merely watching or imagining the hero, you are the hero, which adds a level of satisfaction beyond those initial emotions. Plus, there’s a sense of accomplishment—a very strong emotion—that comes from playing and finishing those pesky goals.
Apparently, that’s a problem for Ebert, but I’m not buying it. Nearly all forms of “art” double as entertainment; the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
I’ve also played video games that had better stories and were a hell of a lot more enthralling or suspenseful than many movies I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot). Sure, sometimes the dialogue in video games isn’t great or the stories might be disjointed, but they allow you the flexibility to fill in parts of the story in your own mind. And that’s fine because it creates a uniquely tailored experience.
I’ll admit, a lot of games are unabashedly shallow and a lot aren’t very good. But should we judge the medium as a whole on those games? If so, then I’m going to judge movies solely by whatever Michael Bay directs.
It would truly be a mistake to ignore the video games that stand out, those that make lasting impressions. For example, BioShock might be the best critique of Ayn Rand’s objectivism I’ve ever encountered.
Then there’s the Mass Effect series, which, as far as science-fiction space epics go, rivals “Star Wars.” Ico contains minimal dialogue yet still manages to tell a wonderfully unique, sweet story. More kid-friendly series such as Ratchet and Clank and Sly Cooper rival Pixar in character and set design, quirky humor and good ole’ fashioned clean fun.
In one of his pieces, Ebert wonders why we gamers aren’t content just to play our silly little games and not worry about how seriously they’re taken by others. Well Roger, I’ll tell you why.
Art is about evoking emotion, stirring something inside of you, making you feel something you hadn’t before. To say video games cannot be art is also to say they cannot evoke those things. Naturally, we gamers, those who have felt something from a game, don’t like being called liars.
I know I don’t.