the state of art

We are fast approaching a tipping point in the realm of video games. I like to think of it more as a singularity point, because in the near future many people will have to come to terms with the evolution of games as a whole. In the past (and present), many have defined art as purely noninteractive–you look at a painting, and you interpret it, but you don’t add or subtract paint from it. Video games, on the other hand, are frequently defined as “interactive art“, a term that is itself controversial. But it’s this label of “art” that is will have the most effect on their future.

The recent release of Wolfenstein: The New Order invariably fell afoul of censorship laws in several countries. As such, the German version of the game is devoid of Nazi symbols such as swastikas, and it faced heavy resistance from the Australian Classification Board, known for its long list of banned games. This is nothing new: from their inception, games have faced higher standards than other forms of media due to their perception as toys and the likelihood of exposure to children. In the case of Germany, the ban stems from a much wider cultural mindset: all Nazi symbols are banned in media, except in cases of educational or artistic depictions. Portrayals of violence are similarly prohibited, with some interesting workarounds being the result.

Therein lies the rub: If Wolfenstein is not art, what is it? Game developer art departments are now as large as those of big Hollywood movie studios. Millions are spent on AAA games such as this, with a not-insignificant fraction going to the people designing clothing, billboards, vehicles and buildings, all to create a living world that the player can immerse themselves in. We have games that range from hyper-realistic to highly stylized and everything between. There are even games that feature quadrilaterals as main characters, and abstract stories based entirely on wandering through the desert. Games have made us question our morals, and have turned our worlds upside down.

But is it really “interactive media”? You press buttons to make the protagonist move, shoot and operate objects, but in the vast majority of games, there is a very explicit path with a fixed beginning and end. The developers clearly have a defined story they want to tell, and there is only one way to experience it. Some games go as far as to be little more than playable movies (not naming names here). These are the most forced form of the medium, in which players experience only exactly what the developers want them to experience. Even games like Fallout, which appear to present the player with limitless possibilities, have an ending that doesn’t change (or changes very little) regardless of the player’s decisions and actions. The player may influence the movement of the brush, but in the end the painting still more or less looks the same.

To me, there is no doubt that games are art. But the debate likely won’t end anytime soon, particularly when considering the age gap between the average gamer and the average legislator. Just as their parents didn’t see television as an artistic medium, they often don’t see video games that way. Will it take another 30 years before our generation enters politics to see the issue in the same light? I hope not, but it definitely feels that way.